Realo Turned Fundi – The Baerbock Doctrine. An Op-Ed by Markus Heidingsfelder


The new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently prescribed a course of “dialogue and toughness” for China. Bad cop and good cop in one person, a bit of Habermas here, a bit of Carl Schmitt there, so to speak. German tabloid BILD did not miss the opportunity to applaud her with an almost satirical headline: “Baerbock makes dictators tremble.”

Her statement can be understood as a timid variant of a favorite American plaything: the doctrine, a proclamation of a political guideline. For a long time, Europeans were rather unfamiliar with this American preference for basic principles of foreign policy, but in recent years, at least since the ‘Struck Doctrine’ – more on that later – German politics has been eager to catch up. Baerbock, too, seems to want to connect to this American tradition; to an emphasis on morality, democratic values, and principles of law which are supposed to mask the own national interests.

Some readers are probably not aware who Annalena Baerbock is. In order to bring you up to date with recent events, here is a brief summary. After the Greens nominated her – a woman – as candidate for German Chancellor, their ratings rose. Not least because they had resolved the internal position disputes so well, without the usual dirty trench warfare. People trusted her, there was good will. Never before had the environmentalist party entered a federal election campaign with a better starting position. The poll numbers were consistently at 20 percent – for the first time in their history, the Greens were ahead of the CDU, finding themselves at the peak position. At least until this spring. Then Baerbock brought everything crashing down with a series of unfortunate actions – a late income report, a repeatedly corrected résumé, and the plagiarism affair surrounding her book, Now. How to Renew our Country, deprived them of their comfortable lead in the polls. In the end, the party won just 14 percent of the vote in the 2021 federal election. In view of the lead they had had, an extremely disappointing result – far behind the other two major German parties, the SPD (Germany’s democrats) and a good deal behind the CDU (the equivalent of the GOP).

One could take Baerbock’s side. Hardly any politicians today write their speeches – or books – themselves. It’s also more likely that not her, but employees had ‘improved’ her résumé. That’s called division of labor, and when it is well done, it increases efficiency. What you can accuse her of is: not having managed her team accordingly. If I’m a candidate for chancellor, I would ask my people to take everything apart, to double- and triple-check what I publish – is the résumé correct? Are there plagiarized passages in the book? It is hoped that she will manage the Foreign Office better.

BILD headline: Baerbock makes dictators tremble

Not even Baerbock will assume that any of the world’s dictators are trembling before her. Why should they? What do Putin, Lukashenko, MBS aka Abu Rasasa, Kim Jong-un, Assad, Barre et al. have to fear from Germany? But if she tries (and she now has to keep her promise) to be tough on Beijing by making moral accusations and putting forward ‘self-evident truths,’ it would actually be an excellent opportunity to set a few things straight.

China could alert her to put her own house in order first. Those who demand freedom of the press should take a closer look at the peculiar, one-sided reporting on China in Germany – for instance in the Tagesschau, the national news program, which cut out the Chinese Foreign minister’s statement on Germany’s problematic handling of refugees from the show, and instead only allowed Merkel’s denunciations of human rights violations in China to get a word in.

In their studies, many of my colleagues have pointed out the new orientalism that took hold in the German media when the pandemic broke out – an ‘othering of the virus’ that has prevented an effective fight against the pandemic by Western countries in its early stages.

Which is why the renowned sinologist Wolfgang Kubin felt compelled to dedicate an unusually personal, passionate article to the “hostile hermeneutics” of his once favorite German newspaper, the FAZ, which for a while now has been devoted to dubious espionage stories (about Chinese agents operating out of Confucius Institutes) – drawing attention to the not entirely unimportant detail that only a few of the foreign journalists are proficient in Chinese. ZDF-reporter Ulf Röller, whom I met during my quarantine in Qingdao, admitted the same thing to me – ruefully, after all: too few of the reporters understand what is being said or written here, including him. Such self-awareness is unfortunately as foreign to most German journalists reporting on China as the local language.

Should Baerbock decide to talk about the New Silk Road project, China could tell her that she is right, it does indeed not only consist of “niceties” – it is also China’s highly successful attempt to counter the ‘nice’ containment policy pursued by the US. And if she claims that the project has a “power-political” background, a brief hint at the ‘Struck Doctrine’ (that Germany needs to defend its national security in the Hindu Kush, a mountain range thousands of miles away) would be appropriate. Germany’s “vital security interests” were bluntly listed as economic ones for which the German army (Bundeswehr) is to go to war: “Maintaining free world trade and unhindered access to markets and raw materials around the world within the framework of a just world economic order.” Xinjiang, on the other hand, is a part of China – and, if lost, could actually become a serious threat to its security. I recommend the China chapter of Tim Marshall’s book The Power of Geography. (Plus the recent, highly detailed study by German sinologist Björn Alpermann, which endeavors to look at the highly complex situation in this province from a variety of perspectives “to include more different points of view than is commonly done in the Western media. This refers primarily to U.S., British, and German media … There is a tendency in some parts of the media to adopt the accounts of human rights activists and NGOs largely unquestioned. The willingness to at least listen to official Chinese arguments, on the other hand, is rarer.”)

If she were to talk about the “competition of systems,” one could indulge in a reference to the oh-so-superior democracy that forgoes any long-term planning in favor of a team that changes every four years, and during what is perhaps the most critical phase of the pandemic, exposes German politics as incompetent because no one feels responsible in the transitional period. Or to the Western obsession with a moral ideology known in China as baizuo (白左), which has ensured that instead of the much more experienced candidate Robert Habeck – unfortunately a man – a woman was nominated the party’s candidate for chancellor. In other words, competence was not the decisive factor. Or to the disastrous handling of the pandemic by German politics which now seems to make compulsory vaccinations necessary, which is not on the agenda in China. If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is. Perhaps the fact that some of the German media have already unleashed their media ethicists on readers to cite not only utilitarianism but in all seriousness the Kantian concept of duty to justify this massive intervention. If nothing else helps, then the value-laden classics will.

A reference to the fact that the newly elected Chancellor of liberal, value-driven Germany is currently involved in a financial scandal – which led to an investigation of the Ministry of Finance under the suspicion of obstruction of justice – could conclude the colorful round of friendly references. Or maybe a quote by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann: “One can certainly ask whether politicians should be role models and follow a ‘special morality’.  Then one would have an ethically high-quality politician without politics.” Is this what Baerbock wants to be?

Hardly. While one need not immediately conclude that she wants to join what the authors of a recent study call the new “Cold War Agenda” – the promotion of a systematically negative attitude toward China by the United States and its allies, including its media and research – it is more than a clear indication that Baerbock still sees Germany as a junior partner of the “hypocritical superpower USA” (Michael Lüders). Which includes to emphasize certain values to the public, and to pay little attention to the other, political side of the coin, the ally’s ruthless power politics. To name just one example: the USA’s ‘China Initiative’, which – as 177 faculty members of Stanford University wrote in an open letter to Merrick Garland “raises concerns of racial profiling and is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness”. In other words, the US Department of Justice is disproportionately targeting researchers of Chinese origin. Being tough on China seems to include: being tough on Chinese. Toughness towards ‘the greatest country in the world’ – the greatest killer of innocent civilians, the greatest overthrower of progressive governments, and the greatest breaker of international legal norms – is obviously no option. 

It is to be hoped that Baerbock will use more than one hand to look at the coming superpower. Instead of skipping through the usual narrow list (human rights violations + security threats + exploitations through the Belt and Road Initiative), she could try to find nuanced notes, different perspectives, and maybe even develop some curiosity towards the country. If not out of humility, then maybe out of self-interest. A Chinese idiom could show her the way: 求同存异 (qiu tong, cun yi) – Look for the similarities, and let the differences stand! (Thanks to Karl-Heinz Pohl for informing me about it.)

One thing is clear – anyone who stands in front of the microphones and announces a dialogue is not holding one. Only two can play this game. And anyone who announces that she will be tough is maneuvering herself into a highly problematic position that makes what characterizes politics impossible – flexibility. Such a policy of harshness may appeal to a certain anti-Chinese clientele, but it could well be called irrational as it does not seek to solve political problems but to invoke principles and enforce decision-making bottlenecks. It seems Baerbock is on the way to becoming a ‘fundi‘ (as the Greens once called the fundamentalist party members opposed to her wing, the ‘realos‘, i.e., realistic ones).

It will be interesting to see how little Germany will teach big China a lesson. My guess is that Baerbock sooner or later will have to face up to reality. Then she can ‘position’ herself again in front of the microphones of the world. Hopefully with a more pragmatic and less fundamental approach. After all, it was pragmatism – the overcoming of the two camps that had long divided them – that got her and her party to where they are now in the first place. Contributing to overcome the two opposing camps that currently divide world society is anything but a dishonorable task. If this cannot be considered a value-driven foreign policy, then I don’t know what could.

PS: An earlier, shorter version of this text was published in the South China Morning Post. One comment by Robert H. read: “What-aboutism. How inventive.” One could ask whether accusing me of whataboutism is inventive – but then again, that could also be called whataboutism. To me, this accusation seems to serve the purpose of invalidating the accusation of double standards. Of course: If I tell someone that the planned murder of specific ethnic groups is a horrible crime, it doesn’t make it any better if she responds: “Why that, you Americans committed the worst genocide in the history of mankind – you have wiped out all of the native Americans!” But it is worth thinking about this accusation, because it is directly related to the fundamental condition of what constitutes morality: respect for the prohibition of self-exemption.

Kant’s categorical imperative says: Act only on that maxim that you can will as a universal law. Asking Kant if his own actions meet the requirement may be called whataboutism, too: “What about your condemnation of homosexuality, Mr Kant? Or your statement that your right to a servant is like your right to a thing you own? Or your justification to kill illegitimate children?” Asking Thomas Jefferson about the “inalienable rights” of the more than 600 slaves he owned: whataboutism. That led to the removal of his statue from city hall in New York. Nothing against the proclamation of inalienable rights. But honor a person who made moral demands on others he wasn’t able to accept for himself? That doesn’t make sense even – or: especially – to highly moralistic Americans.

Anyone who argues morally cannot remove themselves from this argument. On the contrary, what allows us to recognize moral communication is that one can only make moral demands on others if one also accepts them for oneself.  In German: Doppelmoral ist keine Moral. Whataboutism is therefore appropriate here. That it cannot  justify any crimes is perfectly clear. But it can point to the questionability of moral argumentation. 

From my perspective, a ‘values-led’ foreign policy is not politics – a realistic look at this social domain teaches that the preference value is ‘power’, not: freedom, equality, etc. The USA have been amazingly successful in garnishing its policy with these values.  Christian Hacke provides the historical context of this strategy in his book “Doomed to be a Superpower” (Zur Weltmacht verdammt): thanks to fascism and communism, the morally coded rhetoric that was glossed over the profit-oriented American foreign policy seemed to make perfect sense. These days are long gone. Kerry Brown has recently tried to convince ‘the West’ to stop moralising against China – unfortunately, Annalena Baerbock wasn’t listening. But it is to be hoped that she is adaptive and will develop a responsible attitude towards China. “Knowledge, humility, and honesty will be the things that help the outside world deal with the historic challenge of China’s rise”, writes Brown. “Without those, it is hard to see how any impact will be made on the leaders of a country that currently see in the politicians facing them from Canberra, to Berlin, London and Washington the precise opposite.”

How to avoid whataboutism? That’s simple. By avoiding morality, and in this case, a value-laden, ‘tough’ foreign policy that only serves one  function – to determine under which conditions respect or disregard is projected onto other countries.