The Merkel Doctrine: Tank Exports to Saudi Arabia Signal German Policy Shift
Berlin has said nothing about the reasons behind its decision to reverse decades of carefully considered foreign policy and export up to 270 modern tanks to Saudi Arabia. The sale has baffled many in Germany and abroad given the country's longstanding tradition of not selling arms to crisis regions. It may be only the beginning.
The walls of the Small Cabinet Room in the German Chancellery are paneled in reddish beech wood and a turquoise carpet covers the floor. Eight-centimeter (three-inch) thick bulletproof glass protects the chancellor from assassination attempts. There's something faceless about the room. It breathes discretion, as if it were made to keep secrets.
That's precisely how this room must have appeared on June 27, 2011. That Monday, Angela Merkel sat with a stack of documents in front of her at the nine-meter (30-foot) oval beech wood table, surrounded by 16 black, upholstered leather chairs. A square, gilt clock in the middle of the table served as a reminder that the chancellor's time is always in short supply.
One woman and 14 men were with Merkel at the table, gathered for a session of the Federal Security Council. In the next hour and a half, they would reach an historic decision, approving the delivery of more than 200 of Germany's most modern tank, the "Leopard" 2A7+ model, to Saudi Arabia. This would be the first time Germany supplied heavy arms to an Arab government that has declared its intentions to fight its opponents "with an iron fist," a country that deployed tanks against demonstrators in a neighboring country and ranks 160th on the Economist's Democracy Index, just a few spots above North Korea, which holds the very bottom spot.
The decision Merkel and her key ministers reached here in the Small Cabinet Room broke a German taboo, and broke with the decisions of previous governments in Berlin not to supply heavy arms equipment to Saudi Arabia as a matter of principle. It also marked a paradigm shift in German foreign policy.
No Weapons of War for Crisis Regions
Up to that point, the country had followed the guidelines championed by no less than long-serving Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Free Democratic Party (FDP): Weapons of war could not be exported to crisis regions, the prevailing thinking dictated. That was the German position and all of Merkel's predecessors -- from Helmut Schmidt to Helmut Kohl to Gerhard Schröder -- stuck to this tenet regardless of political affiliation.
But Merkel broke with the established policy and overturned Genscher's principle. Despite some misgivings, she determined it to be acceptable to deliver weapons wherever doing so best serves Germany's geopolitical and economic interests.
This is Germany's new arms policy, and it means tank export deals can now play a role in determining the country's power politics. It is also a decision that places foreign policy interests above human rights in a country where men can drive tanks, but women aren't even allowed to drive cars.
The breaking of the taboo on exporting weapons of war took place behind the closed doors of the Small Cabinet Room and, to this day, the government has tried to keep it a secret. When SPIEGEL first reported on the decision in early July, Merkel wanted to know how word of the internal matter got out.
Dismay From all Parties
The debate that broke out after the deal came to light was an unusually passionate one, with the opposition condemning the deal and many conservatives reacting with dismay as well. Former Defense Minister Volker Rühe of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel's conservative party, demanded that "this arms deal must be stopped." Horst Teltschik, foreign policy advisor under Chancellor Kohl, warned that the entire region was instable. "I consider the idea of delivering German tanks in such a situation to be absolutely wrong," he said, adding that he believed "that in the current political situation, Helmut Kohl would certainly have rejected such a decision." Similar comments came from Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and from Erika Steinbach, the CDU's human rights spokesperson in the legislative chamber.
The chancellor herself remained silent on the issue. In typical fashion, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, pointed out that everything discussed by the Federal Security Council is confidential, even the meeting agenda.
Perhaps there are good reasons for exporting German military equipment to Saudi Arabia -- but the public still hasn't been informed of them, even months after the decision leaked. One thing is certain, though: There are good reasons not to endorse the deal. In a truly democratic process, arguments on both sides would be weighed in order to then pursue the best path. The public has a right to know what security policy guidelines the government is following and which countries are receiving deliveries of German weapons. How did the decision come about? Who voted for it and who against? And on what grounds does the government justify its policy change?
Reconstructing the decision reached on June 27 is a journey to the heart of the German government. Anyone caught discussing a Federal Security Council meeting risks up to five years' imprisonment. Thus, this reconstruction is based primarily on confidential conversations and the content of restricted documents.
The paradigm shift occurred in three phases.
The first phase began in the second half of 2010. This was a time of "still"s, when Guido Westerwelle was still Germany's vice chancellor and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was still defense minister. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still ruled in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the Middle East still seemed as stable as ever. From Berlin's perspective, the time seemed ripe to fulfill a wish on the part of Riyadh's aged monarch, King Abdullah, 85. And so Frank Haun requested appointments with several German ministers.
An Attractive Market for a German Arms Firm
As chairman of the board at Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, a Munich-based arms manufacturer with 3,500 employees, Haun was looking to tap new markets. Krauss-Maffei Wegmann had been hit hard by the Greek crisis as well as by budget cuts at the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces. The number of orders the company received was dropping and annual sales looked likely to slip beneath the billion-euro threshold by the end of the year. Haun also liked to complain about the "enormous competitive disadvantages" his company faced, because "in no other country in the world" did the defense industry face "more severe export limitations" than in Germany. Given all these factors, Saudi Arabia fit quite nicely as a new market for the Leopard tank.
The Leopard 2, a powerful modern battle tank, is the company's crown jewel. Its latest version weighs in at 67.5 metric tons (74.4 US tons) and is 10.97 meters (35.99 feet) in length, equipped with a 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon capable of firing four kilometers (2.5 miles). The Leopard 2 can ford water two meters deep and is a shining example of German military technology.
Haun embarked on a very special type of road show. He addressed the Defense Ministry, the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry, relaying the considerable interest from Riyadh. This would be an enormously beneficial deal for the German defense industry and especially for Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, encompassing not only the tanks themselves, but also maintenance, training and replacement parts. Signals from Riyadh indicated Saudi Arabia was interested in buying 200 tanks, although it could also be as many as 270. In total, the deal was worth up to 5 billion ($6.9 billion).
At the Foreign Ministry, Haun met with Foreign Minister Westerwelle (FDP). Within the German government, diplomats traditionally belong to the camp more critical of the defense industry, as do those at the Development Ministry. The Economics, Interior and Defense ministries generally comprise the other camp. If Haun managed to get the Foreign Ministry on his side, it would be a huge step toward being able to export the tanks.
The plan found both supporters and detractors among the diplomats at the Foreign Ministry. The foreign minister spoke with the chancellor about Haun's request, and both Merkel and Westerwelle agreed not to block the deal, but with one caveat: No German government sells heavy-duty "made in Germany" military equipment to an Arab country that stands in opposition to Israel's security interests. This is one of the key principles of German defense policy.
Helmut Kohl stopped the export of Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia in 1983, "not least due to the interests of our close partner Israel," former advisor Teltschik recalls. In 1991, Kohl did allow the delivery of 36 German "Fuchs" personnel carriers to Riyadh, but these were meant to protect Saudi forces against possible poison gas attacks from Iraq. Merkel also authorized a factory there to manufacture German G36 assault rifles, categorized as light weaponry, under license. But tanks, without approval from Israel? It would never fly.
- Part 1: Tank Exports to Saudi Arabia Signal German Policy Shift
- Part 2: Tanks Well Suited for Putting Down Revolutions
- Part 3: A Tectonic Shift
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