Operational Code Analysis of Continuity and Change in German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel´s Foreign and European Policy

Event start date
Event start time

Pinni A building, Paavo Koli auditorium, address: Kanslerinrinne 1.


Doctoral defence of M.Soc.Sc. Anne Nykänen

Operational Code Analysis of Continuity and Change in German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel´s Foreign and European Policy

The field of science of the dissertation is International Relations.

The opponent is Professor Sebastian Harnisch (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg). Professor Tuomas Forsberg acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

Operational Code Analysis of Continuity and Change in German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel´s Foreign and European Policy

Since the reunification of Germany, the direction of German foreign and European policy has been highly debated. During the series of crises during the past several years, the role of Germany and Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has increased. However, Germany’s policies have been somewhat inconsistent with its past positions, for example, as can be witnessed in the case of Libya, in euro crisis and during the Fukushima catastrophe. Thus, scientific research on German foreign and European policy under Federal Chancellor Merkel is necessary in order to be able to understand and explain the current changes in German foreign and European policy and to gain perspective on the wider the implications of these changes for both European and international politics.

This study views that structural or identity theories alone are not able to explain the complex nature of foreign and European policy-making. Further, on the individual level, the key decision-maker, should be included in the analysis. There are not many current studies on German foreign policy that concentrate on the key political decision maker, such as the Federal Chancellor, as the main subject of study. Therefore, this study will approach the study of German foreign policy from the perspective of Federal Chancellor Merkel and will try to understand and explain the current changes in German foreign and European policy through the possible changes in her political operational code beliefs.

Beliefs and their influence on policies and politics is widely studied in the field of international relations. However, the main research traditions view their role differently. Realist and rationalist theories assign only a minor role for how beliefs affect policies, whereas cognitive and constructivist theories emphasise their causal or even constitutive effect. However, taken alone, beliefs lack mechanisms. This study will add international and national contexts around the study of Merkel’s beliefs in order to further develop understanding of beliefs and how they operate in the concrete policy-making environment.

Beliefs can be defined as what we hold to be true. This study will examine a leader’s operational code beliefs based on ten questions presented by Alexander George. George conceptualised a leader’s operational code as a political belief system with some elements, philosophical beliefs, guiding the diagnosis of the context for action and others as well as instrumental beliefs that prescribe the most effective strategy and tactics for achieving goals.

The aim of this study is, firstly, to examine and compare the political operational code beliefs of German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel between her two first periods of office, between 2005–2009 and 2009–2013. Secondly, the study also aims to link the operational code beliefs to gradually changing German foreign and European policy. It argues that beliefs affect both policy content and policy process. Thus, as the operational code beliefs of Chancellor Merkel gradually changed, the Chancellor also began to reframe German foreign and European policy, which also affected the German domestic power balance between the key executive and domestic institutions such as the Bundestag and Federal Constitutional Court. These possible changes might indicate that German foreign and European policy is in a gradual process of normalization.

The study uses a mixed method approach, which combines quantitative operational code research, qualitative longitudinal content analysis and process-tracing. It maintains that a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods is powerful in providing causal links between beliefs and policy, between causation, processes and outcome. The research material comprises public, not spontaneous, German speeches of Chancellor Merkel. The change of Merkel’s operational code beliefs and its implications for German foreign and European policy will be examined in three case studies: in foreign and security policy, in economic and European policy, and in environmental and energy policy.

On the basis of the three case studies, it is possible to draw some common key findings. The first finding relates to the changes in operational code beliefs. Merkel’s political beliefs have changed, either reversed or reinforced, between her two first terms in office. In all three cases, Merkel’s belief relating to the friendly and cooperative nature of the operational environment has reinforced between the two periods of office. Furthermore, the belief in the utility of different means available widened significantly to include even more ‘threat’ and ‘sanctions’ as well as ‘promise’ and ‘reward’ as foreign policy means, which in turn reduce the risk related to one single mean. This study views that these changes have taken place gradually over time. However, the learning of the key decision-maker, which is the most apparent in relation to the utility of different means, may gradually influence the redefinition of goals and also shape German national identity.

According to the findings, the outbreak of the international financial and economic crisis in 2008 reinforced the link between Merkel’s operational code beliefs and German foreign and European policy. Thus, the international crisis did not reverse the direction of beliefs towards a more hostile and protectionist view of the operational environment, rather in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Merkel’s beliefs on the friendly and cooperative nature of the political universe and cooperative strategies seemed to reinforce somewhat. It can be stated that the analysis showed some of the independent effect of beliefs and ideas, both direct and indirect, on policy framing when tested against material reality.

The second common finding discusses the policy framing of Chancellor Merkel and the current direction of German foreign and European policy. Towards the second term, Merkel began to reframe cooperation, an important indicator of the German policy of continuation, in a more pragmatic way, which implies a more instrumental and goal-oriented approach to cooperation. As the international multilateral or EU level negotiations in the different fields of policy did not seem to progress, the cooperation was defined towards a direction that also allowed for smaller partnerships and alliances that advanced the same goals.

During the two first terms, Chancellor Merkel stressed the rise of the emerging economies and, especially in the aftermath of the international financial crisis, their increasing responsibility for international cooperation. Thus, reframing cooperation and cooperation structures is necessary. Germany has economic power and this might have led Germany to take in an increasing role in defining future cooperation structures in different issue areas. The possibly increase in responsibility and the role of Germany do not, however, imply that Chancellor Merkel is creating a super power Germany. On the contrary, the aim might be to define international cooperation structures in a way which relates better to the German way of thinking. Thus, it is important to take part in defining future international cooperation structures, their rules and procedures, because national structures must adapt to these rules over time.

The third and final key finding of this study suggests that in addition to power mechanisms, Chancellor Merkel used cognitive persuasion in her foreign and European policy-making. She used issue and policy linkages for controlling agendas and persuading her audiences, both internationally and nationally. In the literature, issue linkages are often seen as a form of exercising international power. This study will not try question this argument. However, when beliefs change and the leader starts to reframe policies, there must always be a cognitive mechanism of persuasion involved including both international and domestic audiences. This relates to changing international and national understanding of an issue through reframing meaning and different concepts. In Merkel’s case, she persuaded with different ideational concepts that linked various policies and means such as Vernetzte Sicherheit, Die Soziale Marktwirtschaft and Nachhaltigkeit. Thus, as a third observation, this study argues that alongside power, there was also a mechanism of persuasion involved in these three cases, which might, in addition to the national understanding of German foreign and European policy and Germany’s international role, also gradually alter the German domestic institutional power balance.

The future research of German foreign and European policy should continue to study the interaction between continuity and change and future German leaders’ pragmatic redefinition and reframing of German foreign and European policy as it may be only be possible to state that there has been any permanent change in German policy in the upcoming decades. This study defined this pragmatic reframing of policies as the normalization in the development of German foreign and European policy. Furthermore, all levels of analysis (individual, international and national) should be included in future research in order to gain a comprehensive but still nuanced analysis of German foreign and European policy.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2221, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0254-2, ISSN 1455-1616. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1721, Tampere University Press 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0255-9, ISSN 1456-954X.

The dissertation can be ordered at: Juvenes e-bookstore or by e-mail: verkkokauppa@juvenesprint.fi.

Additional information

Anne Nykänen, Tel. 040-735 2450, Email. nykanen.anne@gmail.com