In March 2011, the liberal-conservative government (known in Germany as the “black and yellow coalition”) decided to abstain from voting on the case of a Libyan invasion; a decision that created quite a stir. But it created quite a different kind of stir than Gerhard Schröder’s avowal of unrestricted solidarity with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan did in autumn of 2001. Similarly, even the resounding rejection of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party triggered less of an emotional response than the recent abstention on Lybia has.

Much of the stir has been triggered on a national rather than an international level and can roughly be described as more of a mild surprise instead of outright indignation, as was also the case in 2003. German governments, who have traditionally held up the principle of alliance solidarity, opted to follow “national interests”, thus once again falling in line with the other great power centres of Paris, London and Washington, who, in turn, have been operating based on the same rationale for decades. The surprise, however, originated less from the actual decision but from the resilience brought forth by the conservative government against the massive pressure exercised by the Western alliance partners; a move which could have well entailed isolation. In the past, the fear of isolation as well as external pressure have often helped sway the German vote towards the anticipated outcome. But not this time.

The popular outrage, however, is not firmly entrenched within the German populace either. Rather, similar to the case of the German vote against a UN-mandated military operation against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an equally healthy portion of Germans today also identify with the recent military abstention in the case of Libya, as promoted most visibly by German foreign affairs minister Guido Westerwelle. Considering the Gaddafi-regime’s abundant use of violence against internal adversaries on the one hand and the clichéd excuse of not being able to intervene at each site of human rights violations on the other, the disposition to object was quite low, the key reason being the exceptionally traumatic experiences of Afghanistan, a theme which has had a great impact on popular opinion. The difficulties in meeting the lofty goal of democracy in Afghanistan were as much present as the disappointment in the more specific prospect of giving women back their rights and their dignity, the first and foremost goal of the invasion according to Joschka Fischer in 2001.

This time, however, the indignation quite remarkably sits with the political class, across all ranks of expertise and party affiliation. This is not to say that there has not been a fair amount of supporters next to policy makers Merkel, de Maizière and Westerwelle. Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party and former Merkel opponent Frank-Walter Steinmeier also put national interests first – even at the risk of losing the image of a “solidary partner” and being internationally isolated. However, the few sceptics could not drown out the cries of indignation resonating throughout the German political class – from Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, the elder statemen from the “Bonn Republic”, all the way to Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Joschka Fischer and Ruprecht Polenz of the new foreign policy generation of the “Berlin Republic”.

Where though does this wave of indignation come from? The decision in itself as well as its normative legitimation speak a tale of learning, making the outcry all the more enigmatic. At the time of writing – the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks drawing close – former chancellor Gerhard Schröder indirectly admitted to having pressed for a military involvement of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan first and foremost on behalf of upholding the alliance solidarity principle. This, however, is a confession that has often been misinterpreted as the hyperloyality of Bonn to the United States continued, and not as an emancipation from the “taboo” of military abstinence. If Schröder and Fischer as ideal taboo-breakers paved the way for Germany to be a “normal” military alliance partner, Merkel, Westerwelle and de Maizière today represent the most unsuspicious government in the sense that the alliance solidarity principle has been rebuked in favour of more tangible national interests in a comprehensible manner. In the case of Libya, for example, it could hardly be argued in March that German national security was under any kind of threat from the developments in Libya. Neither a successful revolt of the insurgents nor the forceful reinstatement of Gaddafi would have had any serious repercussions for Germany. This was also Merkel’s line of argumentation on March 17th this year, and since then, it seems that no knowledge has been gained that could prove otherwise. Whereas Sarkozy and Cameron may have act not only on behalf of their national interests but also in the name of the United Nations Responsibility to Protect, the breadth of German interests (as seen in Berlin) blazed a different trail. Taking into account the miserable experiences in Afghanistan and the congestion of the Bundeswehr, Libya promised to be yet another mission with a highly unpredictable outcome, many civil casualties and a potentially fatal impact for the ruling Christian Democrats in the then upcoming federal state election in Baden-Württemberg in the face of a public wary of interventions. The path initially designated by Schröder and Fischer also entails a different understanding of the military, which is now openly defined as an “instrument of foreign policy” (de Maizière). However, the current repositioning in terms of Germany’s national interests towards a more cautious approach goes even further than this – and needs to be seen as an independent development – if one takes into account the current tendencies of German popular opinion, which, by a set of intervention-friendly experts, tends to be denounced as “swissification fantasies” (a reference to the sympathies of a significant portion of German public opinion to emulate Switzerland’s role in global affairs).

What, however, may explain the indignation? As always, the causes are multifaceted. For some, among them Joschka Fischer, the abstention also served the purpose of legitimising past actions as well as rebranding Germany as a civil force which stands in for a global Responsibility to Protect, as opposed to the arbitrary rule of numerous states today. Others highlighted the urgency of acting in accord with the two other European leading powers France and Great Britain, with which one, after all, wishes to be on par. Another set of people, on the other hand, more generally feared the deterioration of Germany’s image as a reliable partner in foreign policy – an image that dates back to better times in foreign policy during the Bonn Republic. As the opposite of all these interpretations, however, became a tangible reality – and was even heralded by foreign minister Westerwelle as a new “culture of military asceticism” – most commentators had seen enough.

Unarguably, other normatively tenable reasons – ie. other than the principle of alliance solidarity and the image of a reliable partner – could have been found to legitimate an active German participation in the enforcement of the UN-resolution. However, one should not overlook the fact that many motives present in the current wave of indignation contributed to the decision to abstain from voting. It should therefore not come as a surprise that “national” (or even “global”) interests will be defined differently in the German chancellery than by the opposition parties in the German Bundestag, a Berlin think tank or a university in Frankfurt.

The alleged damage caused by Berlin’s abstention to Germany’s reputation of reliability, can be rectified when seen through the lens of traditional great power politics. Following this line, Germany may have only gained in reputation by becoming equally “unpredictable” in its foreign policy approach as the French, the Britons or the Americans by choosing to follow up on “national interest”. Reliability and followership may be a formula of success for small states, but not for great powers. This is one of the foreign policy lessons learned in Berlin if one compares Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011. And it is a lesson learned across traditional party alliances.


Professor Gunther Hellmann is a Professor of Political Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität Frankfurt/Main and a AICGS Non-Resident Fellow.
This essay originally appeared in the Autumn/Fall 2011 Issue of WeltTrends, and in the September 22, 2011, AICGS Advisor with the author’s permission.