The foreign policy lessons NZ should learn from Germany

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 11 May 2022

As they say, it is better to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make them all yourself. It is one of those truisms so obviously correct it has been falsely attributed to at least a dozen people.

But what is true in personal affairs also applies to foreign affairs. Countries may be continents apart, speak different languages and have different sizes. However, they can learn from each other’s errors.

Germany and New Zealand are a good example. When it comes to their foreign policy issues, you might not think they have much in common. But the parallels in both countries’ international positioning are astonishing. This is why New Zealand should take note of Germany’s woes in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February exposed Germany’s major foreign policy mistakes. For Berlin, there are three separate but related issues.

First, the Germans realised how dependent they were on Russia, especially in the energy sector. Second, it finally dawned on Germany that its military capacity was depleted. And third, Berlin found its relations with its major security allies and neighbours strained.

None of these three issues should have come as a surprise, neither to the Germans nor to anyone else.

Not just for the past few years but for the past three decades, Germany indulged in the dream of its special relationship with Moscow. This was an imagined relationship based on mutual benefit and respect. Except the Russians never treated it that way.

Germany then chose to ignore Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. It pretended that Russian oil, gas and coal exports were just ordinary business transactions. Berlin went to extraordinary lengths to pretend that even the notorious Nord Stream 2 pipeline was just another ordinary private sector project. This was even after the US threatened sanctions against anyone involved.

The Germans also believed that the end of the Cold War had created a perpetual peace dividend.

Who still needs to have an army when you are surrounded by friends? Germany thus allowed its armed forces to deteriorate to the point where it had no ships that sailed, no planes that flew, and no soldiers properly equipped for their missions.

Those decisions irritated Germany’s allies and friends. Consecutive US presidents since George W. Bush urged the Germans to spend more on defence. Meanwhile, Germany’s neighbours to the East, especially the Poles and the Baltics, were horrified by Berlin’s soft attitude toward Moscow. They feared that, once again, Germany would collude with Moscow at their expense.

All these policy decisions were at once discredited by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany emerged as a nation that had naively confused its strategic and economic interests. In its false sense of security, it had also isolated itself from its Western allies.

Since then, the government of chancellor Olaf Scholz has been scrambling to rebuild Germany’s strategic position in a hurry.

If Germany’s story does not remind you of New Zealand, it should.

Just like Germany, New Zealand put its economic interests ahead of any security concerns. Its economic dependence, however, is not on Russia but on China. And New Zealand’s dependence is shaped by its agricultural exports, rather than its energy imports. But it is a similar strategic dependence regardless.

New Zealand has also neglected its defence spending. At 1.5 per cent of GDP, New Zealand spends about as much on its military as Germany. That is too little to defend New Zealand, and also insufficient to pull its weight in the region.

Just like Germany, New Zealand was content to free-ride on the defence provided by its allies, most notably Australia and the US. And just as Germany, New Zealand irritated these allies, for example over its reluctance to engage more deeply through the Five Eyes partnership.

Between Germany and New Zealand, there is even an energy parallel. Germany simultaneously pulled out of coal and nuclear power as part of its Energiewende while using cheap Russian gas for the transition period. New Zealand, meanwhile, banned offshore oil and gas exploration – also under the umbrella of pursuing a ‘net zero’ emissions goal.

As a result of ambitious carbon targets, energy security deteriorated in both countries. The Germans are now desperate to correct past mistakes and establish alternative sources of energy. New Zealand, however, still aims for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels without having a convincing plan to replace them with clean energy.

In cleaning up the messes of their past policy choices, the Germans now recognise two things: First, dealing with autocracies comes with major risks. Second, liberal democracies must assume responsibility, both militarily and politically, within the Western security framework.

New Zealand still has to learn these lessons. And it would better do so quickly.

Dr Oliver Hartwich holds both German and New Zealand citizenships.

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