Is Germany capable of strategic planning?

CC BY 4.0 via Flickr: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011

We live in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, dynamism, complexity and ambiguity. States must contend with the demands of around 100,000 multinational enterprises, more than 50,000 globally active non-governmental organisations, countless cash-rich foundations and private investors, as well as mercenary armies, organised criminals, and terrorists. In this blog post, Oliver Gnad, Visiting Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum, reflects on Germanys ability to act strategically in this so called “VUDCA” world.

Strategic foresight for an opaque future

The dissolution of the Sykes-Picot order in the Middle East and the annexation of the Crimea are a pointed reminder that geopolitics will remain as strong an influence in the 21st century as in the centuries before. A ring of instability is gradually forming around Europe that is not only threatening the stability and prosperity of the Old Continent but also challenging the European project.

As yet, there are few signs of any new principles emerging for a future world order. That is why transitional phases like this are so highly charged – even more so, when they involve the rise and fall of great powers. Nevertheless, there are trends, factors and actors that we can reasonably assume will play a role in shaping any new order(s).

But are we really in a position to anticipate the broad sweep of the future if we did not even see the crises of our own times brewing – the Arab Spring, the formation of the “Islamic State”, or the Ukraine crisis? But herein lies a fundamental misunderstanding. Forward-looking policy planning is not about predicting future developments but about improving analytical capabilities as the basis for strategic policy planning. Leon S. Fuerth, national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore from 1993 to 2000, coined the term “anticipatory governance” for this.

Germany’s unspoken consensus to forgo strategy

To what extent is Germany able to exercise strategic foresight and anticipatory governance? This is a country in which security, social peace and prosperity are particularly dependent on external events and developments – one that is profiting more than most from globalisation, and is therefore also more vulnerable.

If we are prepared to go along with the provocative view put forward by Joachim Raschke and Ralf Tils some years ago, then the treatment of strategic issues in policymaking can in the best case be described as “tinkering”. Everyone works on their own little patch, without an instruction manual and without consulting anyone else. If that is really how things are, then what has caused this shortfall in strategic thinking? It is a state of affairs that forces policy-makers into reactive crisis management, erodes public compliance and thus undermines legitimacy. To put the question differently: If policy-makers were to increase their strategic capacities, to what extent would this open up new scope for initiative and action?

Is Germany capable of strategic planning? The sobering answer is that its capacities appear to be limited. On the contrary, there seems to be an unspoken social consensus to get by without any strategy at all. To operate strategically, it is necessary to cultivate not only an aspirational vision that has broad social acceptance (e.g. seeing Germany as a country of immigration, or the European Union as an “ever closer union”) but also, most importantly, an idea of how visions of the future will play out in practical, every-day situations. In short: Societies will only let go of present achievements and embrace the future if they are offered compelling, plausible imagery.

The Euro crisis demonstrated how societies, if caught unprepared, react when their normative visions of the future collapse unexpectedly. The ensuing mix of muddling through, whistling in the dark, and pronouncements that “there is no alternative” prompted the admonition from abroad that German power is now less a cause for fear than German inactivity. The remarkable thing about this particular phrase is not so much its content as its author: Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister at the height of the Euro crisis in 2011. According to Sikorski, structural reform in Europe could only be led by Germany, the “indispensable nation” (!) – criticism of Berlin’s crisis management notwithstanding, and despite concerns about German dominance in Europe.

Although it went almost unnoticed, he called into question the decades-old general consensus that determined the role of pre-unification Germany: that Germany would only lead – if it led at all – from behind. That it would favour consensus, never race ahead, and always be a good advocate of the collective interests of its allies.

The reasons for Germany’s disavowal of strategy are obvious: The original foundation of the German nation state was a geostrategic provocation in itself. It led to the First World War, which ended with a flawed peace that already bore the germ of a second global conflagration. The Second World War was conducted in the name of a German people that approved the physical annihilation of dissenters in order to secure what it felt was its rightful position in Europe and the world.

“Auschwitz: Never again!” – a substitute for strategy?

Since then, we Germans have based our role in the world on two principles, justified in equal measure on moral and historical grounds: “No more war!” and “Auschwitz: Never again!” Every generation since the war has drawn the same instinctive conclusion: Because “Germany is too big for Europe, but too small for the world” (Henry Kissinger), we have outsourced all strategy processes to supranational institutions.

We have long been aware that this simple formula is no longer effective – that 20th century responses have lost relevance in our world. Yet still we look on from the wings,
helplessly watching the disintegration of order, stability and security – foundations we cannot do without if we wish to uphold our way of life and our social and political order in the long term. Like Alice in Wonderland, we stumble from one crisis to the next, with just one goal in our sights: defending the status quo as far as we possibly can. But in the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.”

Our efforts to come to terms with our recent past may have been exemplary, but one thing is missing: the long overdue debate on Germany’s vital interests – and on the resources, skills and collective determination we must summon to assert them. Clarification of this will also require German society to conduct a broad-based discussion of when and why Germany would be prepared to go to war. Since the armed conflicts in the Western Balkans, Iraq and Libya, if not before, we have known for certain that “even the wars you don’t wage can change you”.

This blog post is an extract from the forthcoming book

Internationale Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert
Edited by: Prof. James D. Bindenagel/ Prof. Dr. DDr. h. c. Matthias Herdegen/ Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Karl Kaiser
Published by Bonn University Press, Bonn
Date of publication: June 2016

Read the whole chapter “Is Germany capable of strategic planning? Anticipatory governance as the foundation for future-proof decisions” by Oliver Gnad here.

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Oliver Gnad is the founder and Director of the “Bureau fuer Zeitgeschehen”, a Berlin-based think tank and strategic consultancy. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum and fasciliates the Dahrendorf strategic foresight process “European foreign policy 2025“.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

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