Is Germany Ready to Lead?

The last time a German President publicly stated Germany should be prepared to defend its interests with military might, he was forced to resign. That is what happened to Horst Koehler in 2010 after he suggested that the German military, the Bundeswehr, may need to be deployed to defend German national interests abroad. 

Four years later, another German President, Joachim Gauck, publicly declared on the 50th anniversary of the Munich Security Conference that “Germany must also be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades,” up to and including military force. Rather than reproach, his comments have mostly garnered praise.  

Why is this time different?

First, Gauck, unlike Koehler, brings extraordinary moral authority to the office of President. As a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany whose family suffered greatly under the Communist regime, Gauck led the investigation of the Stasi following German reunification and tirelessly championed human rights before being elected president with broad non-partisan support in 2012. Few citizens question his mandate to speak for the conscience of the German nation. 

Secondly, President Gauck wisely couched his plea for greater German military activism in terms of Germany’s maturation as a model democracy and trustworthy partner in global affairs. Germans have every reason to be proud of their country once again, he said, as it is the strongest and most influential country in Europe. At the same time, Germany must be willing to defend the values and interests that the country represents. 

Finally and perhaps most importantly, President Gauck is not a lone voice in the wilderness. For over a year, senior German officials have been carefully preparing the way for a shift towards a more assertive foreign and security policy. A government-funded study by the German Marshall Fund and the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) entitled, “New Power, New Responsibility:  Elements of a German Foreign and Security Policy for a Changing World” (October 2013) introduced elements of this new thinking. 

The shift would not have been possible under the former German coalition government, but that changed with the departure of former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the Free Democrats, whose policy of “military restraint” had led to Germany’s decision to abstain from a UN Security Council resolution that provided the basis for the eventual French-led campaign to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The new German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have publicly signaled that Germany should become involved in joint European military actions abroad.  Steinmeier noted that Germany was too important a player just to remain on the sidelines of world affairs.  Referring to events in Africa, von der Leyen framed the problem most starkly with her comments that Germany “cannot look away when murder and rape are going on” outside its borders, and “indifference is not an option for Germany.”  While von der Leyen was directing her comments to the situation in the Central African Republic, she could just as well have been talking about Syria. 

For her part, Chancellor Merkel is no stranger to approving German military deployments abroad.  She has been at the helm during nine of the 13 years that Germany’s military has been deployed in Afghanistan.  Over 3,000 German troops are there now, and up to 800 may remain for future training missions.  She has also sent German troops to Kosovo (685 as of December 2013) as part of the KFOR Mission.  Indeed, there are some in the German political spectrum who believe Germany is already doing its part on the European security front.  In response to criticisms regarding the scope of German involvement in military missions abroad, former German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maiziere stated in his outgoing address, “Germany does not need a lecture from anybody in Europe about the type or extent of our international missions.”

So will Germany increase the size and scope of its defense posture abroad?   Don’t expect big changes any time soon.  First, German leaders must begin to prepare the German public for the shift and this is only now beginning to happen.  Secondly, nothing will happen until Chancellor Merkel agrees, and so far she has been silent about enhancing German security policy.  The Chancellor’s long-standing political success has always been based on careful calculation of public opinion, and she will not get out ahead of the German people, most of whom consider Afghanistan a failure and dread a repeat.  Chancellor Merkel is perfectly content to let others prepare the way and watch closely for public reaction.  If von der Leyen, a potential Merkel CDU successor, can’t sell her case to the public, she will pay for it, not Merkel (the German Defense Ministry has been a graveyard for many Germany politicians).  Likewise for Steinmeier, whose failure incidentally would damage the SPD, the CDU’s chief rival.  

Even if Merkel wanted to boost Germany’s defense capabilities, budgetary pressures and the upcoming constitutional requirement to balance Germany’s budget would constrain her freedom of action.  Other European countries may well rebel against a more pro-active German security policy.  Recall that during the height of the Eurozone crisis, some characterized German demands for austerity in Greece as the “re-occupation of Athens.”  Most likely, Germany will not carry its full weight on defense for a long time to come.

In that case, is this time really different?   Yes, because even though policy shifts in Germany usually take place very slowly (ocean liners come to mind), the public debate now taking place signals that a new consensus may be emerging among the German elite.  Over time, the public may well follow.  Should that happen, Germany can and will deliver on its promises, beginning with modest backing to France in the Sahel.  Germany has already decided to send troops to Mali (albeit for training purposes only), part of the first-ever deployment of the Franco-German brigade - one small step at a time.

For a long time people have asked when Germany will be ready to lead, recently in the context of the Eurozone crisis.  But now, the question is being asked about Germany’s leadership in European defense matters.  The answer is “not yet,” but there is reason to hope that Germany will seek new opportunities to strengthen both NATO and a more independent and lasting European defense and security policy.

Robert Pollard is a State Department Visiting Fellow with the Europe Program at CSIS.  He is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

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