War and peace in Berlin’s minds: threat inflation and denial in Germany

Why do Germans so strongly oppose military intervention in defence of NATO?

In a recent poll by the PEW Research Centeronly 38 percent of the German population supported the use of military force to defend a NATO ally, 58 percent oppose it. Although the support for solidarity is low even in countries with traditional strong ties to NATO (Poland 48 percent support, 38 percent oppose; United Kingdom 49 percent support, 37 percent oppose), the German figure is particularly shocking.

At present, Germany is in the midst of an overhaul of its defence policy and after two decades of engagement in foreign theatres, the policy ought to be refocussed on defending European allies. Indeed, heavy armoured forces have been increased as a stopgap measure, and the German Bundeswehr is again participating in Article 5 NATO manoeuvres. Yet, it seems there is little or no domestic support for this policy. If this is the case, how can NATO deterrence towards Russia be credible?

The lack of public awareness of the increasingly fragile security environment around Europe (which does not only refer to Russia, but also to North Africa and the Middle East) is undeniable, but its causes are more complex than just a general war weariness or fear of confronting Russia militarily. This lack of political support is the result of a long chain of political miscommunication, which started in the 1990s first with threat inflation, then with side-lining the difficult questions regarding Europe’s security.

There are few states in Europe where the feeling of an “end of history” was so strong like in Germany in 1990.

There are few states in Europe, where the feeling of an “end of history” was so strong like in Germany in 1990. The country was re-united. The Communist ideological challenge disappeared overnight. The German party system moved towards a social-liberal consensus, but was not (yet) challenged by populist anti-regime movements. European integration progressed and European enlargement moved Germany – once a frontline state of the Cold War – into the secure heart of Europe. Hence the Bundeswehr, once fielding multiple army corps and over 5,000 main battle tanks (MBT) shrunk to two divisions and 225 MBT in active service.

Yet this rapid cashing in of the ‘peace dividend’ caused concern amongst those in the defence industry, defence officials and politicians. If Germany demilitarised too quickly, it would lose its political standing in comparison with France and Great Britain, as well as one of its most advanced and innovative industries. Therefore, since the mid-1990s, liberal interventionism served as a stopgap measure to justify the maintenance of the armed forces. The Bundeswehr was to transition to an expeditionary army, like the French, British or US forces were. But the problem with such a transition was that Germany had no expeditionary tradition to speak of and very few interests that would be well served by such a policy.

Beside the Balkans – where Germany had political and strategic interests at stake – Germany only followed other states into the field: involvement in Afghanistan was a courtesy to the United States, in the Democratic Republic of Congo a courtesy to the French. And, problematically, these courtesies were justified at home by an unprecedented threat inflation. In a globalised world, so the argument went, Germany was so interdependent with the rest of the world that the Bundeswehr had to take action in ‘Whereverstan’ or the negative consequences of inflowing refugees, drugs, crime, terrorists or global economic chaos would immediately endanger Germany’s security and prosperity.

And this threat inflation proved incorrect on several occasions. The Middle East did not become more secure after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were no fewer refugees and migrants pouring from Libya after the western intervention in 2011. There are no less drugs nor terrorists radiating from the Afghan-Pakistani borderland than before 2001 and the success that there were no further 9/11s needs rather to be credited to increased domestic surveillance, homeland security, and a change of operational procedures amongst international jihadists. Oil prices collapsed despite ongoing unrest in the Middle East. And pirates did not cut of Germany from Asian or Middle Eastern export markets. But because those interventions were justified with exaggerated threats, the population lost much trust in the national debates about security policy, if not in the defence establishment itself.

Because recent interventions were justified with exaggerated threats, the population lost much trust in the national debates about security policy.

The policy of threat denialto which German politicians resorted afterwards, is equally harmful. While the immediate threat of many crises to Germany are lower than thought, the cumulative long-term damage to the international order by revisionist actors, including Islamic state and Russia, was underestimated or neglected. Even today many German officials and politicians refuse to acknowledge that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is only one of the many attempts by Russia to cast overboard the old order of Europe and rewrite a new one in their image.

Likewise the attempt to create a radical Islamist international, as well as domestic and societal, order in Iraq and Syria by IS and the radiation of this idea in all directions (including German cities) has a much more serious long-term impact on the international order, than any lunatic Middle Eastern dictator or isolated terrorist group. Even worse, this threat denial comes at a time when Germany is actually conducting quite successful support measures for the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the Islamic State and the Bundeswehr is taking a leading role in creating a very-rapid reaction force to counter Russian threats to eastern European countries.

However, the German population lives on like there were no worsening crises around Europe – and no politician tries to disturb this idyll. The fundamental problem is – as uncovered by the PEW Research Centre – that you can’t seriously respond to these crises unless there is a broad acknowledgment that they exist. The Western liberal order has survived many ideological, political and military challenges: fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, communism thereafter. When I grew up in the Cold War, the necessity of national defence was easy to explain: do you want to live under Communism or prefer – if necessary – to pick up a fight? Today, few people want to live in Putin’s Russia or the Islamic state. But unless politicians and opinion-leaders are ready to discuss the political and military consequences of this choice and lead, not just react to, the political debate such strange divergences of public opinion and government policy will continue.

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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