Germany v. France Berlin Flexes Diplomatic Muscles on Syria

Germany has urged caution in response to French calls for the use of force in Syria. Its stance is more than a mere aversion to military intervention, however. The country is quietly asserting itself and fleshing out its foreign policy.


A Commentary by Jonathan Laurence

Raising the ante in the confrontation with the Assad regime and its international supporters, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius this week called for the use of force in Syria. Across the Rhine Valley in Berlin, however, his German equivalent Guido Westerwelle urged caution: "Before speaking of consequences we must first have clarification." French daily newspaper Le Monde ran the outsized headline "Toxic Gas Massacre in Damascus". Most German newspapers that day led with the Bradley Manning verdict.

The 50-year-old Elysée Treaty, the European Union, and the euro join France and Germany at the hip, and their national security interests are fused at every other point above and below by virtue of a shared 451 kilometer (289 mile) border. But they exhibit diverging strategic postures vis-à-vis North Africa and the Middle East. Germany has gone from foot-dragging -- abstaining from the Libya intervention in 2011 and equivocating in Mali in 2012 -- to putting its foot down against French involvement in Syria.

Since a rare misstep responding to the uprising against Tunisian President Ben Ali, France has sought redemption by betting early and often on opposition movements. In successive interventions, the Sarkozy and Hollande administrations have courted the Arab public square and its revolutionary avant-garde. Germany, meanwhile, is much more comfortable with Color Revolutions or the noble resistance of protesters in Teheran or Taksim Square than with armed revolt. While France rides the bronco of Arab Awakening, Germany looks on aghast.

Franco-German Rift

Germany started deviating from French leadership in March 2011, when its diplomats ruled out participation in Libya regardless of UN Security Council resolutions. The following year, Germans long refused the French assessment that the occupation of northern Mali by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presented a threat against Western interests. France has continued to raise international pressure on the Assad regime over German objections -- leading the lifting of the arms embargo, disclosing suspected cases of the regime's use of chemical weapons and inviting Syrian coalition leaders to Paris.

While French leaders were declaring that "all hopes for a political solution or a political transition in Syria are destroyed" and considered unilaterally arming the opposition in March, German ministers were doing their best to get the parties to the negotiating table. "As long as the logic of violence and military victory is in place, there can be no lasting peace and stability for Syria," Westerwelle said in May.

The post-reunification "German Question" has time and again challenged Germany's partners to reconcile the federal republic's economic power with its reticence to contribute to collective security. The oddity of an unaligned behemoth at the heart of NATO has begun to harden into reality, even as allies refuse to allow Germany to slip into Swedish-style neutrality.

Gaining Confidence

But something different is at work here. Contrary to appearances, Germany is not simply receding ever deeper into itself. In fact, the Berlin Republic is quietly asserting itself and fleshing out its foreign policy. The unwillingness to act as France's cheerleader in the greater Mediterranean comes with the creeping recovery of self-confidence, and a desire to reposition itself vis-à-vis this historically French sphere of influence.

France insists its recent military interventions abroad are grounded in humanitarianism and counter-terrorism, to safeguard "the fate of the local population and French nationals." Germans perceive instead a French sense of entitlement in a region rich with extraction and infrastructure contracts, and refuse to play a supporting role.

When explaining why it did not join France in Mali earlier this year, Germany pleaded superfluity: France was intervening "because of its tradition, history, and relationship with this part of Africa" and because "France is the only nation capable." The polite demurral belies Germany's intention to undermine the Franco-centric status quo.

German obstructionism also reveals the consensus across the German political spectrum that an Islamist regime in Syria is to be avoided. Left-wing politicians say Germany already has blood on its hands since groups receiving aid have attacked Kurdish areas in Syria. The deputy leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats has said orthodox Christian populations risk ethnic cleansing or worse if the French-allied Islamists come to power. French commitment to the region's Christians is also sincere -- French kings guaranteed protection of Maronite Christians for centuries -- but now more Maronites live outside the region than in it.

Contradictory Positions

This occasionally leaves France and Germany with contradictory positions in the clash between broad-based Sunni and Shi'a alliances -- with critical implications for religious minorities in the region. There are echoes of December 1991, when the tables were turned: a newly confident and unified Germany proactively granted diplomatic recognition to Croatia, which the French viewed as dangerously premature and as a brazen grab to reassert German influence in that part of the Balkans.

Twenty years later, German foreign policy has made the next step and challenges France's traditional spheres of influence to the south. France and Britain ultimately dropped their objections to German plans to recognize Croatia in 1991. But it is unlikely that Germany will accomodate French designs on Syria in 2013.

With fewer German ghosts in the Mediterranean basin, Germany can sell its successful national brand with less historical baggage and distinguish itself from France. This had begun shortly before the Arab Awakening, at a time when Berlin resented exclusionary moves like Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean and took pride in the "small differences" of its own policies.

Unlike in France, for example, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was not allowed to pitch his tent in Berlin, and no German government ever praised Tunisian President Ben Ali's democratization efforts. Germany's long-term security, a regional strategy report from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs argued in 2009, depended on the credibility of such German policies among local populations.

Germany still sold plenty of arms to the same regimes: The same report noted the "especially negative consequences of France's special position on the German economy" and openly complained that "when it's time to sign contracts, it's the French firms that always come in ahead."

The Merkel government has not shrunk from all relevant military roles. It sent personnel to help in Iraq and Mali, and AWACs to Afghanistan to free up allies' own planes for use in Libya. German Patriot batteries installed under NATO in Turkey have already detected hundreds of missiles fired in Syria this year.

But Germany's goals differ markedly and signal a counter-revolutionary stance against French activist zeal. None of the Merkel-led coalitions to come out of September's elections are likely to judge things differently. In addition to the 50 years of the Elysée Treaty, this October also marks the 200th anniversary of the war liberating Prussia from Napoleonic occupation.

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Jim in MD 08/23/2013
1. Historical Amnesia
Huh? Germany historically has found its interests with Russia as a secondary European power. Westerwelle likely sees petroleum interests in Iran versus the old colonial Britain. Until recently, Germany was great friends with Turkey versus the rest of Europe. That's why Westerwelle stands with Russia in the UN against Anglo-Saxon aggression. He and Russia want a multi-polar world versus the old "colonial" powers. Friedrich Barbarossa also helped Byzantium against France. This is neither new nor muscular foreign policy.
geroldf 08/23/2013
2. Syria demands action
Germany's reluctance to intervene in conflict areas is a good principle, but there are times when the necessity for action overrules. This is such a time. The best way to ensure that an Islamic dictatorship doesn't replace the Assad dictatorship is for NATO to work directly with the FSA, and give Syria back to the Syrian people. It's the low-risk option. The FSA already controls territory contiguous with the Turkish border; NATO could easily establish air superiority over the rebel-held territory, and gradually extend it over the entire country as the FSA establishes control over the ground. NATO air support and Syrian ground forces would have to cooperate, and thereby the Islamist wolves could be separated from Syrian patriots who could be effective leaders in the post-Assad period. Assad's massive use of sarin gas is practically a plea for intervention. Everyone wants this nightmare to end, and NATO is the only force that can do it. Merkel needs to show some courage here and get on with it. France is correct, and Germany needs to get on board.
sharon_st100 08/24/2013
It is nauseating when the 3rd largest weapons exporter in the world goes around morally preening to have a foreign policy. The only foreign policy Germany has is a crude mercantile export at any cost policy without any moral or ethical boundaries. When the New York Times exposes to the world who sold Assad his WMD stockpile in the same way it exposed how German companies built Saddam's poison gas factories, then perhaps a more realistic assessment of Germany's foreign policy can be expected, but I don't have much hope of that for people who live in a delusional world.
plutocrat 08/24/2013
In my knowledge and understanding of politics I have very strong feeling that France is in some kind of desperation to get rid of the fifth grade economic and political power image. Unfortunately for France, that is the crude reality and no matter what they try to do they will never be on equals terms with Germany, UK, US or Russia. Contrary to all of their efforts they will sink even further as the big countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa continue to grow and push for their place under the sun. Germany is absolutely right to maintain distance and soberness from France which is driven by growing image crisis and is drawing quite unreasonable and premature decisions. In case of Syria it is absolutely impossible to draw clear conclusion as there is possible that some chemical agent has been used against people on a part of rebels as everyone knows that most of the rebels are former soldiers who switched sides and it was very likely that some of them had access to chemical weapons and stole it only to use it when needed. Only independent and totally unbiased inspectors can reveal the truth. Beside that many of experts on chemical warfare warn that there are more doubts about weapon grade chemical weapon but on possibly easier explanation such as Chlorine gas which would quite suit seen images. This time I have to support German decision to use cool head and not to jump in conclusion. As far as Balkan is concern German ghosts are non existing as many of workers in Germany are coming from former Yugoslav republics and Germans were always very welcome there. German influence is natural regardless of other wishes.
pretextat86 08/25/2013
5. optional
What are you talking about? Extraction and infrastructure contracts in Mali? In Serbia? This article and the one on Germnay's leadership just show what is wrong with Germany today: an insistence on its strength with no desire to bear the consequences. Talking about peace now, after chemical attacks is too little too late. This newspaper has been full of articles bashing France and the UK. Those two countries shoulder their responsibilities, both in Europe and outside, something Germany has failed to do to this day, hence the lacklustre situation in the eurozone.
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