The unification of Germany and its resulting acquisition of full sovereignty strengthened the role of the Federal Republic as a European middle power and expanded the scope of its activities and responsibilities. With a population of 82 million, Germany is the most populous country west of Russia and the most significant economic force in Europe. International pressure on Germany to abandon its policy of restraint in foreign affairs in favor of more active participation on the world stage – a pressure that had already begun mounting toward the end of the “old” Federal Republic – rose dramatically with the Gulf War of 1991 and the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. At first, this pressure was tempered by fears that Germany could become the dominant power in Europe.
As in the past, the trademarks of German foreign policy continue to be broad consensus-building among the key political players, with France and the U.S. serving as basic touchstones. Continuity and consensus can be seen, above all, in Germany's commitment to multilateralism, which involves making an effort to solve international problems through cooperation with other governments and international organizations instead of going it alone as a single state. Multilateralism has become a fundamental axiom of national policy. This policy binds Germany to the EU, in particular, and facilitates its ability to work in concert with other powers.
Expectations about Germany’s responsibilities on the world stage have risen both at home and abroad, and Germany is now under pressure to play a more active and extensive role in international affairs. These expectations have translated into concrete action above all in the area of national security. The Bundeswehr has evolved from a purely defensive army into an operational peace-keeping force, whose soldiers participate in NATO, EU, and UN missions on various continents. At the same time that Germany assumed new military responsibilities in hot spots around the world, its armed forces were cut from 340,000 to 250,000 soldiers. Despite widespread German pacifism, the reorientation of the role of the armed forces met with relatively little public friction, even though the majority of the population is opposed to foreign deployments. Germany’s conception of itself as a civilian power has remained intact.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Germany's central location at the heart of Europe became both an opportunity and a liability. It was a liability because the permeability of national borders stoked anxieties about immigration and sparked fears about the potential negative economic and political side effects thereof. But its central location also offered Germany the opportunity to expand its relationships with its neighbors to the East and surround itself with democratic allies. German politicians therefore became early advocates of the Eastern expansion of NATO and the EU.
If consensus and pragmatic adaptation characterize Germany’s foreign policy in general, then this is even truer of its European policies in particular. The democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe forced Western European politicians to simultaneously intensify European integration and expand EU membership. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992) proposed a common foreign and security policy, collaboration in judicial and domestic affairs, and the creation of a single currency. In order to signal the intended move toward greater integration linguistically, the European Community was renamed the European Union. Between 1995 and 2004, the number of member countries grew from 12 to 25. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007; other candidates are already lining up at the door. These far-reaching and rapid changes have raised more and more questions about the limits of the EU, questions that concern not only its territorial expanse, but also its purview and its conception of democracy. Since the summer of 2005, when voters in France and the Netherlands failed to ratify the European constitution, the EU has been forced to undergo a period of self-reflection. During Germany’s EU council presidency in the first half of 2007, important aspects of the rejected constitutional treaty were integrated into the Treaty of Lisbon, which, after being ratified by the member countries, took effect on December 1, 2009.