Germany is a country of peace movements. In public opinion, peace is seen as a key value, more important even than democracy or individual freedom. In a recent Eurobarometer 69 survey, for example, 62% of the population responded in the affirmative that peace was the most important personal value for them, placing Germany at the top of the European list.

This is encouraging news. It indicates that there is reason for optimism when it comes to the future of Peace Direct, eV. Officially founded in 2010, Peace Direct, eV is the new German affiliate of Peace Direct. Although there are literally hundreds of peace organisations and research institutes here in Germany, Peace Direct, eV is unique. We are the only organisation that aims to channel grassroots public financial support directly to local peacebuilders working in conflict zones throughout the world. We hope to capitalise on German public sentiment for peace, to the benefit of local peacebuilders.

In particular, we aim to develop a vibrant group of supporters whose contributions can make a powerful difference in creating peaceful alternatives to violent conflict. Like our Peace Direct colleagues in Britain and in the newly-established US affiliate, we recognise that there is always local expertise for peacebuilding wherever there is violent conflict. And we firmly believe that this is essential for establishing stable, lasting and just peace.

Germany is also a country of contradictions. Does Germany want to be a mid-sized USA or a big Switzerland?  When it comes to defining Germany’s role in world affairs, I think this is a fair question. In the 1990s, German foreign policy had a clearer focus, but for more than a decade now, it has badly floundered.

Following in the footsteps of its American Big Brother, for instance, Germany ranks third as one of the busiest arms exporters in the world, with earnings of around $11.5 billion in 2009, a 70% increase over the last five years (according to the latest available data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI). Although there are strict guidelines regulating arms exports, currently these are being loosened to ease such transactions. Plans are also underway to restructure the German military, from a defensive force to one with a greater capacity for rapid interventions, a ‘Quick Reaction Force’ like the one that has been deployed in Afghanistan since 2008. For a country of peace movements, at best these seem like dubious achievements to me.

In contrast, Germany’s small, peaceful and mountainous neighbour to the south casts a long shadow over its foreign policy, too. In May 2004, for example, the German government adopted the Action Plan for Civil Crisis Prevention, Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (pdf), which is a cornerstone of German foreign policy - in theory. One of our very few inter-ministerial documents, the primary purpose of the Action Plan is to define crisis prevention as a cross-sector political task that includes both government and civil society actors. In short, it commits German foreign policy to peace.

But the rich potential of this supposedly key instrument of German foreign policy is undermined by its lack of real political significance, which is reflected in available levels of funding. Compared to military spending, this falls well short of having any real muscle when it comes to the hard work of making peace. The Action Plan also presents a mixed view of the value of local peacebuilding:

‘In many cases, local initiatives are not yet capable of taking action or are deterred from doing so by the unstable security situation… It has proved useful to strengthen local civil society structures by providing support for their German partners… Further improvement of direct access to local civil society appears important… in the light of its attendant supportive impact.’ (Action Plan, pp. 68-69)

It should come as no surprise, then, that the majority of already limited government funding goes to third-party German interveners rather than to local groups.

At a recent meeting of local peacebuilders from around the world, whose projects have received funding through a quasi-governmental agency based in Berlin, there was widespread agreement among participants about the ongoing need to put local peacebuilding interests at the top of donor funding agendas. This rarely happens.

Anti-German sentiments are on the rise again in Europe, largely because of negative perceptions of the strong-armed role Germany has played in relation to the euro and the financial crisis. Abstaining from the UN Security Council vote to create a No Fly zone over Libya did nothing to help matters.

In my view, one way to give Europe and the rest of the world pause for thought is for Germany to position itself in the international arena as the leading voice for supporting local peacebuilders. If local peacebuilders were at the centre of its foreign policy agenda, this could distinguish German leadership, not only here at home, but in Europe, at the UN and in the broader international community. It would be a first among nations.

Then the question would be: When it comes to peace, do you want to be a big Germany or a small Germany? This really would re-write history as it unfolds into the future.

“German foreign policy is peace policy” declares the website for the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’d like to see them put their money where their mouth is.

The author wishes to thank Peter Mirgartz, a Peace Direct, e.V. volunteer, for his contribution to this text.