The weight of the past: explaining differences in French and German foreign policy

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current publications, Publications

History and Foreign Policy in France and Germany, Ulrich Krotz, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Why do France and Germany, which are seemingly similar in so many ways, differ so drastically in their general foreign policy orientations and in many specific foreign and security policies? 


Probing this conundrum is Professor Ulrich Krotz in his new book History and Foreign Policy in France and Germany. Krotz holds the Chair in International Relations in the EUI’s Department of Political and Social Sciences and RSCAS. He is also the author of Flying Tiger: International Relations Theory and the Politics of Advanced Weapons and Shaping Europe: France, Germany, and Embedded Bilateralism from the Elysée Treaty to Twenty-First Century Politics (with Joachim Schild).

Speaking to EUI Times, Krotz explains, “I consider this book to be historically rooted social science. It is about history, theory and comparison. It has a very strong comparative aspect.”

So what makes this comparison between France and Germany so fruitful? “They are neighbours, of about the same size and wealth, they are geographically close, both with post-war reconstructions, both with huge economic growth in the post-war period, both enmeshed in European integration and globalization, and yet their foreign and security policies have been very different.”

We might assume the formation of the European Union to be a decisive process for the Franco-German relationship. After all, European integration has had a homogenising effect on many policy areas, uniting member states on agricultural, environmental, and increasingly financial policy.

However, Krotz instead argues that, “France and Germany are the core of European integration. But what clearly comes out of the book is that the integration project did not fundamentally transform the foreign and security orientations of the two countries. They continued to lead their own distinct foreign and security projects.”

For Krotz, different historical experiences, and the subsequent meanings and self-defined political implications assigned to these by both policymakers and the public, are crucial points of divergence and a major factor in explaining differences in foreign policy. “World War Two among many other things, bombed Europe out of its self-perceived position at the centre of the world. The idea that European politics was at the core of world politics, because Europe was ruling the world through imperialism, was destroyed by the war. That’s another thing that France and Germany shared. But the war did different things to France and Germany. For Germany it was a fundamental rupture; the 12 years of National Socialism was such a rupture that it could not consider its history beyond these years and the moral devastation they caused. For France, it was not a fundamental break with respect to its own view of itself and in particular its views on its role and place in the world.”

Rather, as the book outlines, after the war France reclaimed its foreign and security role from its own history; in Germany, national identity was instead formed in opposition to everything the twelve years Third Reich history represented or had left behind.

So perhaps somewhat unusually for an international relations or political science work, the book concludes that the differing foreign policy stances of France and Germany cannot be fully understood without reference to history and domestically dominant attitudes regarding its meaning and political implications. History and Foreign Policy in France and Germany is vital reading for those interested in comparative debates on these two titans of the European Union project, and for those interested in France’s and Germany’s current search for their proper roles and places in the 21st world and the impact of past historical experiences on present-day actions and policies.


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