Berlin, 17.03.2014

Recalibrating German Security Policy three years after Libya

Ekkehard Brose
Ekkehard Brose

The ideas behind the headlines from the Munich Security Conference had been ripening for years: Germany is ready to play a greater role in international crisis management. To make this policy viable, says Ekkehard Brose, a broad debate is called for.

Germany is ready to play a greater role in international crisis management. The speeches of Federal President Gauck, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Defence Minister von der Leyen at this year’s Munich Security Conference sent a clear signal to that effect. According to the Foreign Minister, it is not enough for Germany to comment on international politics from the sidelines. The new attitude that first came to the notice of a wider audience in Munich is the result of a longer-term recalibration of foreign and security policy. The decisive impetus occurred three years ago. To be precise, on 17th March 2011 in New York. Until now, the critical public has not fully appreciated this development.

To recap: on 17th March 2011, in a UN Security Council vote on the Libya resolution, Germany was the only western country to abstain. Had German security policy broken loose from its transatlantic moorings or was this merely a diplomatic misunderstanding? There was considerable consternation among Germany’s partners, and even more within Germany itself.

The soul searching this caused, and the dismay over Germany’s isolated stance in security matters led some policy makers and parts of the think tank community to the firm conviction: in order to play a more active role in foreign and security policy, Germany must overcome its self-imposed inner reservations. Over a long period, Germany had been an actor in the international system, had profited from it and helped shape it. The time had now come to engage fully with its problems and crises as well. Thus, the moment of isolation became the catalyst for change. Other factors, German reunification, a growing political distance between the US and Europe and the Euro crisis, had prepared the ground.

Indications of change predate the new government

Active German involvement in the Ukraine crisis and the deployment of additional military instructors to Mali reinforce the message from Munich. Indications of a changed attitude, however, predate the change of government. The Guidelines issued by the Federal Minister of Defence in May 2011 include, for the first time, a pointed reference to the importance of always keeping in mind »the consequences of a non-deployment of forces«. As early as 2011/12, Chancellor Merkel put forward her so-called »Enhance & Engage Initiative«. The principle behind it, helping people to help themselves, indicates that the Federal Government is willing to make a commitment in crisis regions around the world, though within clearly defined limits. During the summer of 2013, former Defence Minister de Maizière declared to NATO that Germany was willing to take a leading role as a »framework nation« in enhancing European military capabilities. The experience that Germany had gathered as lead nation in northern Afghanistan formed an important background to that decision. While the debate in Germany about Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has become more muted, it has not fallen silent. It is still the case that a broad spectrum of public opinion expects every Federal government to pursue a vigorous policy of protecting civil populations from serious violations of human rights around the world. Opinions differ, however, about how far this principle should be taken.

Clearly: accepting more responsibility is forcing Germany to break cover and exposing it to criticism at home and abroad. International crisis management affects the individual citizen’s comfort zone. That is the corollary of the nation’s size, influence and wealth. A government can stay that course only when its policies are clearly based on broad foundations. This requires Parliament and public opinion to develop a willingness to weigh dispassionately the costs and benefits of international commitments, and to accept their political implications – a constant challenge for Parliament, public opinion and the government.

It is generally accepted that, as far as Germany is concerned, taking part in international crisis diplomacy never means going it alone or making military solutions the sole focus for crisis solving. German policy is based on a comprehensive understanding of security, which encompasses non-military dimensions and is firmly integrated in international alliances and structures, such as NATO, the EU or the United Nations. Beyond these generally accepted principles, however, the task now is to take Parliament and a critical public towards a culture of responsibility. The floor is open for debate. The Rühe Commission, which is currently poised to review the Parliamentary Participation Act, could support this process. So could the Foreign Minister’s project »Foreign Policy Review 2014« (Außenpolitik Weiter Denken), which aims to encourage public debate.

Recalling that moment of political isolation three years ago in New York should help.

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