Germany’s defence policy: still living in dreamland

Beyond its borders, few agree that Germany has much to feel satisfied about when it comes to matching its actions to its leaders’ rhetoric.

Germany is struggling to find its place in the international community. Somehow, this statement has been true for as long as I can remember. As someone who grew up in the 1990s and started working on German foreign and defence policy in the early 2010s, I have heard that “Germany is on its way to becoming a normal country” or “Germany is carving out its niche in international relations” more often than I care to admit.

Yet, despite reassurances to the contrary from Berlin, Germany is stuck in a holding pattern. Seventy-three years after the end of the second world war, and twenty-eight years after German reunification, it remains unclear what role Germany wants to and can play internationally.  

Typical for debates on European defence in Germany is a recent workshop co-organised by ECFR and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. As long as discussion there remained focused on all things abstract and philosophical – such as the importance of European solidarity and common positions, or the possibility of developing a shared strategic culture – conversation was free-flowing and engaging. But the more concrete the conversation got, the more one ends up settling on lowest common denominator compromises, or frameworks such as PESCO (the European Union’s permanent structured cooperation) which still need other member states – because Germany will not step forward to lead it – to give it life.

International observers may not realise that in Germany, a self-congratulatory mood suffuses the air whenever discussion arises about the country’s role in European security and defence. The official German narrative, which is widely believed in government ministries (or at least propagated by them), is that ever since the Kosovo war in the late 1990s, Germany has been slowly but steadily emerging as an engaged and reliable actor on the international scene. Its proponents might concede that there remain some understandable restrictions due to Germany’s history, and some problems with the Bundeswehr’s equipment and readiness. But, overall, they argue, this is a country that is on its way to play an assertive and constructive international role. The story is one of continuous trajectory, with the milestones of Kosovo (1999 – the first Bundeswehr combat mission), Afghanistan (2001), a series of high-level speeches in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and, more recently, the provision of the Kurdish Peshmerga with weapons and ammunition and Germany’s engagement in Mali.

Inside Germany the act of merely discussing military options needs to become much less the virtual taboo that it is

Even as a German I have been surprised by this narrative’s prevalence. Because outside Germany, observers are considerably less convinced. In fact, there is more than enough disappointment to go around, and the story told sounds quite different. Already at the Afghanistan milestone, international and German opinions begin to diverge quite substantially. While acting as the third largest troop contributor to ISAF was a major military effort for Germany (not to speak of the political), allies did not come to view the Bundeswehr’s actions there as particularly extensive. As one British Army officer put it – somewhat undiplomatically – in his memoirs: “You could not compare what 7000 Brits in Helmand were doing, with the Germans, loafing up in Herat, who weren’t even allowed out at night.”[1]

Germany’s abstention in the United Nations Security Council on the Libya vote in 2011 was a further warning sign not to expect too much. Indeed, NATO allies viewed this as a German return to the all too comfortable position of restraint – hiding behind the country’s past and the comparatively pacifist public. ‘Restraint’ could in fact be a coherent policy, and the argument has been made that Germany should embrace this role of a “civilian power”. But the ambition, at least in terms of what is communicated rhetorically, is another.

For a while, allies were prepared to believe something may have changed. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Munich Security Conference in 2014 and elsewhere saw senior German politicians express the will to bear a level of responsibility for international security commensurate to Germany’s position as the biggest European state – potentially even militarily. As analyst Jana Puglierin notes: “It seemed as if Germany—if only hesitantly and well below its defence policy potential—had begun to develop a new understanding of itself. Slowly but definitively, it was saying goodbye to its role as a ‘free rider’ and ‘net importer’ of security.”

More recently, Angela Merkel declared that “the times in which we could completely rely on others are somewhat over”, and “we Europeans have to take our fate in our own hands.” And only last month foreign minister Heiko Maas declared that he is making plans for a new world order in which Germany allegedly has an important role to play.

But these claims merit a dose of scepticism. Hard as it may be to hear, it remains the case that most German politicians seem to prefer to live in a dreamland in which foreign and defence policy are somehow separate from each other, rather than face the fact that if Germany does indeed want to take on a more leading role internationally, it needs some hard power capabilities. At the very least, inside Germany the act of merely discussing military options needs to become much less the virtual taboo that it is. Such real engagement still fall prey to this: last week’s non-debate on a potential German contribution to international engagement in Idlib is a case in point which was quickly dismissed on legal grounds.

To help change this and advance the debate, ECFR has teamed up with, Germany’s leading (and pretty much only) defence blog, to produce ‘Sicherheitshalber’, a podcast on security and defence – in German. The aim is to give room for a rational debate on important topics in the realm of security and defence that are relevant to Germany. In our latest episode, we take on two topics – lethal autonomous weapon systems, and Idlib.

Germany needs to do considerably more if it is to match its ambitions with its capabilities and be a reliable ally in an increasingly tumultuous world. It has two choices, either it matches the two by downgrading its ambition and rhetoric, or it begins real strategic debates on ends and means and develops the latter to serve the former. Otherwise dreamland may end up not only being the land of dreamers, but of sleepwalkers.

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[1] Patrick Hennessey, The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (Penguin UK, 2009).

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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