17. September 2021 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff, Rebecca Wagner

Germany’s Approach to Democracy Promotion in a Multipolar World: Views of the political parties before the upcoming 2021 Bundestag election

This EDP Wire was originally published in German with the PRIF Blog under the title “Deutsche Demokratieförderpolitik in einer multipolaren Welt: Parteipolitische Perspektiven vor der Bundestagswahl”.

Whether in Brazil or India, in the USA, Tunisia or Hungary – since the end of the Cold War, rarely has democracy around the globe seemed as endangered as it does today. Thus, how can the current global trend of de-democratization be slowed down or even reversed? What can democratic states like Germany do to protect and promote democratic institutions and processes worldwide? And how should the future German government relate to the U.S. initiative for a new alliance of democracies on the one hand, and the growing influence of autocratic China on the other? In the run-up to the parliamentary elections on September 26, this blog post compares the positions of the political parties represented in the outgoing German Bundestag.

„After decades of a global spread of democracy,“ according to the 2021 Peace Report, „we are currently witnessing a phase of de-democratization that does not even stop at long-established democracies.“ Around the globe, elected governments are restricting the scope for action of civil society actors, undermining the independence of the judiciary and the media, manipulating the electoral process in their favor, and thus calling into question core norms of democratic conflict resolution. In increasingly polarized societies, such policies often find broad support, but at the same time also provoke resistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these developments (see the overviews here, here and here). Against this backdrop, U.S. President Biden is convening a virtual „Summit for Democracy“ in December 2021, at which “leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector” aim to develop a common agenda of renewing and defending democracy and make concrete commitments. For Biden, the envisioned alliance of democracies and democrats responds to a new global political constellation in which – in a re-issue of the Cold War’s systemic competition – autocracies and democracies face each other in open rivalry. The approach to democracy promotion of the future German government thus faces at least two difficult questions: How can it use the means of foreign and development policy to counteract the continuing erosion of democracy around the world and support processes of democratization? And: How should Germany deal with a global context in which autocratic states (first and foremost China) are gaining power and influence, while democratic partners (such as the United States) are proclaiming a new Cold War?

How important is the issue for the parties?

When analyzing the election programs of the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), FDP (Liberal Democratic Party), Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Green Party), Die Linke (Left Party) and AfD (Alternative for Germany), the first thing that is striking is the extent to which the topic at hand is dealt with. While a quick quantitative look at the party programs shows that the SPD and the Green Party devote the most space to foreign policy, this hardly involves a discussion of the global crisis of democracy and the question of international democracy promotion. The SPD addresses the issue most explicitly in a short subchapter on „Expanding Democracy,“[i] which deals with protecting and strengthening democracy in Europe. In a similar vein, the Greens do not include the global crisis of democracy among the „great challenges of our time,“ but the party calls more explicitly than the SPD for a global „push for democracy“ („Demokratieoffensive“). In contrast, the mere dramaturgy of the election program already signals that CDU/CSU give relatively high priority to the global threats to democracy: Both the first chapter („Germany’s New Responsibility in the World – Out of Conviction for Peace, Freedom and Human Rights“) and the second („New Capability for World Politics – Passionate for a Strong Europe“) prominently feature the threats to democracy and the need to counter them. Also, conspicuously detailed are the statements on the promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights in the FDP’s election program, whereas the Left Party, while generally emphasizing the promotion of democracy and human rights in foreign policy, clearly focuses on peace and „social justice worldwide“ as global policy goals. Finally, the AfD is the only party whose foreign policy statements make no reference whatsoever to democracy (or human rights). The twofold motto here is that German foreign policy must be „aligned with German interests“ and strictly adhere to the „principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.“

A new era of systemic competition?

As already emphasized in Pascal Abb’s article on German China policy, with regard to the question of whether the world has been entering a new phase of systemic competition among regimes, the formation of party-political camps cuts across the usual right-left divide. A de facto “Jamaica alliance” (named according to the colors of the Conservative, the Greens, and the Liberal party: black, green, and yellow) sees the world in a new phase of „systemic rivalry“ between democracies democratic and authoritarian states competing „for global authority in the 21st century“ (CDU/CSU), a „competition among systems“ provoked by the „hegemonic aspirations“ of authoritarian states „such as China and Russia“ (the Greens), and a „new systemic competition with Xi Jinping’s China“ (FDP).[ii] In the SPD program, in contrast, there are no corresponding references, while the Left explicitly warns of a „new Cold War”.

In line with this shared diagnosis, the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP see the Biden initiative for a Summit for Democracy as an instrument in the confrontation between democracies and autocracies. Most explicitly, the CDU/CSU advocate an „alliance of democracies“ that would, among other things, counter China’s claims „with strength and unity“ and exert „a decisive influence on the global order”. According to their response to PRIF’s pre-election questions (“Wahlprüfsteine”), the CDU/CSU see the upcoming Summit for Democracy as a „prelude“ to such an alliance. Similarly, the FDP wants to „strengthen and further develop existing initiatives for a coalition of democratic governments,“ referring in particular to the U.S. administration. The Greens, too, in their response to PRIF’s pre-electoral questions, welcome the fact that the U.S. administration, with its initiative for a Summit for Democracy, „aims at highlighting that the United States again wants to be value-based partner in the promotion of democracy, the promotion of human rights and the rule of law, and in the fight against dictatorship, authoritarianism and corruption.“ In line with Biden, but in contrast to the CDU/CSU and the FDP, the Green Party’s election program also emphasizes that this initiative should not merely bring together democratic states or governments, but rather initiate a „global cooperation of democracies and democrats,“ which should „include the countries, civil society groups, and parliamentarians that commit themselves to ambitious democratic standards”. Even more strongly, the SPD – again in its response to PRIF’s pre-electoral questions – emphasizes that the „important initiative“ of U.S. President Biden primarily presents an opportunity for „an intensive exchange between politics and civil society“ that offers the chance to „join forces to achieve a strengthening of democracy in the long term.“ In the case of the SPD, there is no mentioning of a pro-democracy bloc. Finally, the response by the Left Party positions itself explicitly „critical“ of the U.S. initiative for a Summit of Democracy and justifies this by rejecting „the export of democracy and the policy of regime change”.

How do the parties intend to protect and promote democracy internationally?

The picture becomes much more complicated when looking at the approaches and instruments of international democracy promotion that are alluded to by the political parties. Corresponding statements concern the response to authoritarian tendencies within the EU on the one hand, and broader foreign and development policy issues on the other.

With regard to the erosion of democracy in EU member states, in Hungary in particular, the Greens‘ election program is the most explicit. The party advocates an „EU mechanism for democracy, rule of law and basic rights” in order “to sanction violations by authoritarian member states.“ Similarly, the SPD argues that one should not accept „that populist and nationalist governments curtail the independence of the judiciary and fundamental rights“ and calls for „consistent implementation and tightening of sanction mechanisms“ such as those established by the EU’s rule of law mechanism. In the context of the EU, the Left Party also demands „more binding commitments to the observance of democracy and human rights in all member states“ and, specifically, proposes „that the situation of democracy, rule of law and basic rights in the EU be regularly evaluated and violations sanctioned.“ The FDP calls for „an effective rule of law mechanism in the EU“ and the consistent „punishment“ of corresponding violations by EU member states. Much more cautiously, and in striking contrast to the global rhetoric, the CDU/CSU with regard to the EU merely speak of „European democracy“ being put under pressure by „populists from the left and right“. In response, the Conservatives call for „new dialog formats on the rule of law and on the consistent punishment of violations.”

The differences between the parties are even more apparent when it comes to democracy promotion outside the EU. For the CDU/CSU, as mentioned above, the focus here is on cooperation between democratic states and, in particular, on the transatlantic partnership. Institutionally, in addition to the EU, it is particularly NATO – „as a community of values“ – that is emphasized, as is the international support of democracy and civil society by the German political foundations. In the case of Belarus, the CDU/CSU even advocate coercive regime change through sanctions.[iii] In the CDU/CSU’s subchapters on development cooperation, however, the goal of promoting democracy is not mentioned at all.

For the SPD, bilateral democracy promotion does not seem to play a significant role in either foreign policy or development cooperation. In addition to the EU or „Europe“ (which is supposed to play a „leading role“ in democracy promotion), the SPD’s election program only mentions international organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe as relevant actors in this regard. In its response to PRIF’s pre-electoral questions, however, the SPD does emphasize „the support of civil societies“ as an „important goal of worldwide democracy promotion – especially in countries and regions in which the activities of organizations or private individuals is hindered, suppressed or prohibited.“ Furthermore, „democracy assistance with active promotion of political processes” is mentioned as “an important political tool.“

Similar to the SPD, the Greens call in their response to PRIF for „even greater support for democratic civil society groups worldwide and at home“, citing „political foundations, city partnerships, exchange programs and cultural relations and education policy“ as „important instruments“. In the case of the Greens, however, the election program also contains explicit statements on the topic, for example, concerning the aforementioned „push for democracy“ or when they mention the aim to „better coordinate on the inter-ministerial level and expand the strengthening of the democratic rule of law, regional integration, civil society and human rights”. In addition, the Greens, in marked contrast to both CDU/CSU and SPD, name „human rights and democracy promotion“ as „cornerstones of our approach to development cooperation”. The Left Party is even more clearly committed to a bottom-up approach. In its reply to PRIF, for example, the party states that it wants to „promote democratic developments through international solidarity and support for progressive and democratic grassroots movements, and protect human rights defenders and whistleblowers.“ In intergovernmental relations, on the other hand, the Left emphasizes „active détente“ in order to „facilitate rule-of-law and human rights dialogues.“ For the FDP, finally, democracy promotion is less an issue of development cooperation or civil society support than one of foreign policy. Thus, the „diplomatic commitment to freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law” is described as “an indispensable part of a successful and credible foreign policy.”

What does this mean for the future?

As different the programmatic positions of the political parties may be, no fundamental changes in the German approach to international democracy promotion are to be expected from any of the currently foreseeable coalitions. This applies in anyhow to the day-to-day practice of development and foreign policy, which is traditionally characterized by strong continuities, both in Germany and elsewhere. Gradually different emphases are most likely to be found in foreign policy rhetoric. A “Jamaica coalition”, for example, can be expected to take a more explicit stance on the international stage when it comes to responding to violations of political and civil rights, specifically vis-à-vis Russia and smaller countries such as Belarus, perhaps even China. An SPD-led federal government, on the other hand, is likely to adhere much more clearly to Germany’s tradition of “civilian power”, which focuses on détente and interdependence („change through rapprochement“). In operational terms, the statements of the SPD, the Greens and the Left signal that they would place a greater emphasis on international support for civil society actors – while the CDU/CSU advocate a rather state- and government-oriented course.



[i] All quotes from the election programs have been translated by the authors. The original programs (in German) can be found here.

[ii] In the case of the Greens, however, this is qualified by the statement that „a global socio-ecological transformation is impossible without China, also without Russia or Brazil.“

[iii] „The regime [in Belarus] must clear the way for a peaceful transition or else face the harshness of our sanctions.“

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