Germany, A Reluctant World Power…but For How Long?

For many years, Germany has developed a policy of non-intervention in global affairs. Because of their history, the Germans have avoided any leadership role during any international crisis (Kosovo and Afghanistan being the exception to the rule). However, for how long will that state of affairs last?

Some weeks ago, Jochen Bittner, editor of Die Zeit, wrote an article, where he blasted Germany’s foreign policy of these last years.

Via The New York Times:

Germany is Europe’s unrivaled superpower, its largest economy and its most powerful political force. And yet if its response to recent global crises, and the general attitude of its leaders and citizens, are any indication, there appears to be nothing that will get the German government to consider military intervention: not even a clear legal basis for action, not even an acknowledged security interest, not even an obvious moral duty.

Such adamant antipathy is actually a source of pride in Germany. The departing foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, likes to talk of a “culture of military restraint,” knowing that he describes a mainstream sentiment.

What does this “culture” mean? Has Europe’s strongest nation really chosen to become the world’s biggest Switzerland?

This analysis is right to the point. After World War Two, that’s more or less what Germany have become: a new Switzerland. And this is where Bittner’s slams German inaction in world affairs:

Consider its impressive recent record of inaction. The 2011 conflict in Libya met all the requirements to justify a textbook humanitarian intervention: Civilians striving for freedom were attacked by the air force of a psychotic dictator. The United Nations Security Council approved an intervention, as did the Arab League. Yet even though the military action required, a no-fly zone, was limited and low-risk for the participating states, the Germans not only sent no jets, but they withdrew their personnel from NATO’s Awacs radar planes above the Mediterranean.

Then, during the Islamist takeover in northern Mali, Germany even identified the prevention of an “African Afghanistan” as being in the European interest — and wished the French Army best of luck in its endeavor.

And in Syria, not even President Bashar al-Assad’s gassing his own people provoked a debate in the Parliament of the very country that otherwise (and rightly) never tires of accepting historical responsibility for the Holocaust.

Defense-minded politicians in Berlin rail against this picture, arguing that postwar Germany has participated in major military operations. Take Kosovo! Take Afghanistan! Big missions!

But, Bittner is not just criticizing German diplomacy, he’s also advocating the idea that a military strong Germany is a necessity, and blames the US for that “deeply ingrained pacifism” :

Germany should always remember its catastrophic military history. But the Germany of today is a different country from the one of 1914 or of 1939. Instead, that history has become an excuse for not doing the right things today.

As Germany dwells on that past, the rest of the world has moved on. None of our European neighbors are calling for a militarily constrained Germany anymore. On the contrary: Europeans and Americans would like to see a Germany that lives up to the international standing it has gained in recent years.

I don’t mean to imply that this is an entirely cynical posture on the part of German leaders. It is simply a too deeply ingrained pacifism, one that I blame the Americans for instilling. The re-education efforts worked far too well on the Germans after 1945. Pacifism, sometimes in a self-righteous manner, has become part of the German DNA.

[…] Four things were taught to every schoolchild: War is the worst thing that can happen; we Germans have shown an inclination to start wars; we started the First and Second World Wars; and if it should come to a third we Germans will be the first to die.

Our teachers had been led through the horrors of the concentration camps liberated by American soldiers. Now those teachers were leading us into a worldview where war would never, ever be the solution. For anything. Ever.

That is absolutely understandable. And it is wrong. The fact that the Holocaust was brought to an end by means of war, for instance, was simply forgotten.

And what will the solution be?

A few of our leaders have understood the paradox. “We’ve always said: ‘Never again war!”’ exclaimed the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in 1999. “But we have also always said: ‘Never again Auschwitz!”’ But most have ignored the comment.

The truth is, even Germans need to make a choice between the two evils. And for a time after the Cold War, they did. In the late 1990s, Germany’s choice was to bomb Serbia, and, in 2002, to send troops to Afghanistan.

These days are long over. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it took the credibility of Mr. Fischer himself, a foreign minister from the leftist Green Party, to convince the Germans that military action was needed. No one else could have broken the taboo. And even he did it only temporarily.

Today, there is no such mental battering ram in sight. The German president, Joachim Gauck, recently said that he could not conceive of a Germany “that makes itself so small so as to avoid risk and solidarity,” but he remains a soft, lone voice, without formal power.

So, for how long will Germany be a reluctant world power? Not for too long. Consider the following article, Germany Needs a Permanent Naval Presence in the Indian Ocean, which was published only two weeks ago.

The reasons for this future naval presence are pure geopolitical. Germany is one the largest consumers of mineral resources but it has to import the majority of those raw materials. That’s why the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (known for its initials BGR in German) is already applying for an exploration license in the Indian Ocean (Go to page 13). But, why the Indian Ocean?

Via Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik

The German Navy needs to contribute to stability and security in the Indian Ocean, because the world’s fourth largest economy is heavily dependent on exports and global trade. In 2012, the total value of all goods shipped from Europe to Asia was 816 billion Euros (Holslag 2013: 157). No doubt, Germany’s industry has done its share of this total value. Andrew Erickson, in addition, has outlined why the Indian Ocean is so important for Europe:

“The Indian Ocean is not just a source of raw materials; it is also a vital conduit for bringing those materials to market. Most notably, it is a key transit route for oil making its way from the Persian Gulf to consumers in Europe and Asia. Seventeen million barrels of oil a day (20 percent of the world’s oil supply and 93 percent of oil exported from the Gulf) transits by tanker through the Strait of Hormuz and into the western reaches of the Indian Ocean. (…) In terms of global trade, the Indian Ocean is a major waterway linking manufacturers in East Asia with markets in Europe, Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Asia–Europe shipping route, via the Indian Ocean, has recently displaced the transpacific route as the world’s largest containerized trading lane.” (A. Erickson: Diego Garcia, p. 23)

German vital interests, shared by its European and global partners, are therefore safe and secure sea-lanes. Needed are stability ashore and the absence of state and non-state sea-control, which could become hostile to German interests. Combating piracy and terrorism as well as contributing to disaster relief and mutual trust building are therefore security challenges Germany must tackle in the Indian Ocean to pursue its interest of geopolitical stability.

And if there is any doubt, let’s take a look at the following map taken from the article:

And, once again, German inertness is under heavy criticism:

Of course, the Indian Ocean’s resources will be subject to international diplomacy. However, diplomacy needs a backbone; often that is an economic, but sometimes it has to be a military one. If all you get from Berlin is words, nobody will pay attention to its interests. Showing the flag is therefore a way to make oneself heard. 

Very strong words. However, it’s not like the Germans have been on vacation in the area. They were there as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, boarding any suspicious ships between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; and have been fighting Somalian piracy since 2009 (1).

German Navy Troops patrolling the coast of Somalia (Source: DW/Picture-Alliance/DPA)

And, as a result of the Hansa Stavanger incident, where it looks the US Navy had enough of Germany’s political indecision, the author suggest two things. One, it’s about time the German Navy should have its own Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), which would look something like this:

And second, the German Navy should base a frigate in the US Naval base of Diego Garcia because it’s the closest point to the area the BGR is planning to explore:

Any US reluctance to give access to Diego Garcia should be countered with the argument, that it was Washington which was calling for more European and German global engagement. Now, when Germany wants to do something, America should not close the door.
The location in Djibouti is much closer to the vital sea-lanes, while Diego Garcia offers greater flexibility. Therefore, if the German Navy should seek for access to both bases. Diego Garcia is closer to the deep sea claims. However, there will be no German naval operations to secure claims by force. Nevertheless, Germany should be able to act in areas of its interest, to protect its vessels against pirates, and to conduct search and rescue missions. 

The Seidler’s article is an excellent geopolitical analysis, and I’d suggest to read it all. Pay special attention to the words of State Secretary, Emily Harber, on how important the Indian Ocean is for Germany.

Two Comments

1.- Germany’s public opinion. As the Hansa Stavenger incident showed the protection of  a nation’s economic interest is not a walk in the park. Germany has lost 54 soldiers since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. And, If Germany decides to get more involved in the international arena, just like the French and British do, expect the number of casualties to rise. Military operations cost money, lots of it. And it’s always the taxpayer, who ends up paying the bill. How will the Germans react the moment they see body bags arriving at airports, and see their taxes going up to finance the country’s military spending? Let’s keep in mind that if Germany has a strong economy is because it hasn’t gotten into  the military interventions the US, Great Britain and France have.

2.- It’s more than clear that US is not the only country in the world calling the shots now. And it won’t be the only one in the near future. We have Japan rearming, Russian Bombers patrolling South America, China investing like crazy in Latin America, Brazil announcing plans to develop a nuclear submarine, Australia launching its own LHD in 2016, Saudi Arabia trying to get nuclear weapons, France intervening in Mali, etc. This is more evidence that the multipolar world is here to stay.

(1) The original links were in German and taken from the original article. I translated them using Google Translation.

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