Hands Off our Shackles, Please The Debate Over German Security Policies

Two decades after reunification, the German decision to call in a NATO air strike on fuel trucks in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan is a test of Germany's maturity. But even the handling of this incident has already turned a harsh spotlight on the shortcomings of Berlins security policy.


By Constanze Stelzenmüller

On many levels -- equipment, leadership, information, communication, strategy, and perhaps even perceptions of the incident itself -- grave mistakes were made. And not only by Colonel Georg Klein and his staff, but also by Germany's military and civilian leadership. These issues are now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. Yet at best, this forum will only indirectly address the core questions of German security policy. Such as: Does Germany actually have a security policy worthy of the name? If so, is this policy actually based on a strategy? How effective are the actors and institutions that shape and implement such policy? Do Germany's policies towards its alliances bear inspection? And finally, how good are the tools at its disposal? The following are intended as a contribution to this debate.

Thesis #1: Germany is Fully Sovereign; Its Security Policy is Not

In the 1970s a U.S. cigarette brand courted the emancipated woman with the slogan: "You've come a long way, baby." The same could be said of Germany. No other country in Europe had as much ground to make up in the field of security policy after 1989, as the Federal Republic. Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, were created as the price for NATO entry in 1956, against massive domestic resistance, with a single mission: to defend the country's 1,700-mile border along the Iron Curtain against a possible Warsaw Pact attack. The Bundeswehr's ranks swelled to nearly 700,000 after taking over the GDR's "National People's Army." Twenty years on, it has shrunk to a third of that size. After an agonized national debate about whether the nation's Basic Law even permits "out-of-area missions" (the Constitutional Court handed down a conditional yes in 1994), Germany sent troops to UN, NATO and EU missions in Cambodia, Somalia, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan; German soldiers saw combat for the first time in Kosovo. All the while, a succession of German governments firmly maintained the primacy of the civilian executive over the military and the pre-eminence of soft over hard power. These were, and are, remarkable achievements. Still, from the point of view of even its most sympathetic neighbors and allies, Germany still looks like a "nation in shackles of its own making," as the Süddeutsche Zeitung's Stefan Kornelius put it.

This became particularly obvious from 1998 onwards under the "red-green" coalition formed by the Social Democrats and the Green Party. In this period, German security policy lurched wildly between a commitment to the culture of restraint and the plunge into military action, between self-congratulatory paeans to "civilian power" and hard power projection, between hypermoralism and opportunism. The new "black and yellow" coalition formed by the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, like the grand coalition before it, operates with rather less heat and noise. Nevertheless, the impression remains that the strategic framework of German security policy is rudimentary, above all when it comes to the "hard" questions now besetting the West: the Afghan "surge," sanctions against Iran, and a more assertive approach towards Russia and China.

It is symptomatic of this state of affairs that fundamental decisions regarding German security policy have been repeatedly forced into the Procrustean bed of moral necessity, domestic imperatives, or the demands of external alliances. German politicians sent the Bundeswehr into Kosovo in 1998 with the slogan "Never again Auschwitz" and to Afghanistan in 2002 out of "unconditional solidarity" with the United States. More recently, intra-coalition tensions or the need to co-opt the opposition and/or the German public have been cited as grounds for resisting allied entreaties for more German soldiers in the Hindu Kush. It is no less telling that it took the Kunduz bombing to wring her first government declaration on Afghanistan from Chancellor Merkel together with the overdue acknowledgement that the Bundeswehr's operations in the north of the country had now become a "combat operation."

The result of all this, as the Hamburg historian Klaus Naumann wrote recently, is a security policy that substitutes "a tactical policy dictated by caveats instead of a strategic logic dictated by goals." All too often, decision-making and accountability are shunted out of the policymaking sphere and dumped on the military leadership. This is politics fleeing from itself-the very opposite of responsibility. And it inevitably leads to excessive burdens being placed on military commanders.

Hence my first recommendation: Shaping security policy is the sovereign duty of the political leadership. It requires conceptual vigor, a willingness to lead, a sense of responsibility and courage.


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