When it comes to Libya, the Merkel government finds itself on the defensive on two fronts. Internationally, Berlin’s position has been criticized from all directions even as NATO takes over command for the enforcement of the no-fly zone. Nationally, the voices criticizing the government’s decision to abstain from UN Security Council Resolution 1973 have grown from a few individuals to a veritable opposition cutting across the party spectrum. The government has been put on the spot for isolating itself internationally, for gambling away its hopes for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and for betraying a German foreign policy based on democratic norms.

In light of this criticism it is important to recall that Berlin has put forth valid arguments about the prospects of acting militarily in Libya:

To begin with, it is clear that there is a gap between the political goal of ousting Gaddafi and the more limited military goal of protecting civilians from the advances of Gaddafi’s military forces. So far military strikes have been tied to the limited goals established in the UN resolution and President Obama has reassured the American public of his commitment to these UN goals and these goals only. The French government, however, has indicated its willingness to connect the question of Gaddafi’s fall with the humanitarian mission should the latter not comply with the demands of the UN resolution. In case air strikes are not enough to compel Gaddafi to give in, this may well bring up the issue of ground troops, as Berlin has argued, and essentially provides a slippery slope of international engagement.

In addition, the international community lacks a concept of its political vision for Libya should the no-fly zone have the additional effect of driving Gaddafi out of the country. To a large extent it remains unclear who the rebel movement represents and what a post-war political order for Libya should be and who will enforce it.

A successful military campaign requires strong political backing from all parties to stomach difficulties and unintended consequences along the way. Early on Berlin voiced doubts as to whether the Western countries and the Arab League would actually make up such a stable coalition providing the necessary legitimization of the operation and questions remain as to how long these parties will continue to give their support.

Certainly, in abstaining from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, Germany chose a style to voice its dissent that is unfortunate in terms of the signals it sends for a number of reasons:

By overemphasizing its reluctance to send German troops to a war in Libya in the first public statements on the issue, the Merkel government left the impression that it was unwilling to take a position deeply unpopular with the German public ahead of regional elections. This might well leave its mark on Germany’s aspirations for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

The abstention certainly also goes to show that Berlin these days is no longer willing to pay just any price for the sake of reaching a common European or transatlantic position. That certainly is a blow in times where Europe’s common foreign and security policy struggles to find solutions to strategic risks in its immediate neighborhood. Sending 300 soldiers to support NATO’s AWACS mission is at best a cold comfort given that Berlin had been under immense pressure from its allies not to endanger this part of the mission.

The abstention is essentially just the tip of the iceberg, and focusing too much on it ignores the diplomatic failures ahead of the vote in the UN Security Council. From the perspective of German foreign policy it may ultimately be less important why it unilaterally abstained. It is, however, rather important to understand why it failed to work effectively within multilateral institutions to bring about a different solution to the crisis. A political solution is not in sight and most of the measures Germany supported within the EU and the UN are designed to take effect only in the long-term.

Ruprecht Polenz, Chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, aptly remarked last week that there is an operative gap between the demand for Gaddafi to step down and the government’s reluctance to use military force. The German government has not tried to close this gap by pointing to and arguing for a political or diplomatic approach to the crisis. Short-term diplomatic solutions were certainly hard to achieve given the shunning of Gaddafi as persona non grata, but their total absence is still remarkable. Certainly the early French recognition of the rebels in Benghazi and the relentless British and French lobbying for the use of military force restricted the diplomatic room to maneuver. Still, German foreign policy failed to use its position in various forums – NATO, the EU, the UN – to bring on board those that had been skeptical towards military engagement. The German government has correctly pointed out that a political vision for the conflict is missing. But it must also take the blame for not developing such a vision together with its partners.


Pia Niedermeier is currently a DAAD/AICGS Fellow and a research assistant to the international security division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

This essay originally appeared in the March 25, 2011, AICGS Advisor.