For the last 20 years German foreign policy has been remarkably continuous. Despite widespread fears over the future course of the country after the end of the Cold War, a mix of strong normative and material interests has ensured that Germany continued to work towards further European integration and towards the further development of NATO and the UN. Simultaneously, the country from the mid-1990s onwards contributed increasingly more to international security by means of providing troops for UN, NATO and EU-military missions (“Normalization”). Thus, the decision to abstain from the vote on Security Council Resolution 1973 is a hugely worrying sign to say the least. It seriously calls into question some of the core tenets of German foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. While the rhetoric has not changed, German willingness to contribute to multilateral military operations has dramatically declined since German participation in them has become unpopular with the electorate. However, Germany can only be a reliable and trustworthy international partner if its foreign policies are formulated without leering at opinion polls.
A comparison with the Kosovo War in 1999 dramatically highlights the long way German foreign policy has gone in the last 20 years. Almost to the date 12 years before the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, the then newly elected red-green coalition under Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer had led Germany into the Kosovo War. For the Federal Republic the participation in the NATO air strikes against Serbian forces was in many ways a “coming of age”. It was the first time since the end of WW2 that German troops participated in combat action. Internationally, it signaled that Germany was willing to assume its role as a leading European power and that the country had broken with its taboo of not using force in international conflicts. Domestically, it signaled that after years of sometimes heated debates the main German parties had once again reached a broad consensus on foreign and security policy. The “normalization” of German foreign and security policy seemed to be well under way.
In the years immediately after the end of the Cold War, expectations inside and outside Germany were raised that the country would finally contribute more to international security. Within Germany these expectations initiated a debate on the future foreign and security policy in general, and in particular on the use of force outside NATO-territory and for purposes other than territorial defence; namely the question of German contribution to UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions. While German politicians in general welcomed the opportunity to take on more responsibility on the world stage, the German public was rather hesitant to endorse this “opportunity”. To narrow the gap between international expectations and domestic constraints, the conservative-liberal coalition under Helmut Kohl employed what later became known as “Salami tactics” during the early 1990s. Slice by slice so to speak, the number of German troops deployed abroad and the intensity of the missions they were assigned to increased. The intention was to get a highly sceptical German electorate used to the idea of using force in the realm of international politics. Considering that at the start of the 1990s the German debate centred on whether or not the country should participate in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions, the intervention in Kosovo without such a mandate only a few years later represented a quantum leap for the young Berlin Republic.
At the core of this change was a re-interpretation of the legacy of German history: Up until 1999 German discourse on foreign policy was dominated by the perception that Germany had the responsibility to ensure that the use of force would never again become an acceptable means in international politics (“Nie wieder Krieg”, i.e. “No more wars”). After Europe’s failure to intervene decisively in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the face of the perceived threat of yet another genocide in the Balkans, this concept of responsibility was re-interpreted as a responsibility to ensure that ethnic hatred and genocide would never again be allowed (“Nie wieder Auschwitz”, i.e. “Never again Auschwitz”). To ensure the latter, Germany in 1999 was prepared to participate in air strikes even though there was no UN Resolution legitimising them. 12 years on in the case of Libya Germany not only ruled out its own participation in the military campaign, but also abstained from the vote for UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
The reasons for this development are mostly to be found in declining domestic support for German contributions to military operations. The German public has been traditionally sceptical about the use of force. This did not represent much of a challenge in the early years of “normalization”, but in recent years the fact that German troops in Afghanistan have been increasingly drawn into the war against the Taliban has dramatically impacted public attitude towards participation in military operations. For much of the 1990s German foreign deployments enjoyed majority support since they were perceived as a “force for good”. This perception has changed since events in Afghanistan highlighted that German soldiers abroad not only drill wells and protect civilians, but also die and kill in battle. In 2009 almost three-quarters of the electorate favoured that Germany should limit its engagement in Afghanistan to assisting the reconstruction of the country rather than taking on the Taliban. With regard to Libya, German public opinion overwhelmingly (62%) approved of international intervention and even more overwhelmingly (65%) disapproved of German participation in it. In other words: Intervention yes, but let others do the risky and potentially dirty work.
This gap between perceptions of what should be done and what Germany should contribute has seemingly widened once again and increasingly impacts on German foreign policy. Ever since Gerhard Schröder utilized the anti-Iraq War sentiment in the German public to mobilise support for his Social Democrats in the 2002 general elections, there has been a latent threat that – despite the still existing cross-party consensus on foreign and security policy – the parties might again try to exploit public opinion on foreign policy matters in order to gain an electoral advantage. In a country where there are constantly state elections and where voting patterns have become increasingly volatile, this latent threat might seriously damage Germany’s international reputation as a reliable and trustworthy partner. If the main reason behind the decision to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on Libya was the then upcoming federal-state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and in Rhineland-Palatinate, then the German government took a gamble that did not pay off: It risked and potentially lost a lot of hard-earned political capital on the international stage and still did not get a satisfactory result at either state election. However, beyond the short-term damage the decision to abstain seriously questions some of the core tenets of German foreign policy in the post-Cold War-era:
Firstly, it questions the assumption that Germany still wants to take on more responsibility in global affairs. The abstention is unique since it dramatically depletes German hopes of obtaining a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council. In the past German voting within the UN aimed at supporting this claim and the contribution to UN missions even where German interests were not directly affected (UNIFIL, for example) underlined this ambition. Not even a year ago Germany successfully competed against EU and NATO-partners Canada and Portugal in a crucial vote to become yet again a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Against this background, the decision to abstain seems simply inexplicable; in particular since all German conditions for intervention (UN-mandate, Arab League-support and Arabic military contributions) were met.
Secondly, very much the same question can be raised about Germany’s willingness to further foster the EU’s international capacity. Only a few years ago, Germany certainly would have welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate the EU’s willingness and capacity to intervene in its direct neighbourhood on behalf of the International Community and in the name of Human Rights. Since the US has been clear from the beginning that it did not want to assume leadership in the campaign, this would have been a unique opportunity to further develop the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy through concrete action. As for NATO, it is too early to judge if there will be repercussions.
Thirdly, it questions the assumption that German foreign policy is still guided and influenced by normative ideals. The Kosovo War provides a good contrasting point: One has to remember, that in Kosovo Germany participated in a NATO-campaign that was not endorsed by a UN Resolution in order to stop a dictator from using force against his own people. Yet, in Libya in a very comparable situation for fear of eventually having to contribute to military action, the German government found it impossible to endorse a broadly supported resolution.
20 years after the end of the Cold War the world is far from being a better and safer place. Germany as one of the leading economic and trading powers is hugely dependent on maintaining peace and stability on the globe. Sometimes this will necessitate that the country has to contribute to unpopular and risky military missions. In the past German politicians have done well to conduct foreign policy without leering at opinion polls. Failure to do so in the years ahead might have far graver consequences than losing a state election every once in a while.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Atlantic Community on March 31st 2011.