26. March 2022 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff

German Democracy Promotion: Change of Course under the Traffic Light Coalition?

This EDP Wire was originally published in German with the PRIF Blog under the title “Deutsche Demokratieförderpolitik. Ampelkoalition auf Kurswechsel?


When taken seriously, the programmatic rhetoric in the coalition agreement of the new German government insinuates an apparent reorientation of German international democracy promotion: departing from the traditional developmental approach and Germany’s self-understanding as a civilian power towards an explicitly political approach, which envisions Germany in an international inter-system competition, sees democracy promotion primarily as a foreign policy objective and focuses on supporting democracies and democrats.

Only a few months after the so-called traffic light coalition between the Social Democrats (“red”), the Green party and the liberal party (“yellow”) has taken office, one thing appears to be clear: The question of value orientation of Germany’s international engagement will accompany the new government over the legislative term. Programmatically, the coalition agreement states the aim of pursuing “value oriented” foreign, security and development policies (p. 143).¹ The current political debate is focused on acute crises, concerning the war in Ukraine and Western relations with Russia above all. However, the aim to “[…] resolutely defend our values with democratic partners […] in the international inter-system competition […]” (p. 4) is more global as well as more fundamental. One among the various questions that this statement raises will be discussed in this contribution: What do the coalition agreement and first statements of prominent cabinet members suggest with respect to how the new German government plans on protecting and promoting democracy world-wide?²

Germany’s diplomatic apparatus and its architecture of development cooperation are characterized by institutionalized inertia. The programmatic change analyzed in the following therefore will, at best, be only partially translated into political practice. Still, the official rhetoric of the government is important in and of itself: both as a programmatic framework to which the staff in the ministries, the embassies and implementing organizations of developmental cooperation relate to, and as political statement that is observed and potentially taken seriously around the world and, thereby, positions Germany at the international level. With this in mind, the present article sees itself as a deliberately pointed attempt to stimulate a debate about the pros and cons of a programmatic reorientation of German democracy promotion.


Traditional German Democracy Promotion: Development Oriented, Cooperative, Cautious

In a 2009 article with the Journal of Democracy, Thomas Carothers introduced the distinction between two different approaches to international democracy promotion: the political and the developmental approach.


“The political approach proceeds from a relatively narrow conception of democracy – focused, above all, on elections and political liberties – and a view of democratization as a process of political struggle in which democrats work to gain the upper hand in society over nondemocrats. It directs aid at core political processes and institutions – especially elections, political parties, and politically oriented civil society groups – often at important conjunctural moments and with the hope of catalytic effects. The developmental approach rests on a broader notion of democracy, one that encompasses concerns about equality and justice and the concept of democratization as a slow, iterative process of change involving an interrelated set of political and socioeconomic developments. It favors democracy aid that pursues incremental, long-term change in a wide range of political and socioeconomic sectors, frequently emphasizing governance and the building of a well-functioning state.”³


Both approaches are to be understood as ideal types, to which the political practice corresponds only approximately, at best. Traditionally, however, German democracy promotion has quite clearly followed the developmental approach. It was German development cooperation primarily that took up the cause of democracy promotion during the 1990s. The key actors of German development cooperation engaged in democracy promotion – namely the GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH) and the political foundations – share a decidedly development-oriented approach.

On the part of foreign policy, this corresponds with Germany’s self-understanding as a “civilian power”, which is inclined to international cooperation, strategies of dialogue and inclusion as well as the notion of “change through rapprochement”. In contrast, the short-term focus on democratic breakthroughs or the open confrontation of perceived enemies of democracy play a minor role. In fact, German policy-makers have been mostly cautious to use the very term “democracy promotion”. Instead, they have tended to prefer focusing on internationally recognized human rights or the promotion of governance, decentralization or the rule of law that have less obviously political connotationspromotion seem to be preferred.


The New Government’s Approach

Looking at the coalition agreement, a developmental approach of democracy promotion can hardly be detected. Instead, there are several characteristics that correspond to the political approach as outlined by Carothers.

First of all, questions of democracy, democracy promotion and protection are being treated primarily as an issue of foreign policy. While the “commitment to peace, freedom, human rights, democracy, rule of law and sustainability” is described as an “indispensable part” of German foreign policy (p. 7), the German development cooperation is to be aligned with the Agenda 2030 of the UN and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (p. 150). This suggests that it is foreign policy that will be primarily responsible for democracy-related questions at the international level. Accordingly, the issues of democracy is treated mostly in relation to questions of world order than in relation to intra-state dynamics (e.g. in the form of the current wave of autocratization or democratic backsliding⁷).

Secondly, this world-order view on democracy is characterized by a Manichean world view. The current coalition sees Germany in an “international inter-system competition”, in which two clearly recognizable as well as dichotomously distinguishable camps apparently confront each other: the “authoritarian regimes” on one side, Germany with its “democratic partners” on the other (p. 143). The rhetoric is consequently confrontational. It is all about defending democracy (p. 4, 131), forging alliances (p. 143, 153) and taking a firm stand against opponents when it comes to the protection of values (p. 130-131, 154, 157). The cooperative promotion of democracy only plays an explicit role when it comes to civil society actors.

Statements by the new ministers of foreign relations and development cooperation so far confirm this impression. With the “competition between authoritarian powers and liberal democracies” (Annalena Baerbock) as leitmotif, the question of democracy obtains a strategic importance for German foreign policy. Development minister Svenja Schulze, in contrast, has yet to mention democracy (promotion) as a significant part of German development cooperation.

Thirdly, while the coalition agreement does not explicitly define the term “democracy”, some sections and wordings suggest a specifically liberal understanding. With a view to democratic principles, questions of transparency, pluralism, free and independent media as well as civic engagement are emphasized throughout the document (p. 7, 10-11, 116-117, 132). In contrast to the democratic core principle of freedom, the question of equality in the context of democracy is not mentioned at all.

When looking at processes of democratization, a fourth observation arises: While German democracy promotion usually focuses on supporting (good) governance, political institutions and processes of incremental change, not much of that can be seen in the few statements in the development cooperation section that at least somehow refer to democracy promotion. Instead, the emphasis is very much centered on individual actors and short-term political changes. Specifically, the “promotion of civil society” and the “important role of trade unions, political and private foundations and churches” are mentioned. The aim to increase support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) also indicates an actor-centered approach (p. 152). Some of the statements regarding individual states and world regions are even more explicit: In the case of Belarus, for instance, the German government promises to support the “democratic opposition” and to force President Lukashenko into a “change of course” by extending “ existing EU sanctions”, if necessary (p. 154). With regard to the EU’s eastern neighbourhood in general, it is stated that the coalition will “react decisively and reliably to democratic upheavals and be a partner of democracy movements” (p. 153).


Plea for a Policy Debate

It is an open question whether or not the outlined, programmatic reorientation of German democracy promotion will be translated into actual changes in foreign and development policy. Still, a debate about its pros and cons is definitely indicated. To help initiate such a debate, I will conclude by briefly suggesting why the policy shift laid out in the coalition agreement is understandable, yet problematic.

Like other Western governments, but also various civil society organizations and think tanks, the new German government is responding to a perception of multifaceted and serious threats to democratic norms, institutions and regimes all around the globe.

These threats, e.g. in the form of populist or authoritarian forces, specifically target the liberal dimension of democracy. Thus, the response to consciously and explicitly defend liberal democracy against its critics is initially plausible. Nevertheless, the present crisis of democracy – which not least concerns the status of liberal democracy as an attractive model of political development – is also associated with structural problems and blind spots of real-existing, liberal democracy, for instance with regard to the highly unequal opportunities of social, political and economic opportunities for participation¹⁰. A stance that focuses on defending the status quo of liberal democracy is thus, at least, not enough when it comes to responding to the current crisis of democracy.

The notion of an international inter-system competition is currently in fashion, too. It reflects the growing importance and (re-)increasing assertiveness of authoritarian states, in particular China and Russia. Nevertheless, the idea that the world can be divided into democracies (more specifically “liberal democracies”, as the new foreign minister has), which cooperate out of “strategic solidarity” (p. 143), and autocracies, which are to be met with confrontation, is highly problematic. According to V-Dem data¹¹, only 32 countries were considered to be liberal democracies in 2020, which represent only 14% of the global population.

When adding liberal and electoral democracies on the one hand and electoral and closed autocracies on the other, the countries of the world are indeed almost evenly divided into two “camps” – 68% of the global population find themselves on the authoritarian side though. But ultimately, these numbers rather show how misleading the whole idea of a dichotomous classification of the world is. In fact, I suggest, it is much more plausible to say that the majority of states are characterized by political regimes that combine democratic and non-democratic elements to varying degrees and in diverse configurations than to juxtapose, for example, the “autocracies” of India, Honduras and Hungary with the “democracies” Indonesia, Guatemala and Poland, for example (categories according to V-Dem data for 2020).

Such a dichotomous distinction becomes even more problematic when it is meant to be used to identify the democratic countries with whom cooperation should be prioritized (in the context with the authoritarian opponents). As nicely demonstrated by US President Joe Biden’s highly contested invitation list for the Democracy Summit in December of 2021, which included neither Hungary nor Turkey¹², such a strategy of alliance building would cut right through the European Union and NATO.

At the same time, China and Russia apparently do increase their cooperation with a view to shaping the emerging multipolar world order. Yet, the notion that the political regimes of these two states represent one common alternative “system”, is quite simply absurd. However, this is precisely what talks about an “inter-system competition” imply. This is all the more true for the global range of authoritarian regimes – from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, from Morocco to Cuba.

Also within societies, the picture is rarely black and white. Besides openly undemocratic forces, normally there is a broad spectrum of actors who have a legitimate place in pluralistic debates without necessarily being committed to democracy or even the whole range of liberal-democratic values (according to the current mainstream).

To the extent that those studies are correct that identify “toxic” political polarization as a key problem haunting contemporary democracies, giving an additional boost to such polarization from the outside is at least risky when the aim is to promote and protect democracy.

It should make us think that the very logic – we are the good, democratic group, while the others belong to the evil, “authoritarian” forces – corresponds exactly to the pattern of friend or foe that polarization research identifies as highly problematic for democracy¹³.


Please note that all quotations from German sources have been translated into English by the editor (Heinrike Rustenbeck).



¹ For this and all following quotations, please see the coalition agreement of SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and FDP „Mehr Fortschritt wagen: Bündnis für Freiheit, Gerechtigkeit und Nachhaltigkeit“. 

² The fundamental question of which values are actually to be defended and promoted, was discussed in detail elsewhere. Please see Jonas Wolff, “Von Werten und Schurken: Menschenrechte, Demokratie und die normativen Grundlagen deutscher Außenpolitik” , HSFK-Standpunkte Nr. 3/2013.

³ Cf. Thomas Carothers, Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental?, Journal of Democracy 20(1), 2009, p. 5-19, here: p. 5.

⁴ See, for instance, Jonas Wolff, Hans-Joachim Spanger and Hans-Jürgen Puhle (ed.), “Comparative International Politics of Democracy Promotion”, London: Routledge, 2015, and Jonas Wolff, “Democracy Promotion and Civilian Power: The Example of Germany’s ‘Value-Oriented’ Foreign Policy”, German Politics 22(4), 2013, 477-493.

For a similar analysis of the election platforms of the different parties, see (in German) Rebecca Wagner and Jonas Wolff, “Deutsche Demokratieförderpolitik in einer multipolaren Welt: Parteipolitische Perspektiven vor der Bundestagswahl”, PRIF Blog, 15th September 2021.

⁶ Cf. Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg, “A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it?”, Democratization 26(7), 2019, 1095-1113.

⁷ Cf. Stephen Albrecht, Felix S. Bethke, Hendrik Hegemann, Julian Junk, Martin Kahl, Pawelz Janina and Jonas Wolff, “Demokratien auf der Kippe: Globale Trends und Bedrohungen”, in: BICC/HSFK/INEF/ISFH (ed.), Friedensgutachten 2021. Europa kann mehr!, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2021, 137-155.

⁸ The quote from foreign minister Annalena Baerbock comes from her opening speech to the German Bundestag: Annalena Baerbock, “Rede von Außenministerin Annalena Baerbock im Deutschen Bundestag zur Außen-, Europa- und Menschenrechtspolitik”, 12th January 2022. See also Annalena Baerbock, „Schweigen ist keine Diplomatie“, in: taz, 1st December 2021. Regarding first statements of development minister Svenja Schulze, see i.a. Svenja Schulze, “Rede der Bundesministerin für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, Svenja Schulze, in der Vereinbarten Debatte über die Politik der Bundesregierung vor dem Deutschen Bundesstag”, 14th January 2022; Svenja Schulze, „Man muss nicht den ganzen Tag total politisch korrekt unterwegs sein“, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1st February 2022; Svenja Schulze: “Afrika nicht Resterampe für abgelaufenen Impfstoff“, in: Berliner Morgenpost, 15th January 2022.

Of course, democracy is a contested concept. Still, the two principles of freedom and equality do play an important role in most accounts and theories of democracy. Liberal approaches, generally speaking, prioritize the former over the latter. With regard to the term “human rights”, something similar can be observed: When human rights are described as the “compass” of foreign-, security- and development policy, they are explicitly defined in the sense of an understanding that is individualistic, liberal and focused on its protective role, namely “as the most important protective shield of the individual’s dignity” (p. 143). However, a significantly broader understanding of human rights, which includes economic, social and cultural right, can be found elsewhere in the coalition agreement. For instance, the coalition partners promise to finally ratify the optional protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which was adopted back in 2008 (p. 147).

¹⁰ Instead for many, see Adam Przeworski, “Crises of Democracy”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019, and Armin Schäfer and Michael Zürn, “Die demokratische Regression”, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2021.

¹¹ See V-Dem Institute, “Autocratization Turns Viral. Democracy Report 2021″, Göteborg: V-Dem Institute.

¹² See U.S. Department of State, “Summit for Democracy: Invited Participants”, and Frauke Steffens, “Demokratiegipfel: Bidens Kampf für die eigenen Ideale”, FAZ, 10th December 2021.

¹³ For a brief overview of this scholarship, see Stephen Albrecht, Felix S. Bethke, Hendrik Hegemann, Julian Junk, Martin Kahl, Pawelz Janina and Jonas Wolff, “Demokratien auf der Kippe: Globale Trends und Bedrohungen”, in: BICC/HSFK/INEF/ISFH (ed.), “Friedensgutachten 2021. Europa kann mehr!”, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2021, 137-155.

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