Liberal and Realist Explanations of Merkel's "Open-Door Policy" During the 2015 Refugee Crisis

By Niklas Ernst
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

During the 2015 refugee crisis Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed refugees to enter Germany in unprecedented numbers. Her historic decision to adapt the so-called “open-door policy” continues to shape contemporary German politics. More precisely, it will likely define Merkel’s legacy and political future. This article analyzes her decision through two major IR theories: liberalism and realism. It aims to contribute to the discipline’s understanding of the “open-door policy” by assessing what each theory can explain well and less well. While the article analyzes the decision through competing IR theories, it does not suggest that one theory is more suitable to explain the event. It rather concludes that each theory explains Merkel’s refugee response differently and is able to better explain some aspects of her decision than others. Thus, the article highlights the importance and significance of analyzing a global political event through multiple lenses (i.e. IR theories).


During the height of the 2015 European refugee crisis, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel decided to allow refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, who had arrived at the German border through the so called “Balkan-Route,” to enter the country. Nearly one million refugees arrived in Germany during that year. Merkel’s decision is commonly referred to as implementing an “open-door policy.” At the time, the move was applauded as humanitarian by the public, media, and politicians across the political spectrum. However, years later, despite the refugee intake having declined significantly, the decision has arisen to define not only Merkel’s legacy but her political future. More precisely, the issue of refugee intake and immigration assimilation has become the main topic of political discourse in Germany. Merkel’s government coalition (“grand-coalition”), based on her party’s alliance with the CSU, has been on the brink of collapse multiple times over disagreements on immigration. Several members of her own party, including members of her cabinet, remain opposed to her stance on immigration and have repeatedly threatened to bring her 15-yearlong chancellorship to an end. Furthermore, her “open-door policy” allowed the right-wing and anti-immigration party “Alternative für Deutschland” to rise to political significance, fueling the growing polarization of Germany’s society and politics (McAuley & Noack, 2018).

Due to the continuous weight of Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 decision, explaining the dynamics behind it remains relevant. In other words, analyzing her “open-door policy” implementation is crucial because understanding the decision is a key component of explaining international relations and state behavior. Furthermore, it will assist in conceptualizing the legal as well as ethical obligations states have to both refugees and their own citizens. However, how do we best analyze the decision, its origins, and its consequences. More precisely, can different IR theories explain different aspects of it. Can a certain theory see things that another might not be able to?

Accordingly, the article analyses Merkel’s decision to allow refugees into Germany through the two major IR theories: liberalism and realism. Using texts written by the most prominent liberal and realist IR scholars as well as secondary readings, it attempts to explain her implementation of the “open-door policy.” While this article will draw from multiple authors of liberal and realist IR theory, it will not discuss how Merkel’s policy is seen through individual scholar’s explanations. In other words, a “generic” liberal and realist framework and its main assumptions which have been developed and are widely agreed upon by the discipline will be used to analyze the 2015 decision. While an analysis of individual scholars would certainly be a valuable contribution to the discipline, it would go beyond the scope of this article.

Through the relevant and contemporary case study “open-door policy,” this article highlights how a global event can be interpreted vastly different, if analyzed through competing IR theories. In other words, I expect that liberal and realist IR theory can explain certain parts of the decision well and others less well. More precisely, realist theory might be better in explaining aspects associated with power, rationality, national interest, and considerations of sovereignty. Contrary, liberal theory’s focus on international cooperation and its study of the individual as the basic unit of political life can provide an explanation of Merkel’s ethical and normative considerations as well as the role of the European Union during the refugee crisis. However, while the two theories come to competing conclusions on the dynamics underlying Merkel’s decision, I do not suggest that one theory is more suitable than the other to explain the event. In other words, neither liberalism nor realism offer a superior explanation of the decision. Each theory just explains Merkel’s refugee response differently and might better explain some aspects of her decision than others.

I begin by evaluating the implementation of the “open-door policy” through a liberal lens. Afterwards I focus my attention on realist theory and its explanations of the decision. Each part commences with a short description of the major principles of the respective theory. Following, I analyze in greater detail what part of Merkel’s refugee response the theory can explain well and less well. The article concludes by discussing the similarities and differences of each approach, highlighting each theories strengths and weaknesses.


Liberal IR theory, also often referred to as idealism, focuses its analysis on the individual as the basic unit of political life. State-power is derived from individuals, who are acting independently through a social contract. Thus, the population as well as domestic policy shape states, who consequently behave differently on the international level. While states are rational actors, they are increasingly interdependent, e.g. though trade. Even though liberal scholars believe that the international system is anarchic, they share the central and optimistic outlook that state cooperation for mutual benefit is possible. Hence, change, progress, and peace in the international system is achievable. Moreover, natural laws and justices, which proceed the sovereign, exist. Liberalism suggests, that some institutions and values are normatively better, namely liberty, equality, autonomy, individual freedom, and private property. Accordingly, these values need to be protected and advanced. This can be achieved through the spread of democracy, the rule of law, and institutions. Hence, liberal thought gives considerable attention to international organizations and international law (Matthews, 2017).

To understand Merkel’s “open-door policy” we must first explain in what kind of international structure Germany operates and makes policy decisions. Liberal theory demonstrates particular strengths in such analysis. Its focus on cooperation and international organizations allows us to understand the emergence and continuing existence of the European Union. As a project of integration and collaboration, it provides an important starting point of such analysis. Peace and progress are indeed possible, highlighting a core assumption of liberal theory. In other words, the context and structure in which Germany is forced to respond to the refugee crisis can be explained well by liberalism. Furthermore, Germany, as a member of the EU and the international community, has agreed to follow universally accepted rules and definition for asylum seekers. Accordingly, Germany and the EU have a legal and moral obligation to assist refugees in their attempt to claim asylum. Thus, it is important to note not just the humanitarian aspects behind Merkel’s decision, but the weight the international structure and its organizations (including its rules and norms) have on German state behavior. Furthermore, international legal constraints prevent states from enacting certain policy options when responding to a refugee crisis. More precisely, according to liberal theory, due to Germany’s membership to the international community, the country cannot act entirely sovereign but is expected to respond to the refugee crisis based on agreed upon norms and rules. Thus, a sovereign above the state exists, defining the legal and ethical obligations a state has not just to its own citizens but to asylum seekers (Betts, 2015).

A refugee crisis is foremost a humanitarian crisis. Thus, state behavior in response to such crises should not be guided by considerations of power but by universal norms and values. Liberal theory further suggests that some values are normatively better than others (Gibney, 1999). Merkel herself framed her decision to implement an “open-door policy” on normative and humanitarian grounds. Thus, liberalism is well suited to explain the moral and ethical considerations of Germany’s refugee response. The theory successfully highlights how Merkel’s attempt to act based on European norms, was an effort to advance and protect those values (i.e. liberalism, tolerance, solidarity). Trying to show that Europe’s ideals are valid also in difficult times, she passionately defended her stance: “If we start having to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergencies, then this is not my country” (The Economist, 2015). Furthermore, she tirelessly urged other EU countries to show more international cooperation, responsibility, and solidarity. Doing so, she directly linked the EU’s refugee response to Europe’s identity and its liberal interpretation of human rights: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if the close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for” (Eddy, 2015). Accordingly, it is obvious that the refugee crisis and Germany’s response to it can only be fully explained if considering normative and humanitarian aspects. That is why liberal theory is more suitable than other IR theories to shed light on such considerations.

Moreover, the liberal focus on the individual as a basic unit of political life allows an analysis of the decision conceptualizing Merkel as an individual. Even though leaders are acting in unique political environments, the role of their personality (i.e. background, beliefs, motives, personal characteristics) in decision making deserves particular attention (Sprout, 1956). During the 2015 refugee crisis, Merkel relied on her own individual policy preferences which were mostly motivated by humanitarian concerns and personal beliefs (Mushaben, 2017). Where do these values and beliefs originate from? Much attention in the literature has been given to Merkel’s own past, living under a communist regime. There is little doubt that her background of growing up in East Germany has significant impact on her political ideology as well as her decision making, namely her humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. Stefan Kornelius, the author of Merkel’s authorized biography, argues that one cannot understand Merkel’s political life without considering her background: “The mystery that is Merkel, has its roots in that doomed republic” (Kundnani, 2016). Merkel herself cited her experiences of living in East Germany as a core principle of her stance on migration. Criticizing the lack of solidarity in the EU and the national isolation of member countries during a summit in Brussels in October 2015, she tuned to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban: “I lived behind a fence for too long […] to now wish for those times to return” (ibidem). To the people close to Merkel, it is clear that her decision to implement an “open-door policy” during the 2015 refugee crisis was based on humanitarian grounds. Her autobiographer Kornelius concludes: “Angela Merkel shows a lot of understanding for people who flee from war and despair. There is no moral questioning of her motives” (Lebor, 2015).

However, Chancellor Merkel was only able to implement an “open-door policy” because of the normative resonance between international and domestic levels in Germany. Liberal theory’s attention to the impact of domestic policy on state behavior provides a compelling description of Merkel’s refugee response. Domestic and social factors were a central factor in the decision because they significantly influence Germany’s state behavior in the international system. In other words, the state was only able to react in a humanitarian manner because of circumstances and dynamics within Germany. The country had not only the economic strength to take in a large number of refugees but a civil society who was in agreement with the decision and willing to assist in its implementation. Additionally, Merkel was on her height of power during the summer of 2015. More precisely, she knew that her institutional and political power would be able to legitimize and back her decision (idem: 46). Her unchallenged power in combination with the initial support of the German population which welcomed refugees into the country, allowed Merkel to hold a strong pro-migrant stance during the refugee crisis. There is no doubt, that Germany’s history and its considerable experience of benefiting from the kindness of strangers played a part in the embracement of refugees. “The world sees Germany as a country of hope and opportunity, that was not always the case,” Merkel explained the significance of welcoming refugees into the country (Eddy, 2015). Moreover, civil society’s importance in assisting and making up for gaps in state efforts were unquestioned. Even though the German population had no agency in the policy decision of the state, its support was crucial in providing legitimacy (Funk, 2016: 293.)

All of the mentioned dynamics within Germany are relevant in explaining the state’s refugee response. Liberal theory is able to see them and explain its impact on state behavior in the international system. That’s why the theory provides a unique analysis of the refugee crisis, explaining many aspects well which might be overlooked by other IR theories. However, analyzing Germany’s refugee response through liberal theory also has limitations. Its focus on normative considerations and sensitivity to human security makes it easy to neglect German aspirations of power in the international system. Furthermore, its emphasis on international organizations and cooperation might lead to inattention to issues of sovereignty during the refugee crisis. Likewise, it is possible that we miss one of the core aspect of German state behavior (i.e. self-interest) when focusing too narrowly on the impact of domestic policy and the individual as a basic unit of political life.

After exploring the refugee crisis through a liberal lens, I will now turn my attention to realism, examining what the theory is able to explain well and less well. Are there key aspects of Germany’s refugee response which only realist IR theory can explain?


At its core, realism suggests that no justice can exist before the sovereign and that the state of nature in the international system is a state of war. Because the international system is a state system, scholarly focus should be on individual independent states. Hence, sovereignty plays a key part in realist theory. Moreover, the international system is anarchic, making war always possible while peace is not. No sovereign to control an anarchic system exists. Accordingly, states cannot rely on one another, making cooperation and progress impossible. Due to their lack of sovereignty, international organizations, NGOs, and transnational corporations have less power in the international system and thus should be given little attention by IR scholars. States on the other hand are rational actors which act based on their national interest. Realism aims to be a theory of objective analysis. In other words, its goal is to observe and conceptualize rather than being used to advocate for change in the international system. However, two of the most prominent realist scholars, Morgenthau and Waltz, differ in their approach. Morgenthau focuses his analysis exclusively on the state and explains outcomes through the actions of sovereign states. His so-called classical realism perceives states as power maximisers and the driver of insecurity being human nature. In Waltz’s structural realism, the international system is the level of analysis and the structure itself does the explanatory work. The international system is anarchic precisely because of its structure and thus states are forced to be security maximisers (Morgenthau, 1946 & Waltz, 1979).

While it is certainly true that the EU as an international institution was meant to foster cooperation between member states, realism can explain well why that did not occur during the refugee crisis. Sovereign states were the entities reacting to the crisis because in times of emergencies states always act in their self-interest. Moreover, they do not follow normative considerations, particularly when they derive from international institutions not domestic ones. The EU itself is lacking a strong sovereign leader and hence could not consolidate a singular position. When discussing the refugee crisis, member states followed realist principles and preferred to maintain their sovereignty (Hellman, 2016: 4). Some realist scholars like Waltz go even further, arguing that because of the European Union’s lack of sovereignty it is of no interest to IR: “Europe will only become interesting when it forms a genuinely unified sovereign country” (idem: 5). The refugee crisis could have brought European integration, but it did the opposite, precisely because member states wanted to vigorously keep their sovereignty. Thus, realism is well suited to contextualize the lack of European cooperation in response to the crisis as well as the “erosion” of the EU. Founded on shared principles and values (i.e. tolerance, human rights, solidarity) the project was doomed to fail because of the anarchy of the international system and the unfeasibility of cooperation. No realist is surprised that the international community and the EU were unable and unwilling to respond collectively to the worst refugee crisis since WW II. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, resented the inability of the European Union to respond to the crisis at a panel discussion in Rome: “In former times, we were working together […]. This has totally gone.” While proponents of the EU might argue that the refugee crisis was a singular incident highlighting a lack of willingness to work together, realism suggests that the envisioned cooperation was never feasible in the first place. One example which emphasizes that international cooperation does not work in the long-term is the suspension of the Schengen agreement during the refugee crisis. Furthermore, the European Union is facing historic challenges: the increasing support of far-right parties, historic unemployment in some member states, Brexit, and a persistent questioning of European identity and values. According to realism, none of these challenges can be solved through international cooperation. In the contrary, they might even be a result of an international organization which acts on normative grounds without any form of sovereignty. Any organization which lacks legitimacy and the ability to act in concert can only be described as weak. Even threats of the EU to withhold EU transfers to member countries not taking in their fair share of refugees had virtually no impact (Funk, 2016: 295). That is why during the refugee crisis Germany was forced to respond as a sovereign state without putting any trust into the assistance of other states or the institutions of the European Union. Hence, Merkel’s attempt to work towards a European solution was not only naive but impossible to achieve in an anarchic international system (Hellmann, 2016: 15).

Realism suggests that states always act based on their self-interest to strengthen and increase their power. Thus, Merkel’s refugee response could have been underlined by just that, Germany’s national interest. It can be explained as an attempt to solidify its leadership in Europe. Germany’s response to the refugee crisis reinforced Chancellor Merkel’s image as the leader of Europe. In the months after the decision to implement an “open-border policy,” she was even frequently called the “leader of the free world” by the international media. Following the decision, Germany was perceived as becoming a “global player,” increasing its power in the international system (Steinmeier, 2016). However, it is important to note that this understanding of power is more sensitive to human security and based on moral humanitarian action not military strength. Thus, it stands in sharp contrast to a realist definition of power. Nevertheless, realist theory provides a compelling explanation of Germany’s push for an EU-wide solidarity solution to the refugee crisis. It might have been an attempt to strengthen the country’s leadership in the region and to “mold European institutions, processes, and decisions to serve its interest and preferences” (Hellmann, 2016: 9).

Furthermore, Germany’s refugee response can be explained by examining not only the country’s economic capabilities but its potential economic gains from implementing an “open-door policy.” Germany desperately needs migrants to fill a growing shortage in the workforce due to an aging population and chronically low birthrates. Projections by Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, suggest that Germany’s population will decline from 82 million to 65.4 million by 2080 (Lebor, 2015). Thus, Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis might have little to do with humanitarian concerns but the country’s long-term economic interests. In other words, it was the rational response to the crisis because the positive economic ramifications outweighed the costs. Because of it, Germany would acquire additional material capabilities and power, in terms of labor force and population. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 40% of Syrian refugees entering Europe at the time were university educated (idem). While Merkel never explicitly referred to the economic benefit of welcoming refugees, she argued that her decision would be in Germany’s long-term interest if “shaped so that it grows into something that is of benefit to us all” (Connolly, 2015). Thus, the sharp reversal of policy in regard to Germany’s refugee response was only possible because it was in alignment with the country’s national interest.

Moreover, realist theory provides a suitable explanation why Merkel called for a European solution to the crisis while defying European regulations as well as striking bilateral treaties with individual EU member countries, namely, Spain, Italy, and Greece. According to the EU Dublin III agreement, every refugee’s asylum claim has to be processed in the EU member country in which he/she first arrives. However, Merkel suspended the agreement on August 24, allowing all refugees who arrived in Europe to enter Germany. Whether her decision was grounded on humanitarian grounds or national interest is irrelevant. Important to note is, that she found Germany’s sovereignty to exceed any international agreement, constituting a core realist assumption. Additionally, the Dublin agreement in itself can hardly be described as a product of solidarity and international cooperation as it pushes the burden onto the Mediterranean EU member states where nearly all refugees first arrive. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Germany valued its sovereignty more than any international agreement and that the suspension of the Dublin rule was in the country’s self-interest.

Furthermore, once Germany’s willingness to accept refugees diminished, Merkel was instrumental in negotiating international treaties on the behalf of the EU to prevent further migration into Europe. Most notably, Merkel and the EU signed a treaty with Turkey’s President Erdogan to prevent refugees from entering the EU through Greece. Turkey would monitor its coastline to avert further refugee migration into Europe and admit rejected asylum seekers from Greece. In return, Erdogan would receive six billion euros for the care of refugees and a pledge from the EU that it would consider visa free EU entry for Turks. This deal with an increasingly repressive leader on the back of refugees can hardly be explained normatively. However, realism’s focus on power, security, and self-interest offers a rational for such agreement. Precisely, it was in the interest of Germany to prevent and discourage further refugees from taking a journey to the EU. With that goal in mind, there was no room for normative or humanitarian considerations (Funk, 2016: 290).

Realism offers a thorough and compelling explanation of Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. It was in Germany’s national interest to welcome refugees, because it would solidify its leadership in Europe and be of economic benefit. Moreover, the European Union and international cooperation should be neglected in the analysis as it had little to no impact on Merkel’s refugee response. Realism is well suited to explain why the international community failed to respond collectively. Furthermore, Germany’s attempt to maintain its sovereignty played a key role in its policy considerations during the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, while realist IR theory provides a convincing explanation, significant shortcomings are visible. The theory is unable to make normative considerations, which is inadequate when analyzing a refugee crisis which is at its core a humanitarian crisis. Additionally, realism fails to see domestic factors within Germany which allowed Merkel to make the decision to implement an “open-door policy.”

After analyzing Germany’s response to the 2015 refugee crisis through a liberal and realist lens, this article will conclude by contrasting each theory’s findings. More precisely, it will outline each theory’s strength and weaknesses, assessing what it can explain well and less well.


There is no doubt that the 2015 refugee crisis was a defining moment for Germany’s position in the international system and Chancellor Merkel’s political future and legacy. However, liberalism and realism offer different explanations for Germany’s response to the crisis. Liberal theory is well suited to highlight the moral and humanitarian considerations, while realism is unable to see any such concerns. Furthermore, both theories offer an explanation for the role of the European Union. However, while liberalism explains aspects of international cooperation and international norms and rules well, realism’s strengths are in conceptualizing the lack of a unified European response to the refugee crisis. Moreover, realism provides a compelling analysis of issues linked to EU member states understanding of sovereignty. Nevertheless, realist theory is unable to see any factors within Germany which might have influenced the decision to implement an “open-door policy.” Chancellor Merkel’s individual policy preferences and her own beliefs, characteristics, and background can only be seen through a liberal analysis.

Liberalism and realism are both well suited to examine Germany’s response to the 2015 refugee response. While they come to different conclusions on the dynamics behind Merkel’s decision, they are equally valid to offer an explanation. In other words, each theory can see some aspects well and others less well. Thus, this article highlights the importance of analyzing a global event through competing IR theories. Nevertheless, it has limitations due to its lone focus on liberal and realist theory. Future research is advised to examine the 2015 refugee crisis through other IR theories, including non-traditional ones (i.e. post-colonial, feminist). Moreover, an analysis of Germany’s refugee response through the literature of individual IR scholars’ theoretical frameworks could offer additional interesting insight.


Betts, Alexander. “The Normative Terrain of the Global Refugee Regime.” Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 29 (4), 2015: 363-375.

Connolly, Kate. “Refugee crisis: Germany creaks under strain of open door policy.” The Guardian, 8 October 2015.

Eddy, Melissa. “Angela Merkel Calls for European Unity to Address Migrant Influx.” The New York Times, 31 August 2015.

Funk, Nanette. “A spectre in Germany: refugees, a ‘welcome culture’ and an ‘integration politics’.” Journal of Global Ethics, 14 December 2016: 289-299.

Gibney, Matthew J. “Liberal democratic states and responsibilities to refugees.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 93 (1), 1999.

Hellmann, Gunther. “Germany’s world: power and followership in a crisis-ridden Europe.” Journal of Global Affairs, 11 May 2016: 3-20.

Kornelius, Stefan. Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography. (London: Alma Books Ltd, 2014).

Kundnani, Hans. “Angela Merkel: enigmatic leader of a divided land.” The Guardian, 13 March 2016.

Laegaard, Sune. “Misplaced idealism and incoherent realism in the philosophy of the refugee crisis.” Journal of Global Ethics, 14 December 2016: 269-278.

Lebor, Adam. “Angela Merkel: Europe’s Conscience in the Face of a Refugee Crisis.” Newsweek Magazine, 5 September 2015.

Matthews, Elizabeth G. & Callaway, Rhonda L. “Liberalism” in International Relations Theory: A Primer. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Morgenthau, Hans (1946). A Realist Theory of International Politics. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

McAuley, James and Noack, Rick. “What you need to know about Germany’s immigration crisis.” The Washington Post, 3 July 2018.

Mushaben, Joyce Marie. “Angela Merkel’s Leadership in the Refugee Crisis.” Current History, Vol. 116 (788), March 2017: 95-100.

Ostrand, Nicole. “The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Comparison of Responses by Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” Journal on Migration and Human Security, Vol. 3 (3), 2015: 255-279.

Sprout, Harald and Sprout, Margaret. Man-Milieu Relations Hypothesis in the Context of International Politics. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956).

Steinmeier, Frank-Walter. “Germany’s New Global Role: Berlin Steps Up.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 95 (4), 2016.

The Economist Group Limited. “Merkel at Her Limit.” The Economist, 10 October 2015.

Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

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