Commentary 27 April 2017

Without Diplomats, No Diplomatic Solutions

by Sarah Brockmeier               GPPi

While German politicians across party lines have recently called for “diplomatic solutions” to the conflict in Syria, they have all overlooked a key condition: diplomatic solutions require diplomats. But the Federal Foreign Office – the place that is supposed to hash out political solutions and coordinate them across the government – lacks personnel.

Germany’s diplomatic dearth also received scant attention during recent debates on increased defense spending. Even newly appointed Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel used the debate to call for an increase in the budget of the development ministry, rather than more personnel in his own department – perhaps because the foreign ministry has gained a few posts in the last few years. Yet the recent growth in the number of diplomats Berlin employs came only after massive reductions beginning in the early nineties. Today, the federal government’s budget allocates 6,884 posts for the foreign office. That is nearly 1,000 posts less than in 1990. In an official response to a parliamentary inquiry about the status of the diplomatic corps in 2006, the government admitted that the overtime hours its diplomats were putting in amounted to 90 missing posts. It added: “many embassies and units in Berlin are working at the limit of their capacities.” Since then, the budget of the foreign office has more than doubled – especially because of the increased demands in the area of “peace and stability” and not least because of the refugee crisis in recent years. In the same time period, the number of diplomats – i.e., the people charged with making sure the budget is spent sensibly – has risen by only five percent.

The lack of diplomats will be felt even more acutely if Germany follows the advice of Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor. With a view to the catastrophe in Syria, Schulz recently demanded that Germany should debate “how we can act to prevent conflicts and […] how we can contribute to an effective crisis management.” Over the past year, the German ministries for foreign affairs, development, defense, and interior have promoted a debate on exactly these questions. Under the heading “PeaceLab2016,” experts of civil society, universities, think tanks, and parliament discussed concrete recommendations on how to improve German conflict prevention, stabilization, and peacebuilding efforts. Almost every one of these recommendations would mean that Germany needs more diplomats: the government should strengthen the role of its embassies in responding to early warning signs of conflicts; make sure there is a focal point in each embassy for NGOs and human rights activists; ensure more coherence among all the activities by different German actors in each country; better coordinate with the local government, other donors, and international organizations; and assign more diplomats to leadership positions at the EU, the OSCE, and the UN. At home, many experts recommended that the diplomats increase their engagement with academics and civil society experts and go into schools in order to explain their job to a broader German society. Most importantly, hundreds of peace activists and security policy experts agreed, “more conflict prevention” means “more politics.” The German government will need to make sure its technical projects in fragile states are embedded in a political strategy. It is not enough, for example, to provide equipment to Tunisian border control agents. Greater stability in Tunisia and the region can only be achieved if the German government simultaneously pressures the Tunisian government to reform its army or its police and to ensure civilian control of the security sector. This rule is even more important for the use of military force: if there is one lesson that German politicians took away from the war in Afghanistan, it is that any deployment of military force needs to be embedded in a political strategy

Such a strategy needs people that can analyze information, devise a course of action, and constantly adjust it to changing political circumstances. Currently, the German government is not even close to implementing any of these recommendations. Everywhere you turn, the ministry lacks personnel to back up its commitments, with German embassies in fragile states often employing only one political analyst. In Iraq, the German government sent weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces for its fight against the Islamic State, and invested several-hundred million euros in political stabilization projects. Yet how many diplomats has Germany employed – in the highly complex political environment in Baghdad – to engage in talks with Iraqi government officials, civil society representatives, international partners, or the UN? How many to collect and analyze information? Two. The ambassador and one political analyst. Syria is another example. While the British government sends entire teams to the Syrian border region in Turkey, Germany is represented by exactly one person. Although German politicians never cease to emphasize the need for talks on Syria, nobody is in the region to do the talking.

Of course, these shortages are also related to personnel decisions in the foreign ministry. Like any other big bureaucracy, the foreign office could find ways to re-assign postings and increase its efficiency. It is absurd, for example, that both human resources and communication tasks (up to the last tweet) are done by diplomats on rotation. Such work should be conducted by professionals. In general, the ministry adheres too rigidly to the principle that all diplomats should be generalists and able to rotate into any post. In the complex 21st-century foreign policy environment, the foreign office’s staff should be able to specialize on a particular region or a thematic area, such as conflict prevention. If politicians in Berlin set aside the “2%” debate on defense spending for a moment, more reforms could be discussed: What are the potentials of digitalization in foreign policy? How should the training of diplomats be adjusted to the new German role in the world? What could be gained from a better division of labor with other EU Member States?  

Nevertheless, even with increased efficiency Germany will need to significantly increase the number of its diplomats. The challenges and tasks for Berlin’s diplomatic corps will continue to grow in the next few years – especially if Germany wants to contribute more to preventing crises like Syria in the future. At a time when many in Europe are shocked by US President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the US State Department and USAID, German political parties could use the election campaign in the next few months to call for more diplomats. They could thereby send a signal: Germany means what it says when it calls for more political solutions.

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A shorter German version of this commentary originally appeared in the German daily Die Welt on April 27, 2017. 

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