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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Gold Medal for Foreign Policy Goes to Germany

The Gold Medal for Foreign Policy Goes to Germany

Author: Stephen M. Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: February 7, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 1511



Keywords: Successful German Foreign Policy, Realist-Pragmatist Approach, Medium Power, and Great-Power Rivalry




In this article, Stephen Walt praises the performance of German foreign policy during the last two decades compared to the performance of its major powers counterparts; the USA, the UK, China, and Russia. During this era, Germany was able to achieve what he considers the main goal of any country’s foreign policy: “to increase its security and prosperity without doing too much damage to its expressed political values.”


In the beginning, the author explains the set of pitfalls and shortcomings that affected the foreign policy of the aforementioned powers during the past two decades, which make them – in his view – not worthy of the “golden medal” for the best performance, such as the decision to invade Iraq with its negative impacts for Washington and London, the harsh approach of Beijing under Xi Jinping that tarnished China’s image and made its neighbors suspicious of China’s future intentions, Putin’s handling of foreign policy issues have not made Russia safer as its current strong concerns about Ukraine reflects, and others.


As for Germany, since the early 1990s, it has achieved an impressive trifecta: first, it has remained a close security partner of the United States and is still able to remain a free rider on American protection. Berlin has managed to maintain this advantage despite its opposition to some of Washington’s decisions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or its success in resisting Washington’s repeated requests to take on a fair share of collective defense within NATO. These behaviors did not have significant negative consequences to Germany, and today it can still count on the US for assistance in critical times, as is currently happening with the Ukraine crisis. Second, at the same time, Berlin has maintained good relations with Moscow, as Germany is Russia’s second-largest trading partner, and continues to benefit from the advantages of Russian gas in achieving prosperity for its economy despite the frequent quarrels between the United States and its NATO allies on the one hand and Russia on the other hand. Third, Germany has maintained good relations with a rising China, benefiting greatly from it despite the decline in China’s good reputation among the German people and the contentious human rights issues between the two countries, as China is Germany’s largest trading partner (212 billion euros in 2020). In general, “Germany’s ability to stay on good terms with Russia, China, the United States, and its European neighbors has been remarkable.”


Walt argues that Germany’s measured approach to foreign policy gives us a good idea of the incentives and opportunities that medium powers face in a world of several great powers, arguing that the medium powers have the ability to maneuver well and to avoid getting caught up in great-power quarrels when the polarization between the latter is not severe, as Germany did, which has a pragmatic approach consistent with a realist sensitivity to the prevailing distribution of power and the decisive willingness to do what is in the German’s national interest. However, the author cautions that such success may not be sustainable for much longer, “when relations among the major powers grow more contentious, they become less tolerant of ambiguity, and medium powers can lose their freedom of maneuver,” in the words of the Political Scientist Robert Jervis. Accordingly, Walt argues that it will be difficult for Germany to remain on good terms with all three great powers, especially with the increasing rivalry in Sino-American relations and the increasingly deepening of Sino-Russian relations as well. 


Walt concludes that it is unlikely that Washington will continue to support German security (and European security in general) if its NATO allies continue to remain neutral in the escalating confrontation between Washington on the one hand and Beijing and Moscow on the other hand. In such circumstances, Berlin will have to choose a side that is, as he expects, the continued alignment with the United States and NATO.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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