Germany’s President Joachim Gauck knows his job. He defined it himself, and the President acts through words. They may be uncomfortable words sometimes. Gauck clearly sees his version of the bully pulpit in his presidential platform—and he is good at using it. After all, he was a preacher in his earlier years, especially during the turbulent period of the end of East Germany. Furthermore, he managed the beginning of the difficult process of coming to grips with the East German past as the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives.

Now the President is taking on a new challenge, admonishing Germans to accept more responsibility on the international stage in shaping efforts at conflict prevention. In a recent radio interview, he went a step further, saying that there are occasions when the use of force is necessary to stop violations of human rights, war crimes, and crimes against humanity: “As a last resort, sometimes it’s necessary to fight off acts of aggression together with others.”

Yet the President is not the Chancellor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or the Minister of Defense. He can spark debate and discussion—but he cannot decide policy.

So when the actual application of the President’s words have to transfer from theory into policy practice, it is the political leaders who carry that responsibility and also have to persuade the country that it is the right course for Germany.

Right now there multiple fires burning around the globe, and like any other country, Germany must decide not only where to engage and extinguish them, but also where not to engage.

President Gauck has been encouraging a hesitant German public to engage. But what about the one member of Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet who is in charge of the military side of engagement: Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen? As she is visiting Washington this week, it would be a good opportunity to ask her about her thoughts concerning what Germany is doing or should be doing in Ukraine, within NATO, on Afghanistan, in Syria, and elsewhere. The list is long.

Only a few weeks after becoming Germany’s first female defense minister, von der Leyen delivered her first public address to the international community at the Munich Security Conference this past January. She clearly echoed the words of President Gauck, underlining the fact that Germany has both interests in and responsibilities for securing peace and preventing conflict on the global stage.

A few months later, after Russia had annexed Crimea, the Minister argued for German military support in those countries bordering Russia to signal German solidarity. She was immediately attacked for allegedly raising tensions with Moscow and accused on social media of war mongering. While German public opinion is in large measure opposed to military options in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, Germany has over four thousand troops engaged worldwide in peace-keeping operations, including more than a decade of engagement in Afghanistan. Von der Leyen also points to assistance in Mali and in dealing with the extraction of chemical weapons in Syria.

That said, Germany’s military capacities are not growing. Its military expenditures are set at 1.3 percent of the federal budget, below average among NATO allies. More cuts are planned in future budgets. As the third largest exporter of military equipment, the largest economy in Europe could be expected to do more. But the political support for that is not present even within the Chancellor’s own coalition. Von der Leyen defends her budget by saying it is not about how much we spend but how we spend our resources. The fact is, budget cuts continue throughout NATO and the sum is not always more than its parts. The stark defense commitment asymmetry in the alliance remains a sore spot among its members.

Von der Leyen emphasizes Germany’s commitment to what is called networked security, involving efforts to link its various defense dimensions together and with other partners. That remains a work in progress at the European level and within Germany itself, given the continuing low level of investment in defense infrastructure.

Von der Leyen has a tough job. She faces a public that is not enthusiastic about the military as a tool of foreign policy, despite the exhortations of its President. While the actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine have generated negative reactions in Germany, there is still a substantial presence of people who offer their “understanding” for his aggression—and not just in Ukraine. In fact, there are those who even voice admiration for Putin’s criticism of Europe and of the United States for “provoking” Russia—while favoring his crack-down on human rights as well.

But even beyond the current crisis, von der Leyen faces the need to persuade her skeptical public about the necessity of German responsibilities that go with its global role. Twenty-five years after German unification, Germany is in a slow process of learning that lesson.

References to the support Germany received when it was divided suggest that the commitment made to the Federal Republic by its allies ought to be the benchmark for today’s Germany. Even though von der Leyen’s initial suggestion to strengthen NATO forces in Eastern Europe was heavily criticized as provocative, the fact is that the American, British, and French brigades in West Berlin stood for decades as trip wires against a massive Soviet military force. That presence was not a question of the quantity of forces; it was a signal of commitment.

Von der Leyen has to know that the last defense minister who became chancellor was Helmut Schmidt. In his time at the height of the Cold War, Schmidt commanded a much larger military force. Later, when he became chancellor, Schmidt faced a huge challenge in mobilizing German public opinion behind the need to counter the Soviet Union’s strategic military steps in Europe—a challenge that eventually was part of the reason he lost his job in 1982.  Finally it was left to Helmut Kohl to continue that task.

In Washington, Minister von der Leyen will face some tough questions about Germany’s key role in dealing with an unpredictable Vladimir Putin. Also under review will be the Grand Coalition’s readiness to put policies into play to remind him that Germany is willing to make some sacrifices to confront Russian ambitions, which may not end in Crimea. Those policies may take the form of sanctions, but should also consist of commitments to an alliance that continues to stand by Germany. There is no other European player that has the same capacity to convey that message, if it chooses to do so.

If Ursula von der Leyen wants to be the second defense minister to possibly become chancellor, she needs to help Germany make that choice.

 

Further Reading

German Defense Minister: ‘We Can’t Look Away’ (Spiegel ONLINE): Taking place just after her appointment and speech at the Munich Security Conference, this interview with Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen reinforces German commitments to a greater level of participation in international security.

  • Christian Schulz

    Gauck is the epitome of a Federal President – a nice older gentleman who is andy for the government because he draws public ire with his speeches so that the government can go about its business undisturbed and in blessed sience. He has no further significance … and his words go against the view of a solid societal majority. So Merkel will not lift a finger or even make political moves in that directon.

    Now, on to vonder Leyen …

    “That said, Germany’s military capacities are not growing. Its military expenditures are set at 1.3 percent of the federal budget, below average among NATO allies. More cuts are planned in future budgets. As the third largest exporter of military equipment, the largest economy in Europe could be expected to do more. But the political support for that is not present even within the Chancellor’s own coalition.”

    Absolutely correct. And no, neither the perpetual nagging from Washington nor the fighting talk from Rasmussen will change that fact. Germany has chosen to fix its own state finances as top priority and to keep the economy running as second. Higher expenditures for defense aren’t on the screen and especially not a near doubling (to these ominous 2% GDP).

    “She faces a public that is not enthusiastic about the military as a tool of foreign policy, despite the exhortations of its President.”

    Understatement of the century. Our political culture specfically EXCLUDES military force as a tool for foreign policy. So it’s not just “not enthusiastic”, it’s actually “no way!”.

    “But even beyond the current crisis, von der Leyen faces the need to persuade her skeptical public about the necessity of German responsibilities that go with its global role.”

    Why is there a “need” to do this? Where do these automatisms in thinking come from? I as a german citizen would like to hear some serious arguments for that course of action and I am not talking about faux references to some weird logic that emanates from transatlanticist think tanks. I’m all for a serious and open debate about our armed forces but I am strictly against pre-determining the outcome of this discussion.

    “If Ursula von der Leyen wants to be the second defense minister to possibly become chancellor, she needs to help Germany make that choice.”

    If vdL wants to become Chancellor she’ll have to avoid anything that will upset the public and destroy he image. Which means she’ll give the military aspects of her current job a wide berth. This is already an accusation against her, one that is backed by evidence already. For example during her visit to Afghanistan late last year she toured the camp. There was a recon drone set up and vdL made sure she’d never come near it. Why? Because she didn’t want photos of herself in front of drone technology circuating in Germany because drones have a nasty reputation here. Par of the criticism she got for her “attractiveness offensive” (flatscreen TVs, creches etc) was because many Bundeswehr soldiers have the feeling she’ll avoid the military part and only try to score with the public with innocent projects (like the creches).

    To me this indicates she wants to be Chancellor, but it also shows that being defense minister isn’t really her cup of tea.

    • Ulf Haeussler

      One of Mr Schulz’ observations warrants a reply, without prejudice to possible disagreement with others.
      Whilst there are many supporters of a “no way” towards the use of military means as a foreign policy tool this is not an intrinsic part of Germany’s political culture. It is true that the use of military means in a foreign policy context usually sparks controversy; however, controversy indicates the absence rather than presence of a political culture prohibitive of the controversial activity.
      In these circumstances political will matters. This is why President Gauck insists on reminding Germans and their political leaders of their responsibilities. The responsibility to forestall the (re-?) emergence of a political culture involving a “no way” approach towards the use of military means for the purposes of effective foreign policy may be among the most important responsibilities of this nature.

      • Christian Schulz

        @ Mr. Haeussler

        Just to make that clear – I am not against military means based on ideological considerations. I simply refuse to grant the MPs the right to send german soldiers into operations that haven’t been thought through or even discussed openly, that aren’t supported with realistic ROEs and legal security or (one of the most basic issues) with the military equipment and weaponry necessary for success (see the Afghanistan debate). I simply perceive the german political class as too craven to engage in a much-needed debate on fundamental questions: What is the Bundeswehr for? Should we engage in international crisis resolution? Or should we limit ourselves to a more central role in European defense? What capacities and capabilities would the armed forces need for that? What kind of budget would they need for that role?

        My main gripe is that the political decisionmakers are behaving like cowards and run for cover whenever these fundamental issues need to be debated. Trying to preserve one’s career is certainly understandable, but all of them signed up to a serious form of political responsibility when they accepted their mandate. That doesn’t just mean dealing with topics that help with reelection but sometimes actually don’t. But that is a responsibility of the Bundestag that its members are shirking, with massive consequences for the political and societal makeup of of this country.