Rising Powers: Germany needs to deepen its engagement!

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Engage rising powers

Germany’s cooperation with rising powers is in our own interest – and also a goal in itself: only through cooperation can we create sufficient trust to engage in joint solution-seeking. We are increasingly engaging in a „world of uncertainties“, and thus need partners for problem-solving, both regionally and globally.



There are hardly any reasons to engage in “traditional development cooperation” with rising powers, if we understand development cooperation merely as financial support. Since the end of the cold war, we have witnessed the rise of a number of countries, which have successfully reduced absolute poverty amongst their citizens, and which see the growth of a middle class. Due to their population figures alone, China and India are very relevant. Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico or South Africa are internationally important players, too. And other states are also gaining regional and global profile, for instance Colombia, Vietnam, Iran or the already relevant Nigeria.

Good news

It is fundamentally good news that there are rising powers! China, and even the economically struggling Brazil or stagnating South Africa in principle have sufficient own resources to manage their development. Or at least they could raise needed local finance if they pursued a different (tax) policy. These countries also have technological skills to a substantial degree, which – if there is sound governance – can be used for national development. Consequently, traditional development cooperation with rising powers has become less urgent. Yet, we should not be pulling out completely, because, at the same time, international cooperation for development becomes more important.

These rising powers have the necessary resources and the will to engage internationally. The rise of a middle class in these countries (and beyond) creates a better life for millions of people. And it increases the pressure on their respective governments to direct policies towards increasing and sustaining the wealth of their people. Perspective turns towards potential threats to the (still relatively humble) wealth and solutions to problems are in demand. This does not necessarily mean that our value systems converge automatically. But we need to acknowledge that actors from rising powers – including those beyond the state level – increase their global engagement. This also builds on their own experiences which saw their rise building on global interconnection in the 21st century.

Entry points for Germany

This is where Germany needs to pick up from. Germany engages in bilateral strategic partnerships with inter alia, China, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil and Vietnam. A real dialogue with increasingly self-assertive partners is only happening if we accept differences and aim at overcoming them through jointly seeking solutions for the future. Wherever possible, these future challenges should be addressed in specific actions, also in trilateral partnerships. The core of German engagement, however, should be with European approaches. Compared to rising powers, Europe’s nation states are small in size and population. This is also true for Germany. At the level of the European Union, strategic partnerships also exist, which are used for a in-depth dialogue on global issues, with the aim to jointly work on global challenges such as the climate and protection of the oceans. It is also important for achieving these goals that coordination happens within and towards multilateral organizations that work on peace and security, trade and development.

Global interconnectivity demands local and global action

Global interconnectivity is a fact that does not become obsolete by sticking your head into the sand. Rising powers experience their increase in international relevance as an enormous growth of opportunities. New partners are on offer, new trade possibilities are created and new horizons are opening up for their citizens. This positive, at times very casual, attitude is often fundamentally different from that of the “developed” world.

While potent „Northern“ actors also use new opportunities, parts of the population in wealthier nations are facing increasing competition and see their social status become increasingly precarious. However, nationalist and populist tendencies misunderstand international engagement as a zero-sum-game in which our aim is to the “the other side” into the defensive, so that we can make use own advantages. This destroys trust. More important are relations based on firm own principles, which directly and honestly call differences by their name – and over and beyond that seek points of communalities and common interests.

Whoever wants to be master of his own fate in an interconnected world cannot retreat into his shell, but needs to engage locally and globally, nationally and multilaterally. This is true for a trading nation like Germany and other European partners. And it is equally true for increasingly globally connected economies like China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, India or Indonesia. Cooperation for development has not become redundant with these states – but it needs to shift its focus towards seeking global solutions.

The pathway to sustainable development is not straight-forward – but we need to go it together

Planetary boundaries result in a common destiny: With the Agenda 2030, we now have a globally agreed agenda that embraces various aspects of national development and international cooperation. All states have agreed on this agenda – and many rising powers are well aware of the social and ecological challenges they face while they are on their path to development. Delhi and Beijing suffer from heavy air pollution, South Africa faces drought and torrential rains, and Brazil’s – like South Africa’s – social challenges are going to the core of their societies. Development never follows a straight and easy path, on which we would not see setbacks or where there are no reoccurrences of turbulences.

With this agenda for sustainability, we cannot work around rising powers – also keeping in mind power politics. We might be competing in a number of economic areas and with some actors we do not share values such as democracy and our understanding of human rights. Yet, we are bound to cooperate. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, trade opportunities and social ideas are mostly unimpressed by national boundaries. Joint knowledge creation is necessary, but also the exchange of experiences with our sustainability strategies or our respective perception of ongoing international cooperation.

We should not see ourselves as the paymasters, but rather, we are speaking of joint knowledge here. Beyond states, we also have to engage with non-state actors, such as development networks in rising powers, so that we are engaging in forming a common perspective on the world’s challenges – including areas of currently diverging assessments.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)

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