Germany’s defence doublespeak

While Germany's role in security is of increasing importance, German politicians must downplay it for a domestic audience

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Back in June 2014, security analysts Claudia Major and Christian Mölling argued that while Germany had started to embrace a new and almost revolutionary vision for its foreign and security policy, there was still quite a long way to go turn it into reality. Starting from the speeches by President Joachim Gauck and Foreign and Defence Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference earlier that year, they argued that there were indeed signs of Germany wanting to live up to its powerful role in Europe and the world. Having said that, for such a shift to become reality Berlin would have to engage the Germans in discussing military means as an acceptable and complementary part of the political toolbox. “Change can only start from home, and has to be introduced carefully”, they concluded.

Within just a couple of years the overall security environment in and around Europe has shifted dramatically, and the impact has brought security concerns more firmly into domestic arenas. The coalition government of Angela Merkel has clearly demonstrated over the past few months that it takes these developments very seriously. Berlin is investing heavily in diplomatic solutions for the wars and crises surrounding Europe, but the government has also taken further steps in security and defence lately. To give a few examples, the Bundestag is currently debating the extension of the mandate of the Bundeswehr under the UN in Mali; Berlin is also lending significant support to the air strikes being carried out by its allies in Syria; and Germany is participating in policing air-space in the Baltic region.

Just two years after making its commitment to play a greater role in Europe’s security, Germany has been caught up in a situation in which fundamental questions regarding Europe’s security are being raised. Now Berlin is expected to come up with the answers.

But to what extent has the German public been on board with Germany’s decision to engage further in European security? While the domestic angle of this question is surely less relevant to Germany’s partners, it is a key concern of Berlin’s. Germany is facing federal elections in September 2017, and politicians and parties are already gearing up for the election season. Building constituencies around what has become a new and tangible set of threats is not a question of goodwill, but of a very real political battle that will be waged in the months ahead. Politicians out to win the argument for a more engaged Germany, even with military means if needed, are faced with a largely pacifist German public, for understandable reasons. Not only does the shadow of the two world wars continue to linger heavy in the German imagination, there has also been a sense that the post-1989 world is one of new opportunities rather than risks to the majority of Germans. The fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of EU membership for Central and Eastern European countries led Germans to embrace this shifting world order. The European Union became the umbrella under which the continent continued to unite, both politically and economically, and Germany invested heavily into the European project. In economic terms, after having adopted painful reforms in the early 2000s, the “German model” seemed tailor made for the era of globalisation, and Germans benefitted greatly from liberalised markets and the euro currency. This was a world of opportunities, and one in which Germany managed to reap major benefits.

While Berlin has been increasingly challenged by Western allies for benefitting from the security provided by others, while contributing little itself, many Germans believe that there are too many examples of failed military interventions, and that their own country serves as an example of a different global outlook. Yet, Europe’s new reality means that there is a major gap now between this overall view in German society and the need for the government to respond with all available means, including military ones, to protect the European security order. This fault line is likely to become a major point of controversy in the federal elections.

It is not as if Germans are unaffected by security threats and other developments in the world today. Both the terrorist attacks in Europe and the large number of refugees and migrants coming to Germany and other European countries have caused world-views to shift so that opportunities are no longer to be taken for granted. But does this mean that the German public is also willing to accept or even actively ask the government to go out and fight for the order their country has benefitted from so greatly? Is there an understanding among the population that Germany is a major stakeholder in the question of where the future of the European security order lies? Probably not, or at least not yet.

Against this domestic background, Germany’s leading politicians are well aware of the fine balance they have to strike in their campaigns over the coming months. They have to send messages to at least three types of recipients: to partners looking for greater reassurance in Central and Eastern Europe, to Moscow, and finally to their electorates. It will be key for Berlin’s partners to listen carefully to the messages that are being sent out as the election campaign gains momentum, and to understand what messages are first and foremost for domestic consumption.

The complex rhetoric around Germany’s role in security has already begun, well ahead of the NATO summit in Warsaw. To illustrate the point, Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen gave a speech at GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava in mid-April 2016 in which she addressed both Germany’s Central and Eastern European partners and the Russian Federation. She talked about deterrence and about strengthening German defence capabilities, about the German air-space operations in the Baltics, and about being committed to finding an adequate concept for a permanent rotational presence of allies at NATO’s eastern flank. She talked about Germany taking on responsibility in Africa, and addressed Russia as a threat to the European security order.

But she also had the audience back home on her mind. She therefore talked about Europe’s values and its overall political challenges – chiefly the issues of migration and the Euro-zone. She avoided talking about just NATO, mentioning solutions that also included diplomacy and cooperation with the EU, the OSCE, and the UN. She emphasised wider political solutions rather than just military ones. In order words: She wanted to convey the message to Germany’s partners that Berlin was indeed serious about a stronger role in security and defence policy, but at the same time she carefully sent out the message to the German public that she had a good understanding of their concerns and views.

The complexity of this situation and the two levels of rhetoric brings with it a misinterpretation risk which could be particularly acute in relation to Germany’s eastern partners, particularly Poland. These partners may begin to think that when Germany talks about diplomacy this is actually again a way of ducking down from the more painful questions about the use of military force, and that when Germany talks EU it only does so because it wants to avoid talking NATO, all the while making sure that it maintains a multilateral and European approach – something which always works for the German audience. When Germany puts forward statements that are in line with the attitudes of the German people this is because it ultimately does not want to act. Finally, if Germany really is going to take on the burden of providing security why not talk about it more openly?

Focusing on such messages runs the risk of missing the tangible shifts in the German government’s security outlook. The change in German security policy is well under way, and even more so is the realisation that this does indeed involve talking openly about this to the German people. The public, then, is only now starting to reflect on the changing nature of their country’s outlook and the responsibility and burdensome task that comes with a stronger German role in security. That this debate has actually begun is a positive development. But against the backdrop of the new security environment in and around Europe the gap between what is needed to protect Europe’s security and Germany’s contribution on the one hand and what Germans think should be their country’s role on the other has become even wider. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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