22. September 2023 | EDP Wire | Pascal Abb, Hanna Pfeifer, Irene Weipert-Fenner, Jonas Wolff

An Audible Silence: The Role of Autocracy and Democracy in Germany’s National Security Strategy

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine revived the narrative of a global competition between democracies and autocracies, which had already gained importance in the wake of China’s rise to power. In March 2022, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had also spoken of a global “alliance of liberal democracies” that needed to be formed against the dictatorships of this world. In contrast, the German government’s new National Security Strategy, published in June 2023, does no longer refer to such a dichotomous distinction into good democracies and evil autocracies. This positive development, however, comes with a curious silence on the implications that the existence of different political regimes, including autocratic ones, has for the pursuit of “integrated security” as outlined in the document. As we argue in this post, this silence raises a set of important questions.

This article was originally published in German with the PRIF Blog under the title “Nicht darüber reden ist auch keine Lösung: Die Rolle von Autokratie und Demokratie in der Nationalen Sicherheitsstrategie“.

Overall, the fact that the world is populated by countries with very different political regime types plays a minor role in Germany’s first National Security Strategy. More specifically, the document is, first, characterized by a defensive approach to democracy, which centers on protecting German democracy. For international politics, the strategy is guided by the “diagnosis of a multipolar world” and very much emphasizes the sovereignty of states as a key principle. As we argue here, this raises difficult questions with regard to the relationship between values and interests in German foreign policy. Second, autocracies or authoritarian regimes hardly feature in the document, and the global trend of autocratization is not mentioned at all. Throughout most of the National Security Strategy, the regime type of the countries with whom Germany is interacting at the international stage does not seem to play any role – even though the German governments commits itself to the ambitious goal of promoting democracy worldwide. Third, we analyze references to the issue of systemic rivalry, which can still be found in the strategy. The focus here, however, is on a competition over the future shape of the international order. Rivalry between states with different political regimes, as emphasized in the U.S. Security Strategy, plays no role in its German counterpart.


The Value of Democracy – Internally and Externally

Depending on proximity, the strategy attaches varying degrees of importance to democracy. Understandably, Germany’s “free democratic order” is of utmost importance. At the European level, democracy is indispensable, at least as a precondition for human security. For the rest of the world, democracy’s relevance remains vague.

More precisely, in the section “Our values and interests”, the German Government explicitly emphasizes that it is in Germany’s “fundamental interest” to defend its values, including democracy, against threats from outside and within (p. 20). At the global level, however, democracy is no longer at the core of the normative agenda. Instead, sovereign equality, the prohibition of the use of force and the right to self-determination are emphasized here (p. 11). On the one hand, this can be understood as a direct reaction to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. But it can also be read as a response to a central diagnosis the strategy makes: “We are living in an era that is increasingly multipolar and marked by rising systemic rivalry.” (p. 23) It is not (any longer) about the ambitious project of promoting and safeguarding a liberal world order, then, but about defending an international order that is “free” in the normatively less ambitious terms of being “rules-based” in line with the UN Charter and international law.

Elsewhere, however, the Security Strategy does speak of “championing democracy” (p. 21), namely in the context of a longer list of prerequisites for sustainable security (and not, as should be noted, as a value in itself). How is this compatible with a foreign policy that prioritizes sovereignty and self-determination as key principles of international law? Development policy is mentioned as one way of strengthening democracy in other countries: For the support of democracy “also depends on the extent to which it promotes prosperity, security, the rule of law and participation for large parts of the population” (p. 43). While this argument seems plausible at first glance, German development cooperation is also active in non-democratic regimes. Does development cooperation have a stabilizing effect here as well and, thereby, contribute to preventing a potential path towards “sustainable security” in these contexts? Or should we assume that development is always conducive to democracy, even in initially non-democratic contexts? Here, the National Security Strategy remains suspiciously silent – as it does with regard to the issues of autocracy and autocratization more generally.


The (Almost) Futile Search for Autocracies

It is hardly disputed in political science research that we are currently experiencing a global trend of autocratization and democratic backsliding (see, for example, here and here). Apart from the emphasis on multiple threats to “our democracy,” there is no discussion of this trend in the National Security Strategy. The closest thing to a reference is in the context of development policy: “In countries whose government is undermining security and the rule of law, the Federal Government is focusing its cooperation to a greater extent on the non-state and local levels, as well as on multilateral approaches.” (p. 44). Apart from the fact that the focus here is put on undermining “security and the rule of law” and not on democracy: Does it not also matter outside the realm of development cooperation if, for example, EU member states, India or the EU neighborhood country Tunisia show clear shifts towards authoritarian rule? Can these trends really be reduced to being an obstacle for development cooperation?

The fact that the Security Strategy remains vague here could be related to the rather ambiguous use of the concept of “partners.” On the one hand, the strategy speaks, albeit abstractly, of “partners who share our values and interests.” On the other hand, however, it also explicitly aims “to cooperate and enter into new partnerships with countries that do not share all our values […] but that, like us, are committed to a free international order based on the United Nations Charter and international law” (p. 49). This wording (which, as a side note, also appears in a similar form in the U.S. National Security Strategy) clearly suggests that international partnerships do not depend on other states’ regime type but on their commitment to international law. In an earlier post, we have argued that such a stance is much more appropriate to our politically fragmented, multipolar world than the overly crude distinction of the world into supposedly benign democracies and evil autocracies. However, this still does not provide sufficient guidance on how to deal with the large and diverse group of (more or less) autocratically ruled states around the world. For instance, in the context of international crisis engagement, the strategy assures that the German government will “continue enhancing successful instruments such as building up partners’ military capabilities to enable them to take on responsibility for their own security” (p. 40). But as the strategy, with a view to arms exports, simultaneously promises to “take into account in particular human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the importing country” (p. 15), it is indispensable to consider and evaluate the precise regime type of countries whose military capabilities are to be strengthened.

The strategy also holds that the EU’s security requires “[g]reater endeavours to stabilise [its] neighbourhood” (p. 38). Here, the question of the relationship between stability and regime type is even more delicate. In 2011, in the course of the so-called Arab Spring, the EU had expressed its regrets of having relied on cooperation with supposedly stable autocracies for too long. It had also promised to support democratization in the region. However, as the issues of “migration” and fighting “Islamist terrorism” gained prominence, the EU has been shifting back to cooperation with autocracies since 2015. To manage these problems, the argument goes, “stability” in the neighborhood is indispensable. What is often presented as a realpolitik without alternative, however, entails a clear conflict of interest, even when viewed from a narrow security perspective. Not only do cooperation formats that are based on stabilization, migration control and counterterrorism strengthen existing autocratic regimes in the short term. They can also exacerbate state repression and lead to increasing violence against the political opposition, marginalized groups and refugees. Even if one were to ignore the troubling ethical aspects of such consequences: Regime violence and repressive structures contribute to conflicts, increase the likelihood of informal migration and radicalization – and are therefore, in the medium term, not even promoting EU security interests.

As this already indicates, there are trade-offs to be considered when combating the causes of “radicalisation and terrorism” (p. 38) or when dealing with “fragile states” and conflict societies “in places such as Syria and Iraq, Libya, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel” (p. 23). The tension between (short-term) stability and (medium-term) political transformation is not easy to resolve. But it should at least be mentioned as a central challenge in shaping relations with what the strategy dubs “partners”. Other strategy documents like the German government’s Guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace explicitly refer to this conflict of objectives, using the Arab world as a prime example. So, if democracy is a relevant factor for sustainable security, as mentioned several times in the National Security Strategy, it is important to consider how Germany should deal with autocracies and autocratization processes but also with practices of authoritarian rule in formally democratic regimes.


Germany and China as Systemic Rivals

As noted above, a general rivalry between autocracies and democracies no longer features in the German National Security Strategy. The document does, however, emphasize that Germany’s global security environment is characterized by a “systemic rivalry” (Foreword by the Foreign Minister, p. 7, see also p. 23, p. 49). And yet, it remains vague when it comes to the precise nature of this rivalry, its impact on the behavior of the involved actors, and its implications for Germany’s security policy. Generally speaking, the term “systemic rivalry” could be understood as signaling a competition between all-encompassing systemic designs similar to the Cold War, which at that time structured world politics and security policies to a large extent. In the German National Security Strategy, however, the “system” in question seems to concern the global order rather than the domestic orders of the rivaling countries. The German government “confidently embrace[s] competition with states that are opposed to a free international order” (p, 49). It stresses the “consequences of systemic rivalry” (p. 49) as well as the efforts of “some states […] to undermine this order and give effect to their revisionist notions of spheres of influence” (p. 23). This suggests an understanding of “systemic rivalry” as a hegemonic contest between status quo powers and their challengers, each advancing incompatible visions of international order, which however do not necessarily result from their respective domestic political systems.

In these passages, the strategy does not mention specific countries involved in this type of rivalry. But elsewhere, China is singled out as a “systemic rival” (pp. 12, 23), the only reference to a specific rival actor in the document. This description is not new: In 2019, the EU had already characterized its relationship with China as one of simultaneous partnership, competition, and systemic rivalry. This model also appears in the German Government’s recently published Strategy on China. In the EU’s original “strategic outlook“, however, the rivalry component referred to China “promoting alternative models of governance,” i.e. to a primarily normative dispute about the design of political orders in third countries and the content of international rules, not to great power competition. In these arenas, China has indeed significantly gained influence and challenges Western normative hegemony, e.g., through the creation of global developmental programs like the Belt and Road Initiative and an increasingly active participation in UN agencies. Accordingly, the new China strategy traces systemic rivalry back to “different concepts of the principles governing the international order”, including with a view to the “status of human rights”, and China’s related attempt to “influence the international order in line with the interests of its single-party system” (p. 10). Here, thus, an explicit connection is being made to China’s domestic political regime.



In last year’s debate on the design of Germany’s first National Security Strategy, we argued against taking the idea of a new systemic competition in which the supposedly good democracies of this world must unite against the bad autocracies as a starting point for such a strategy. Instead, we suggested a more nuanced look at how specific authoritarian regimes function, how they behave at the international stage, and how these factors are interrelated. The overall shape and specific operation of the political regime of other states is of great importance for Germany’s security and peace policy. As seen, however, this issue is not reflected in the new National Security Strategy. Spelling it out in more detail is, thereby, being left to subsequent country and issue-specific strategies, that have to flesh out and operationalize the rather general framework offered in the new German Security Strategy. In this process, the questions and dilemmas raised in this post will have to be discussed more explicitly and systematically. In any case, talking about how to deal with countries of varying regime types is necessary. Not talking about regime diversity and what this means for the external relations of democratic countries in a multipolar world is definitively no solution.

This is a translation of a post in the current PRIF blog series on regime competition which summarizes recent findings from PRIF’s research group of the same name. You can find the original article here. The question of how to deal with autocracies is also the topic of PRIF’s upcoming Annual Conference on October 12 and 13, 2023.

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