A German National Security Council: If Kramp-Karrenbauer is Serious, Her Work Starts Now

Brockmeier 2019 AKK English
Source: Bundesrat / Flickr
05 Dec 2019, 
published in
Tagesspiegel Causa
Other Languages

Germany needs a national security council – at least according to German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who argued in favor of this idea in a keynote speech in Munich in early November. Unfortunately, as with her proposal to establish a protection zone in Syria earlier this fall, she did not offer many details – on which the feasibility of her proposal very much depends. But if Kramp-Karrenbauer, who currently also leads Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and is the party’s prospective candidate for the Chancellery, were to follow up on her idea and actually demonstrated the political will to push for the creation of such a council, her proposal would be a crucial contribution to improving Germany’s foreign and security policy.

In a world where Germany is increasingly called upon to propose its own political solutions to crises and conflicts in the European Union’s neighborhood, the German government can no longer afford to act as chaotically as it recently did on the Syrian conflict. And such public displays of chaos are only the symptom of a much larger structural problem. For example, the German government is firm in its support for EU agricultural subsidies that cost jobs in African economies, while spending billions to create jobs in those same economies. Or take the Middle East: for years, German companies exported arms to Saudi Arabia as the kingdom waged war in Yemen, while the Federal Foreign Office simultaneously supported mediation initiatives in the same country. The fact that Berlin lacks an institution capable of making such conflicts of interests visible – let alone one that can resolve them or set priorities – is one of the greatest challenges in German foreign policymaking. Politicians in Berlin are quick to demand political solutions’ to conflicts around the world – but there is currently no effective forum where ministries can jointly develop or adapt political strategies to address these crises. 

Many in Berlin are aware of this problem. The debate about a national security council is not new. In fact, the question whether Germany needs a suitable body for coordination between the different ministries was one of the most contested points of negotiation when the German government developed its 2016 white paper on security policy, and again in 2017 during the debate about the government’s new guidelines for Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace.” In both cases, the result of the discussions was a weak pledge to improve coordinating structures, which did not end the much more crucial turf wars over who has power and responsibility in the making of German foreign and security policy. 

The German defense minister is now proposing to upgrade the existing Bundessicherheitsrat(Federal Security Council) – an institution that has thus far been used to decide on arms exports – to the place where diplomacy, the military, economic affairs and trade, internal security, and development cooperation” will be coordinated. While this idea has been around for years, it has failed repeatedly due to the Chancellery’s lack of political will to implement it. The project is not trivial: Rather than being just another bureaucratic working group, a national security council would delve into fundamental issues of power in German foreign policy. The core of the problem are political disagreements between several coalition partners, each of whom represents one of the various ministries involved in German foreign and security policy. The key question is: How can a national security council operate effectively under such conditions? 

If Kramp-Karrenbauer – unlike Angela Merkel – really has the ambition to craft a more courageous foreign policy and is willing to make this a top priority, she will have to come up with a concrete proposal that details how such a council could operate. That would also mean starting to campaign for her idea immediately in preparation for the next election and coalition government. And she would have to advocate for a much broader consensus on foreign and security policy in the next coalition agreement to avoid the kind of vague language to be found in the current one. 

During the next coalition negotiations, the defense minister will have to demonstrate that she is willing to walk the walk. The only realistic version of a German national security council would mean a shift of power and a significant amount of resources to the Chancellery. This increase in the Chancellery’s power – and the consequential power losses in other ministries, including the German Foreign Office – would have to be reflected in the distribution of ministries between the next governing parties. The CDU leader would have to make concrete concessions in terms of power politics to ensure that all coalition partners can live with the new arrangement. 

The next coalition agreement would then also provide the political basis for answering many open questions: Who would set the agenda of a German national security council? How high-ranking should the council members be and how regularly should they meet? What kind of staff and which resources would such a council need? There are ideas on which future coalition leaders can build – including concepts put forward by Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference, and American security policy expert Julie Smith, who recently summarized the experiences of other countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan or the United States. In 2016, Christian Thiels – then a correspondent for the German public broadcaster ARD and now the spokesman for Kramp-Karrenbauer – also called for the appointment of a national security advisor with the rank of a minister, suggesting that such an advisor would also chair an upgraded German security council. 

If Kramp-Karrenbauer is serious about her proposal for a national security council, her work has only just started. But her coalition partners and the opposition also need to act to create a better German security policy. Those who have already criticized the idea of a German security council should make a better – and concrete – proposal as to how Germany can arrive at a more coordinated and truly strategic foreign and security policy. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s first response to the defense minister’s keynote speech – that the civilian component of foreign policy is also important – is not wrong. But this argument primarily promotes a debate about the means and resources that foreign policymakers have at their proposal. Over the last few decades, this discussion has done nothing to improve the debate about the political goals and strategies in German foreign and security policy – which is why we need a change. 

This commentary was originally published in German in Tagesspiegel Causa on November 182019