Germany’s Global Role at Risk?
J.D. Bindenagel, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, addresses the Germans' decision to keep out of the NATO operation in Libya and its implications for German leadership in Europe and beyond.
REGIERUNGonline / Bergmann
In 1999, the German Air Force went into action over Kosovo as part of a NATO humanitarian mission to defend human dignity. Twelve years later, when NATO asked it to defend human dignity in Libya, Germany took a pass. From Kosovo to Libya, Germany’s struggle to define its NATO responsibilities has taken more turns than the Nürburgring auto racetrack.
The German abstention in the United Nations vote for humanitarian intervention in Libya has raised fundamental questions about whether, how, and when Germany will act militarily in support of the UN, NATO, or the European Union.
Germany’s decisions in Libya seem to contradict Germany’s governing philosophy. They undermine support for multilateralism of NATO and the UN—institutions which had been pillars of German foreign policy. These decisions damage Germany’s reputation for reliability. Provincialism and isolationism may be tempting policy choices, but they are the wrong ones.
Simply stated, Germany’s role since 1999 had been predictable. It is no longer.
Germany’s allies have noticed. In his farewell to NATO last June, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was worried “about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. It is unacceptable.”
The German commitment to Western values is the result of a long political struggle. Following World War II, West Germany fought the twin demons of Prussian militarism and the Holocaust. A pacifist rejection of militarism led to a reshaped security policy, rooted in a NATO-based, territorial defense role for the German army—or Bundeswehr—and an obligation under the constitution to respect human dignity and democratic values.
This was the historic and emotional background to the struggles of the 1990s, played out in the German high court and parliament. The court first approved German military deployment outside Germany in the Balkan wars. Four years later, parliament approved German participation in aerial surveillance over Kosovo. In 1999, German planes helped bomb Kosovo.
The vehicle was NATO, and the rationale was humanitarian. German history had changed. Or, so it seemed, until Libya.
Germany seemed to have reason to help oust Muammar Qaddafi. His threat to kill his own countrymen certainly was credible. He had committed two acts of terror on German soil: in 1986, he sponsored the bombing of a Berlin disco, killing a woman and two U.S. sergeants and injuring more than 230 people. In 1988, Qaddafi’s agents in Frankfurt put a bomb aboard the Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. But Germany insisted on a political solution in Libya, not a military solution.
The German abstention on the UN resolution authorizing force in Libya amounted to a “no” to the NATO mission. Germany’s subsequent withdrawal of warships from NATO operations in the Mediterranean during the Libya mission created doubt about its willingness to use legitimate force to help its allies protect human dignity. To the allies, these decisions seemed selfish and raised questions about Germany’s role as a NATO partner.
In the Balkans, Germany rose in defense of human life, even though it had to change its security policy to do it. But when Qaddafi threated to annihilate innocent civilians like “rats,” Germany refused to act under a legitimate UN resolution supported by the Arab League.
What is enough to win German support? Public support? Leadership that gives primacy to polls over principles is destined to fail.
Germany risked being sidelined when the Middle East urgently needed European leadership in NATO. President Obama has set the United States as an honest broker in the Middle East, but American goodwill is not enough to manage the turmoil of Arab uprisings.
The Arabs took to the streets to fight for liberty and respect for individual dignity. Western states like Germany, which espouse these values, must learn from the Arab Spring. If we are to encourage democracy—and if we are to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Germany has an important role to play.
With regard to Libya, Germany’s own governing philosophy demanded action, but it backed away. If Germany abdicates its responsibilities to act militarily in support of the UN, NATO, or the EU, other European countries, such as France and Britain, must fill the European leadership role.
The Arab Spring has brought political uncertainty and hope. NATO needs Germany to stand on the side of hope.