All’s Quiet on the German Front

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An election poster for the Christian Democratic Union Party of Germany showing Angela Merkel’s hands in Berlin. Image from Bernd von Jutrczenka/Ap.

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Germany is sleeping. It is the world’s fourth largest economy, the de facto head of the European Union, one of the largest exporters of arms and military technologies, and one of the most influential policymakers in the modern world. However, domestic problems and a strong isolationist national culture prohibit Germany from taking an assertive role in world leadership. Recent events in Syria highlight Germany’s unwillingness to cooperate with the US and other Western European countries to influence foreign policy in the Middle East or elsewhere. It seems that Germany has entered a period of navel gazing, limiting the EU’s ability to become a powerful actor on the world stage. Additionally, Angela Merkel’s recent victory in the German elections indicates that the country’s current foreign policy focus will remain very Eurocentric.

The economic crisis has brought out all the weaknesses inherent in a monetary union; either the EU must dissolve, or the central government must be granted more power.  As it stands, European nations are handicapped in projecting hard power because of budget constraints and a lack of specialization among EU member militaries. As the de facto head of the European Union, Germany’s obligations as a member of the international community comes second to its obligations to the EU, thus German politics and leaders are focused in the Euro area.

At the institutional level, German courts declared the use of force outside of Germany legal in 1994, but this change in policy has been slow to translate to the fielding of an effective European Union fighting force. The recent intervention in Mali demonstrated the inability of the European Union to operate as an independent actor in a military conflict outside of its own borders. Despite such close proximity, Germany did not help to create an EU coalition of any kind, leaving the French to go it alone in the Malian conflict. Furthermore, had the United States not given tanker and transport plane assistance, the operation would never have left the ground. Although efforts have been made by some European Union members to consolidate and specialize their militaries, the lack of cooperation at the highest political levels has made it difficult for a viable military to emerge, particularly when contributions to military spending are uneven throughout the EU (Germany is outspent in defense by the United Kingdom and France) and consolidation could take away the sovereignty Germany has over its military forces.

The split between Germany and other EU nations on the use of force became very clear when German soldiers were given highly restrictive rules of engagement in the Libyan intervention. After Germany’s abstention on UN Resolution 1973, German warships in the Mediterranean withdrew from the NATO fleet supporting Libyan airstrikes to insure that none of its soldiers were involved in the Libyan conflict.

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A memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp. Image from Forrest R. Whitesides.

Germany’s pacifist philosophies run deep, as shown by Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s great reluctance to use force under any circumstance, a feeling shared by many Germans. Following WWII, the German people institutionalized “Never Again” into a relatively passive foreign policy that focused on the rebuilding of Germany and Europe after the war. That policy has remained firmly in place to this day. Even two decades after Germany’s reunification, German citizens still value the lessons learned from WWII.  Chancellor Merkel’s recent visit to Dachau marked how seriously German leadership takes the “Never Again” policy to heart.

This does not mean that Germany has no ambitions on the world stage. After the Western intervention in Libya gave rebels the ability to topple the Gadhafi regime, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle caused a firestorm of criticism by claiming that Germany’s economic sanctions were a major factor in the fall of Libya’s dictatorship. Factual or not, Westerwelle’s comments give insight into the debate going on in German government about Germany’s future role in the world. Though Germany is currently unwilling to get its hands dirty by using heavy-handed military tactics, it does not want its contributions to be ignored. This indicates that as events in Syria and Asia continue to warm up, Germany will be forced to contribute in more meaningful ways if it wishes to preserve its status and prestige in the world order.

In the short-term, US policymakers should expect Germany to maintain a passive foreign policy as the current generation of German leaders cleanse the German psyche of its past. When asked directly to contribute to foreign interventions and military aid, German leaders will likely refuse or obstruct action, speak out against the use of force in all situations, and claim the moral high ground when it is politically convenient.

However, if the U.S. works to strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with the UK and France over the next few years, it is possible that Germany will fall into step with other EU states. Germany’s lack of foreign policy direction makes it vulnerable to outside pressures, and Germans have never liked being outdone by the French and English.


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