Por: Alexander Ohm
“Don’t count on us Germans. We’ll count on you.” Jochen Bittner, political editor for Germany’s prestigious weekly newspaper Die Zeit used this simple formula to describe German foreign policy in an op-ed for the New York Times in late 2013. The abstention in the UN security council on the no-flight zone over Libya, the non-involvement during its enforcement, the lethargic replies to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the reluctance to assist France in northern Mali: in contrast to Germany’s foreign policy, Bittner’s critique was spot on. After last years’ developments the emergence of new security hot spots did not slow down. Yet, will Germany continue to count on its allies or can they finally count on us?
Since Bittner published his op-ed last November the crisis in Ukraine unfolded, Hamas and Israel started a new armed conflict, and the Islamic State (IS) extended its murderous rule over swaths of northern Iraq. These three conflicts have triggered very different responses by German foreign policy but they all fueled the domestic debate on how Germany’s attitude towards armed conflicts, humanitarian interventions, and international insecurity ought to look like.
Conflict between Hamas and Israel
During the armed conflict between Hamas and Israel, politicians and officials in Germany have renewed the posture that Israel’s existence is part of Germany’s reason of state. Foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier already declared Germany’s willingness to revive the European mission at the border-crossings between Gaza and Egypt once the armed conflict has come to an end.
Crisis in Ukraine
From early on Germany led the diplomatic efforts of the West to prevent an escalation of the conflict in the Ukraine and between Ukraine and Russia. Germany’s foreign minister assumed a central position during the EU-led mediations between the pro-west opposition and Ukraine’s president Yanukovych which resulted in an agreement for a peaceful transition phase in February. Unfortunately, the agreement, like many later diplomatic “successes” did not translate into an appeasement of the situation. Nevertheless, Germany continues its Pendeldiplomatie between Kiev and Moscow, involving other European partners in changing constellations.
The efforts of German diplomacy to resolve the conflict in its eastern neighborhood has not generally been questioned by the public. Yet, with its closer economic and cultural ties to Russia and the Ukraine, the debate has been more diverse. Especially business rallied against tough sanctions but the recent steps by the EU have found broad support, even among those potentially hit by the repercussions.
With the West’s unilateral stance to avoid involvement in the armed conflict, it depends on the worst-case scenario one applies to judge whether the diplomatic efforts have – so far – been successful. Have they prevented an invasion by Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine or have failed to end the conflict between separatists and the Ukraine government? Whatever the verdict may be, Germany had to navigate between demands by other Western countries to display leadership and the necessity to safeguard a common stance of the EU against Russia. Whilst this often resulted in slower responses than partners like the US would have preferred, it also showed the EU’s general ability stand together. Arguably, this is a stronger sign of leadership than surging ahead but leaving your allies behind.
IS in northern Iraq
The violent and murderous advance of IS in northern Iraq, displacing and massacring minorities in their way, has prompted Western countries like the USA, France and the UK to intervene in the conflict. At the same time, a political dispute in Baghdad paralyzes the already limited capacity of the Iraqi army to deal with the insurgents.
It would have been relatively easy for Germany to remain at the sidelines after its historic abstinence from the Iraq war. Yet, the government is contemplating which kind of actions are necessary rather than whether an involvement itself is advisable. So far, the government has pledged to send humanitarian aid and “non-lethal military equipment,” but for the first time in recent years the public seems to be indignant about too little rather than too much involvement. Even voices in Germany’s more leftist parties demand decisive actions, like the chair of the Green Party who explained that the Kurdish Peshmerga troops cannot stop the terrorists with yoga mats but need to be supplied with weapons instead.
Germany has gained soft power over the last years. The Euro Crisis, a fledgeling France, and a UK retreating to a mental island have propelled Germany into a position of European leadership. It is unreasonable to expect a quick of sweeping change in German foreign policy. Furthermore, its not a bad thing if Europe’s largest economy sticks to an approach that values multilateralism, diplomacy and cooperation over more aggressive projections of power. However, it is very reasonable to expect that Germany has learned its lesson from recent diplomatic blunders like abstaining from the vote on Libya in the security council.
German security interests remain a dangerous subject for politicians but the discussions have become more balanced since former president Koehler resigned in 2010 after he had dared to ask for a public debate on the role of the German Bundeswehr in defending the country’s economic interests. The new and rhetorically more brilliant president Gauck explained during his opening speech for this year’s Munich Security Conference that Germany benefits from a stable political environment and a system of open trade and exchange and thus has to assume responsibility for its preservation.
If today’s Germany is poised to become a more active stakeholder in international security it does not have to break with the key aspects of its overall successful foreign policy of the last decades. Instead, it means to accept responsibility for an international system conductive to its social and economic development, characterized by unilateral values, multilateralism, and cooperation. Cooperation begins with Germany’s neighbors, or referring to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s former Foreign Minister: “Germany has no national interests, because its interests are identical with Europe.” Europe or the NATO do not need another UK or France to amplify its common foreign policy agenda but a Germany that accepts its responsibility yet has its own style in dealing with it – in accordance with the motto of the European Union: united in diversity.
 See: http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2014-08/israel-gaza-mission-deutschland (article in German). Apart from the conflict itself, the public debate focused on Anti Semitic slogans at pro-Palestine demonstrations. These sparked a discussion on new Anti Semitism especially among German citizens with Arabic roots.
Alexander Ohm* holds a BA in Politics and Public Management from Zeppelin University (Germany). During his bachelor he went on exchange for one semester at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently doing an internship at the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). Before university he volunteered for a year in the Philippines at a local government unit, and during his studies he interned in Business Development at a start-up incubator and at the German Development Corporation (GIZ) in Berlin, in the unit for emerging economies and global partnerships. He is especially interested in international political economy and next September he will begin a Master in International Trade, Finance and Development at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.