Illustration: A man in the desert buries his head in sand in one dune and looks at himself from the other dune.
Great Power Responsibility and Self-criticism

After the takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, German and European foreign policy faces a crisis of meaning: great power responsibility must be redefined. This challenge requires much more than a new foreign policy.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the renewed seizure of power by the radical Islamist Taliban, who were driven out of Kabul in 2001, have left the West – in both North America and Europe – with a kind of crisis of purpose that could also be described as a vacuum of meaning. The long overdue debate on Europe’s political contribution to the world has still failed to materialise. In the 1990s, German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann observed that reunified Germany lacked a culture of debate on foreign policy, an observation that still applies today. The geopolitical compass, if it has even existed over recent decades, seems to have gone awry, especially in German foreign policy.

How should ‘responsibility’ be defined in future?

After twenty years of German military presence in Afghanistan, it is not only this country of the Hindu Kush that finds itself back at square one. Along with the United States, Germany and Europe have suffered a defeat. However, the disgrace of this defeat lies less, as is often claimed, in the military sphere, in the vain attempt to keep the Taliban out of power, but rather in the West’s complete inability to assess its foreign and intervention policies in a morally self-critical way. There is no debate about our neo-colonialism – even though this is essential if we are to stop pushing away or misinterpreting our responsibility.

There is no debate about our neo-colonialism – even though this is essential if we are to stop pushing away or misinterpreting our responsibility.

In a recent speech to the United Nations, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to the responsibility of the major powers. This was also done against the backdrop of the fact that Germany has been seeking a seat on the Security Council for decades. Steinmeier’s appeal was wellintentioned, but its execution remains as nebulous as Germany’s foreign policy as a whole.

How exactly should ‘responsibility’ be defined in future? The President urged Iran to return to the negotiating table and China to respect human rights. But what is meant by Steinmeier’s implied expansion of our military and diplomatic leeway? What is he thinking of when he says the hand pointing the finger at others has other fingers pointing back at ourselves, at our own responsibility to be more engaged in the world?

Foreign policy: transparent and democratic

It is the job of experts to furnish the very vague ideas for policy reform with specific recommendations for action and to discuss them publicly. In times of globalisation, foreign policy must become more transparent – and yes: more democratic! – if we are to overcome the growing crisis of purpose with regard to our position in the world.

Illustration: A man in the desert, looking from a dune at the green world that descends from above.
What are ‘great powers’ today? Photo: CDD20 via unsplash

It has been empirically proven that since the end of the Cold War (since 1989) the Western public has lost interest in international affairs, with the few exceptions to this rule relating mainly to the 9/11 terrorist acts and the Iraq War in 2003 – and this paradoxical twist of globalisation also seems to interest very few. This turning away from global problems, which so many people seem to shrug off and leave to the political elites, is dangerous because it undermines democracy.

Afghanistan has shown that the neocolonialist reflexes of Western foreign policy are still alive but have had their day. Steinmeier’s reminder of the great powers’ responsibility must be followed by an intensive debate on the question of what ‘great powers’ actually are today and whether and how they can meaningfully guarantee international peace. Experts at Harvard and elsewhere estimate that more than 100,000 Afghan civilians and soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the invasion by the United States and its allies, including Germany, in 2001.

The number of dead and wounded soldiers from Europe and the US is in the thousands. A war legitimised as a humanitarian operation with subsequent occupation has thus taken itself to the point of absurdity. Any well-intentioned attempt to deal with the fate of the people in today’s Taliban-ruled Afghanistan remains morally inconsequential without an evaluation of one’s own military actions.

Any well-intentioned attempt to deal with the fate of the people in today’s Taliban-ruled Afghanistan remains morally inconsequential without an evaluation of one’s own military actions.

Nothing is more surprising than the current ‘surprise’ of large parts of the Western public in the face of this devastating outcome. Experts and civil society have been voluble in their criticism and warnings right from the outset. Shortly after the end of the first phase of the war, it was already clear that the Taliban could not ultimately be defeated, that the number of war dead would far exceed the number of victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and that the attempts at democratisation in Afghanistan were being abused as a mechanism of power by a manipulative elite financed by the West, which, for example, fixed elections at will.

Standing up to terror

Urgent debate and a change of course were desperately needed but this was sacrificed by successive German governments involving all the main German parties on the altar of the supposed need to stand up to terror, which in fact created or at least intensified the problem itself (for example, IS would not have emerged without the power vacuum in Iraq after 2003).

Without a doubt, 9/11 was an atrocity and disaster of epic proportions. But a police-like pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and Co. would have been a far more appropriate strategy than a war in Afghanistan – a ‘war on terror’ (Bush), ‘unlimited solidarity’ (Schröder) – and certainly than a second war in Iraq with hundreds of thousands of dead, the destabilisation of political systems and an endless succession of civil wars that have in reality been proxy wars of the great powers. Twenty years for nothing, at best giving a generation of Afghans breathing space: is this the responsibility of the great powers to which the German president refers?

Twenty years for nothing, at best giving a generation of Afghans breathing space: is this the responsibility of the great powers to which the German president refers?

Back in the 1960s, Afghanistan was considered the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ and a haven of stability. For many years, Afghan embassies in the West Germany took over consular duties for Egyptians living in Germany, whose government had broken off diplomatic relations with the Bonn Republic after German arms deliveries to Israel. In Kabul there was a parliamentary bicameral system – but then along came the great powers with the explosive charge of their irresponsibility.

Experts have long known, and the former security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzeziński, publicly professed many years ago, that the US systematically lured the Soviet Union into the Afghan trap with staged border incursions, leading to the invasion of the USSR (1979-89). By militarily arming the resistance against Moscow, the US wanted to give the enemy its ‘Vietnam’ in the Cold War; a plan that finally worked out when the Soviet Union collapsed under the pressure of the lost war in Afghanistan. There followed years of civil war in a shattered country and finally another invasion, this time by the Western Allies.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, and IS in Russian-infiltrated Syria literally emerged from the rubble of the region fought over by the great powers. Of course, a plethora of regional factors also contributed to the conflict. Neighbours like Pakistan play a sinister role, as do Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but all the regional powers – with the exception of Iran – are also close allies of the West.

Illustration: A man in the desert is stuck in a cage that is swallowed by the sand.
There is no democracy with dictators, photo: CDD20 via unsplash

Allying with dictators to occupy countries in order to, allegedly, help build democracy was always a dubious endeavour. Germany’s ‘great power responsibility’ in Afghanistan has never been able to deny its strategic, neo-colonial foundations – despite all the appreciation of the Bundeswehr’s humanitarian readiness and almost 18 billion euros of taxpayers’ money.

 

Same goal - different strategies

Over the decades, the West’s goals in the Middle East have never changed. They revolve around securing resources, geostrategic containment or territorial gains, especially against Russia and latterly China. Such horizons are defined no differently in the United States and Europe than in Moscow and Beijing, even if the strategies for achieving them seem to change on average every twenty years.

The Second World War was initially followed by the era of colonial liberation wars (such as in Vietnam, Korea, Algeria, Egypt, Congo, and Israel/Palestine), in the course of which the Western great powers sacrificed many millions of human lives. From the 1970s onwards, there followed a phase of détente, which was, however, also a time of containment in which, for example, Iraq was armed against Iran. The Gulf War of 1991 was then the harbinger of a shift towards ‘humanitarian intervention’ after the 9/11 attacks, a phase that now seems to be coming to an end.

If this really is, as conflict research says, the most peaceful of all times, it becomes clear in retrospect how enormously warlike the so called ‘post-war period’ really was.

It would be naïve to believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq is a sign of Western countries’ isolation from the global political arena. It is much more likely to be a new strategic turn, part of their realpolitik, but one that follows the same patterns of a seemingly endless Cold War. Syria is far from pacified, Africa remains a military theatre of operations for Europe, and China and the United States are on course for a fresh confrontation in Southeast Asia. If this really is, as conflict research says, the most peaceful of all times, it becomes clear in retrospect how enormously warlike the so called ‘post-war period’ really was.

Despite all the changes in strategy, the world – and within it Europe – is still a long way from achieving a lasting and sustainable shift towards cooperative foreign policy and global governance. Diplomacy guarantees a minimum of global political communication, which harbours an inherent opportunity for a genuine international community. At the same time, however, it remains ambivalent. Any gains in global integration – such as in the area of climate policy – are counteracted elsewhere by nationalist unilateralism.

Illustration: A man in the desert tries to pull down a cloud with a lasso.
‘Change through rapprochement’, photo: CDD20 via unsplash

It is not yet possible to precisely define what global governance should become. International politics remains the battle zone of a largely disintegrated world system that one is reluctant to call a ‘world order’ because it hardly deserves that term.

Yet it is not hard to come up with alternatives. We do not have to sugar-coat the Cold War era of détente in the 1970s to discover approaches such as Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik that can also serve as a guide today. What was probably Germany’s best foreign policy of the past decades was devised not from a feeling of strength, but from a position of weakness. ‘Change through rapprochement’ was a slogan born out of the bitter realisation that Germany could become the centre of a nuclear World War III and it perhaps contributed even more than the West’s arms build-up to the political transformation that began in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.

Ostpolitik meant an acceptance of real-life politics, recognition of the supposed ‘enemy’ as an interlocutor, and a simultaneous commitment to human rights as well as to one’s own political interests. Today, this guideline should once again be applied to the West’s relationship with great powers such as China, but also with authoritarian states such as Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Russia, under Putin, has disqualified itself from the policy of détente by attacking Ukraine, but the West will have to work even more closely with the other great powers to find new solutions for peace.

Recognising the weakness of being unable to build democracy from the outside in a country like Afghanistan, a phased foreign policy should be developed that breaks the vicious circle of war, occupation, and the double standards of cooperation with dictators and allows for transformation partnerships, dialogue about human rights, and close working relationships. Russia, under Putin, has disqualified itself from the policy of détente by attacking Ukraine, but the West will have to work even more closely with the other great powers to find new solutions for peace.

Where is the foreign policy culture?

For too long, the war in Syria has been a proxy conflict between the great powers, who have never truly worked on a joint solution. The same applies to all other conflict hotspots, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Iran issue, the war in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is it so absurd to consider the proposal to address the whole scope of conflict in the Middle East along the lines of the former OSCE process with the participation of all actors at a large, permanent security conference for the Middle East?

After the aggressive promotion of democracy of recent decades in Afghanistan, which, for all its presumptuousness, was after all based on a positive vision of universal human rights, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is often accompanied by an undertone of cultural stereotypes.

Why does the German President make such vague reference to the ‘responsibility’ of the great powers without making these kinds of specific proposals? What has become of the foreign policy culture that allowed West Germany to pursue global policy with its Ostpolitik or that allowed Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to become a mediator in the Iran/US hostage crisis in Bonn in 1980?

Angela Merkel’s government, which certainly had its merits in many areas (such as on climate change, Trump and refugees), remained extremely passive, especially in the Middle East. One must remember that Merkel was even hesitant to support Egyptians in their protests against the dictator Mubarak and that she was the first to welcome the new ruler al-Sisi in Berlin. Promoting democracy? Only to a very limited extent. Great power responsibility? It looks different. Even if Germany is not a great power in its own right, in the Western alliance it shares responsibility for the definition of great power politics.

The breadth of the West’s guiding principles for their political dealings with the world is quite astonishing. It ranges from the realpolitik isolationism of Donald Trump, who wanted to withdraw from every area of conflict, to the liberal internationalism of partnership, to the neoconservative (and also left/liberal!) interventionism that failed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Behind such ideologies, however, there are images of humanity that we urgently need to confront. After the aggressive promotion of democracy of recent decades in Afghanistan, which, for all its presumptuousness, was after all based on a positive vision of universal human rights, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is often accompanied by an undertone of cultural stereotypes. It seems Muslims can’t do democracy after all?

Both the euphoric missionary assumptions of interventionism and the culturally pessimistic and sometimes racist assumptions of isolationism are based on premature observations. The Arab Spring proved that the Middle East is in transition. Even if this – like European revolutions of the past – failed at the first attempt, many signs, for example in Algeria or Sudan, point to a continuation of the confrontation between old regimes and growing numbers of young people who are looking for new political approaches.

Illustration: A man in the desert observes a sprouting plant.
Young people are looking for new political approaches, photo: CDD20 via unsplash

Transformation is hard to export

Political transformation cannot simply be exported – Germany and Japan after the Second World War were the exception, not the rule. History shows that most transformations tend to be negotiated between formerly radical forces. The international community, if it wants to earn this name, must set out a framework in this respect. It must stop supplying arms, demand stability and seek change through rapprochement.

The potential argument that the experiences of the Ostpolitik of the 1970s cannot be transferred to the present time because the new soft power deprives China’s ‘development dictatorship’ of any room for negotiation fails to recognise the power of the global economic and security interdependencies that also affect China. Particularly in the post-colonial world, nation states have to transition in their own time and could be constructively accompanied by wise policies on the part of the great powers without falling into bipolar bursts of euphoria or depression about the state of the world every twenty years. Steinmeier rightly says that ‘less sense of mission and more openness in our endeavour to find potential solutions and common ground’ could be a guideline for a lasting partnership of transformation.

All this is not only about adopting a humanitarian attitude towards the world, but also about a realistic positioning for Europe. The continent’s share of the global population is steadily declining. High productivity still ensures prosperity, both in the production of goods and in the intellectual and scientific sector.

To take just one example: the majority of websites are still operated from Europe and North America, despite the global diversity of languages on the internet. But Europe will not be in a position to shape the future unless it opens the doors to increased immigration, which in turn means two things.

Firstly, European states will have to commit to the transformation of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America if they want to pursue immigration as the standard form of a multicultural society rather than as chaotic refugee management resulting from selfinflicted wars.

Secondly, they will have to take serious steps to fight systemic racism in our society. In our latitudes, it is true there is also a strong anti-racist movement. In Germany, the Black Lives Matter movement has contributed to the Merkel government pushing through some major anti-racism measures.

Although associated attitudes have remained fairly stable in Germany over the years, conflicts and attacks – from hate speech to xenophobic violence – have increased and are now far more widespread than Islamist attacks, which also exacerbate conflicts.

Nevertheless, the success of the AfD and the strikingly high levels of approval for anti-Muslim attitudes amongst Germany’s middle classes show that cosmopolitanism is far from being a consensus in Germany. Instead, immigrants from Africa and the Middle East in particular find themselves hitting a glass wall of rejection everywhere in Germany. In the housing and labour market, in educational institutions, or in terms of socio-cultural participation (such as wearing a hijab to a nightclub), they experience discrimination on a daily basis. Although associated attitudes have remained fairly stable in Germany over the years, conflicts and attacks – from hate speech to xenophobic violence – have increased and are now far more widespread than Islamist attacks, which also exacerbate conflicts.

A cultural culde-sac

A bridge needs to be built between foreign and domestic policy in this respect. These two dimensions are closely related in a global world. A consumerist mindset in globalisation that shies away from confrontation with its own neo-colonial policies, but at the same time uses products from all over the world, only to condemn ‘the foreign’ in a populist manner because of its otherness and supposed inferiority, leads Europe into a cultural culde-sac.

To stay with the example of the internet: even twenty years after its introduction, the vast majority of people in this country have little connection with the non-European world. We travel the same ethnocentric paths virtually as we do in the real world. Our educational institutions urgently need to catch up when it comes to systemic racism (not to mention the police, administrative authorities and military).

Illustration: A man in the desert sits by a pond and watches the reflection of the moon in the water.
Europe’s responsibility to the world should involve systematically opening up its own countries to this very world, photo: CDD20 via unsplash

How are young people supposed to understand a country like Afghanistan, for whose political development they are jointly responsible, but which they may never have heard of at school because it is not part of our Eurocentric policies on education and science, and which they only learn about from the media when reporting on war and conflict?

In a democracy where foreign policy is not left to a thin political elite but that wants to allow as many people as possible to participate, responsibility is also linked to the state of the knowledge society. Even more than a new approach to foreign policy, Europe’s responsibility to the world should involve systematically opening up its own countries to this very world. Cosmopolitanism, curiosity and a willingness to learn, dialogical foreign and domestic policies: if we want to avoid more wars and disappointments, there is simply no alternative in a multipolar world.

About the Author
Portrait of Kai Hafez
Kai Hafez
Professor for Comparative International Media and Communication Research at the University of Erfurt

Kai Hafez is Professor for Comparative International Media and Communication Research at the University of Erfurt. Previously, he was, among other things, a research fellow at the German Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg. He works for the German government as a consultant; he is a member of the Independent Expert Group on Muslim Hostility (UEM) of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. His research focuses, among other things, on political relations and communication processes between the Islamic world and the West, media and political transformation in the Middle East and Islamophobia in the West.

A selection of books:

Foundations of Global Communication: A Conceptual Handbook. With Anne Grüne. Routledge, London 2022
Media and Transformation in Germany and Indonesia. Asymmetrical Comparisons and Perspectives. (ed.). Frank & Timme, Berlin 2019
Islam in ‚Liberal‘ Europe. Freedom, Equality, and Intolerance. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham 2014
Radicalism and Political Reform in the Islamic and Western Worlds. Cambridge University Press, 2010