Beware of tunnel vision!

The current shift in German policy must be made with foresight. Being independent of Russia must not lead to dependence on other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
The current shift in German policy must be made with foresight. Being independent of Russia must not lead to dependence on other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Foresight is needed to turn the tide of German policy. Being independent of Russia must not lead to dependence on authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. By Kristin Helberg

By Kristin Helberg

It is the dawn of a new era. Even if we still don't know exactly what that will bring, apart from 100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr, one thing seems clear: it will go hand-in-hand with a fundamental reassessment of Germany’s foreign and energy policy towards Russia. This is urgently needed, yet, at the same time there is also the risk of repeating rather than correcting past mistakes.

Such seismic shifts often lead to tunnel vision, to a problematically narrow view of our multi-faceted, interconnected and interdependent world. Cautioning against this does not mean that Germany should continue to shy away; on the contrary, it needs more courage, more leadership, more responsibility, but please let's not forget to be far-sighted.

The problem with Germany's current navel-gazing is that the country could end up being driven by an idee fixe instead of following parameters that it itself has set. This idee fixe, a new kind of foreign policy thought pattern, is based on two lessons learned from the war being waged in Ukraine, which are, it should be said, absolutely correct:

Firstly, Germany must be able to defend itself against Russia together with its allies; secondly, we need to become independent of Russian gas as quickly as possible, which makes the development of the renewable energies required by climate policy all the more urgent.

The other steps would seem to be obvious: more money for the German armed forces, more weapons for Ukraine, an upgrade of NATO, and energy partnerships with states that can supply Europe with CO₂-neutral hydrogen as soon as possible. However, such steps are likely to result in new dependencies, namely on states that are similarly autocratic to Putin's Russia.

Economics Minister Robert Habeck in the United Arab Emirates (photo: Bernd von Jutrczenska/dpa/picture-alliance)
Wean off Russian gas asap: the development of renewables has become a matter of urgency for Germany. Establishing energy partnerships with states capable of supplying such renewables, however, is likely to produce new dependencies. With abundant sun, wind and land, countries in the Gulf and the Maghreb will soon be able to offer green hydrogen at extremely low prices – on Europe’s doorstep. Recognising they can only secure their power long-term by developing and expanding renewable energies, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are already building massive solar power plants and wind farms

Turkey, for example, not only represses opponents and critics at home, but has also occupied parts of northern Syria in violation of international law. However, because Europe and the U.S. need Turkey so urgently as a NATO partner, they have praised President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's constructive crisis management, boosting his self-confidence even further. Erdogan has ensured that his approval of Sweden's and Finland's NATO membership applications has come at a high price – with F16 fighter jets from the United States, a lifting of the arms embargo imposed by some EU states following Turkey's invasion of northern Syria in 2019, and an end to support for Kurdish dissidents.

Erdogan is already irreplaceable as a gatekeeper, keeping the refugees out of Europe. That's because rather than managing migration, the EU still prefers to batten down the hatches. Now the Turkish president is not only preventing refugees from continuing their onward journey, he is also preventing Russian warships from sailing through the Bosphorus.

And since Vladimir Putin announced that he is willing to work with Turkey to regulate the movement of goods in the Black Sea and possibly release grain exports stuck in Ukrainian ports, Erdogan has another trump card up his sleeve.

In exchange, Ankara is expecting a free hand in northern Syria, where Turkey's military interventions have already forced several hundred thousand people – mostly Kurds – to flee. The fourth invasion, designed to link Turkish-controlled areas along the border, is imminent. Erdogan then intends to send up to one million Syrian refugees back to this so-called security zone – a form of ethnic cleansing, expelling Kurds and settling Arabs.

More NATO means more dependence on Erdogan

Unfortunately, things don't look any better when it comes to energy partnerships. That's because the Gulf states and countries in North Africa have so much sun, wind and land that they will soon be able to offer green hydrogen at extremely low prices – not to mention close to Europe. Gigantic solar power plants and wind farms are already being built in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, because the regimes there have recognised that they can only secure their power in the long term by developing and expanding renewable energies.

Roland Busch, CEO of Siemens AG, here at a meeting in Munich in February (photo: Sven Hoppe/pool via AP/picture-alliance)
Biggest deal in the company's history: Roland Busch, CEO of Siemens AG, proudly announces a billion-dollar contract to expand the Egyptian railway network. But the idea that such economic cooperation would lead to an opening of authoritarian regimes has turned out to be an illusion. "Anyone who believes that Egypt's President al-Sisi is going to release human rights activists because Siemens is building a new railway with 2,000 kilometres of track for high-speed trains in the North African country has yet to understand that these despots will remain in the driver's seat as long as we make ourselves dependent on them," writes Krisitn Helberg. "Especially since they no longer need us as urgently as they used to, because they have already diversified their foreign relations"

Dazzled by so much photovoltaic capacity, even Germany's Minister of Economics and the Environment, Robert Habeck, who in March felt much more comfortable visiting a solar power plant in the UAE than buying liquefied petroleum gas in Qatar, is not immune to the idea. But both are problematic bearing in mind the values-based foreign policy his party colleague Annalena Baerbock is striving for. After all, in view of the human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa, energy policy dependence on the rulers there is out of the question.

All of the Arab states currently being considered by the German government as energy transition partners trail in the international league tables when it comes to freedom of the press, freedom of expression, civil society and corruption. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Middle East and North Africa are the regions in the world where press freedoms are most under threat. In ten states the situation for journalists is classified as "very serious", including Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.

The Civil Society Atlas paints a similar picture. In nine countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Syria, and Libya – there is legally and practically no room for civil society. An atmosphere of fear prevails as state and non-state actors get away with imprisoning, abusing, or killing people who freely express their opinions or criticise the ruling regime. Defenders of human rights are particularly affected by this.

It all starts with invoking danger

Of course, these countries have been important trading partners of Germany for a long time. And naturally it is better to deliver rotor blades, wind turbines and solar cells to Saudi Arabia than combustion engines. But compared to other economic sectors, the energy sector is naturally subject to strong state influence. If one looks at the investors, construction companies and operators of the planned mega-projects, it becomes clear that they are all close to the ruling elites whose power they are designed to secure. This means that in the energy sector there is no getting around the state, but in authoritarian countries the state serves the regime and the regime serves those in power.


Climate activists argue that more people would benefit from the expansion of renewable energies than from fossil fuels because, unlike oil and gas, sun and wind are available in many places in the world, but that is only true if green electricity is generated decentrally and in small quantities. As soon as the focus becomes the mass and cheap production of green hydrogen – and because energy-hungry Europe is unable to meet its needs on its own – the countries that benefit will be those able to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. And these are pretty much the countries that have dominated the fossil fuel market for decades. The fact that Germany temporarily needs liquefied gas from Qatar – okay. But to stake its own energy transition on green hydrogen from Saudi Arabia and the UAE is negligent.

The lesson from the war against Ukraine is therefore not simply: "Make yourselves independent of Russian gas". No, the deeper lesson is that we should not depend on any dubious regime in this world for energy. How can this be achieved? By diversifying. The more sources the better, even if it is more laborious and expensive. That way Germany will easily be able to do without hydrogen from Saudi Arabia when the first Saudi opposition member is found dead in Berlin's Tiergarten.

This brings us to the foreign policy challenge of our time: dealing with authoritarian regimes. In the past, we were driven by two overriding principles: the need for security and the desire to positively influence dictatorships through more exchange. The first paradigm led to the war on terror, the second to change through trade – both failed miserably because our vision was too narrow, hence the caveat.

It all starts with invoking danger. Something bad has happened – Putin has invaded Ukraine – and we must protect ourselves. The more threatening the scenario, the more it determines our actions. Until we subordinate everything to the fight against this danger in domestic and foreign policy and in doing so betray fundamental values. This is what happened in the fight against terror. For 20 years, we have fought Islamic extremism by restricting individual liberties, empowering the state at home and building dubious anti-terror coalitions abroad.

Driven by the fear of attacks in Europe, our politicians travelled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to Egypt and Qatar, Russia and Pakistan to forge alliances against terror with the rulers there. The latter rejoiced because they could now hunt down their personal enemies as terrorists: bloggers and journalists, civil society organisations and opposition activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the PKK.

A Saudi woman holds up her driving licence (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Saudi Information Ministry)
Eine saudische Frau zeigt stolz ihren neuen Führerschein. Seit 2018 dürfen saudische Frauen selber am Steuer sitzen. Ist das denn keine positive Entwicklung? „Stimmt. Doch mit deutschen Maschinenexporten hat das nichts zu tun,“ schreibt Kristin Helberg. „Kronprinz Mohammed Bin Salman hat lediglich erkannt, dass Zugeständnisse beim Lifestyle die jungen Saudis ruhigstellen und seine Macht stabilisieren.“ In den Emiraten gibt es sogar eine Ministerin für Klimaschutz. „Frauen in Führungspositionen, die modern auftreten, dabei aber genauso regimetreu sind wie ihre männlichen Kollegen, verbessern das Image im Westen, ohne die eigenen Herrschaftsstrukturen zu gefährden,“ so Helberg.

The war on terror served democracies and dictatorships alike as a pretext for wars and crimes under international law – whether in Iraq or Chechnya, in Myanmar or China. It became a blanket authorisation for state repression. As a result, it prepared the ground for the uprisings in the Arab world from 2011 onwards, it strengthened authoritarian systems of rule in Southeast Asia and in the Gulf, while enabling the transformation of semi-democratic states into illiberal autocracies such as in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Brazil.

More trade did not bring change

This devastating development was triggered by an event equally as shocking at the time as Putin's attack on Ukraine today: the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. Back then, there was also talk of a new era, but in the end it was not the event itself, but the reaction to it that would usher in and shape a new epoch – the age of the 'war on terror'.

This was accompanied by the wishful thinking that dictatorships could be reformed domestically through economic relations. Since at the time Europe needed the despots of this world as allies and Germany willingly placed its foreign policy at the service of economic interests, it was driven by the foreign policy paradigm of change through trade.

Economic openness and exchange with liberal societies in the West would produce a middle class in states like China and Russia that – it was hoped – would sooner or later demand not only prosperity, but also a political voice and individual freedoms. But instead of granting their citizens more rights, the leaders in Beijing and Moscow used the technological know-how they had gained to censor the media, control the Internet and monitor people. They used the revenues from the sale of their natural resources and their own market power to consolidate their rule at home and become indispensable to the global economy as producers and suppliers.

Some might argue that there have also been positive developments. Women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive cars and the UAE has a female minister for climate protection! True. But that has nothing to do with German machinery exports. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has merely realised that lifestyle concessions keep the young Saudis quiet and stabilise his power. And women in leadership positions who appear modern but are just as loyal to the regime as their male colleagues improve the nation’s image in the West without endangering its own ruling structures.

So anyone who believes that Egypt's President al-Sisi is going to release human rights activists because Siemens is building a new railway with 2,000 kilometres of track for high-speed trains in the North African country has yet to understand that these despots will remain in the driver's seat as long as we make ourselves dependent on them. Especially since they no longer need us as urgently as they used to, because they have already diversified their foreign relations. 

The VW plant in Urumqi in Xinjiang province, which opened in 2013 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Scheuer)
Mehr Handel aber kein Wandel: Im Nordwesten Chinas, in der Autonomieregion Xinjiang, werden nach Einschätzung von Experten mehr als eine Million Menschen in Lagern festgehalten. Betroffen sind vor allem Angehörige der muslimischen Minderheit der Uiguren. Trotzdem hat der deutsche Autobauer VW in der Region einen Standort. Der einzige internationale Autokonzern, der hier produziert. Auch deutsche Politiker ließen sich von chinesischen Straflagern für die Uiguren nicht beirren. Sie sicherten das China-Geschäft deutscher Unternehmen mit staatlichen Bürgschaften, damit die Chinesen weiterhin deutsche Autos kaufen.  

In Egypt, Russia is building the first nuclear power plant, in the UAE, China is participating in the world's largest solar power plant. For the regimes in the Middle East, Putin is not a warmonger but a partner, the governments in Moscow and Beijing are seen as important counterparts to those in Washington, D. C., and Brussels.

So more trade did not bring change, it brought less democracy. German politicians were not fazed by this – not by Putin's annexation of Crimea, not by Chinese punishment camps for the Uighurs. They stubbornly looked straight ahead, secured the China business of German companies with state guarantees and built North Stream 2 so that the Chinese would continue to buy German cars and cheap gas from Russia would keep the German economy going. Ultimately, Moscow and Beijing did not change, but they had us in the palms of their hands.

The days when the interests of Germany’s economy and arms industry dictated foreign and security policy should be well and truly over. What is needed is a new and comprehensive concept of security that takes into account the values we are so fond of trumpeting: freedom, the rule of law, democracy, equal opportunities – not European values, by the way, as people like to claim in these Eurocentrist days, but universal rights.

We must widen our horizons

Foreign Minister Baerbock wants to focus on "security not from the past, but from the future". Great. If we are to prove that the liberal idea is stronger than authoritarian solutions, we need to translate our principles into practical policy even more effectively, she says: "By taking a clear stance, by acting decisively and with instruments that are agile, effective and up to date."

That is all very well, but where is the clear stance on human rights violations by Israel? Where are the agile instruments towards Egypt? Where is the decisive action towards Turkey? And to what extent is our strategy towards China up to date? At least: by withholding state guarantees for investments in China, Economics Minister Habeck is forcing German companies to diversify. Which goes to show how diverse foreign policy instruments actually are.


We must widen our horizons. Putin's aggression must not blind us to the crimes of others. We must not subordinate everything to the containment of Russia. The selection of potential allies should not only be about German interests, but also about how they treat supporters and opponents in their own country. As Foreign Minister Baerbock has rightly pointed out, we must stop distinguishing between "good" and "bad" dictatorships. Because oppression is oppression and violence is violence – no matter where. As the name suggests, human rights belong to all people, including Yemenis and Kurds, Uighurs and Rohingya. Such a foreign policy cannot justify supplying arms to regimes that violate international law or forcibly silence critics.

So what is to be done?

For Germany to be able to act credibly in foreign policy, it must break its ties with despots. This means neither the end of the German export industry nor a renunciation of diplomacy, but a paradigm shift in tackling the urgent problems of climate protection, world trade and migration.

While renewable energies need to be produced as locally as possible, additional green hydrogen should not only be imported from the Middle East. Logistical production threads must not all converge in China; the new supply chain law offers the opportunity to encourage companies to take more responsibility in the selection of their locations and partners. Migration should be actively managed, instead of prevented by inhumane means. Legal escape routes and easier, needs-oriented immigration to Germany would help to combat human trafficking and smuggling.

In this sense, a new beginning would not only make us independent of Russia, but also less susceptible to blackmail by Beijing and Ankara, as well as by the dictatorships in the Middle East.

Kristin Helberg 

© Zeit Online / 2022

Kristen Helberg is a journalist and political scientist. She reported from Damascus for seven years, has written several books on Syria and now lives in Berlin as an author and Middle East expert.