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Germany’s struggle to understand and to define its global responsibilities through the euro crisis, Afghanistan, and now Libya has taken the country’s policy course through more turns than in the Nürburgring racetrack. Germany’s direction is confusing. These recent German decisions have raised fundamental questions about whether, how, and when Germany will be able to act militarily in support of the United Nations, NATO, or the EU.

The vote of abstention on UNSC Resolution 1973 – a de facto “No” – and the subsequent decision to withdraw Bundesmarine warships from NATO operations in the Mediterranean have created doubts about Germany’s willingness to use legitimate military force to protect the inviolability of human dignity in concert with its allies. These decisions seem self-interested rather than being in the broader interests of transatlantic relations. Germany’s action has raised the question of its role in NATO as a partner in security and defense policy.

Protecting Libyans from genocide is consistent with Germany’s constitutional commitment to protect human dignity. However, German decisions in the current Libyan uprising are not easy to understand. There is no doubt Gaddafi’s threat to kill his own countrymen was credible. His bombing of the Berlin La Belle disco in 1986, which killed a woman and two U.S. sergeants and injured more than 230 people, as well as his downing of Pan Am flight 103, were acts of terror. The call of the UN and by the Arabs to protect Libyans demonstrated the validity of his threat and urgency to counter it. Germany’s insistence on a political solution and that in Libya there could be “no military solution” contributed to the strain in NATO solidarity the Alliance has undergone.

Certainly, the searing experience of World War II and the lessons of the Holocaust have had a profound effect on the German Leitkultur. Germany’s own governing philosophy demanded action, but Germany demurred and apparently chooses not to lead in foreign policy matters that might have to be backed militarily. If Germany abdicates its responsibilities to act militarily in support of the United Nations, NATO, or the EU, France and Britain will fill the European leadership role.

That reliability and commitment to Western values came after a long political struggle. Following World War II, West Germany fought the twin demons of Prussian militarism and of the “Final Solution” that led to the Holocaust. A new pacifist rejection of Prussian militarism resulted in a reshaped security policy, deeply rooted in an alliance-based, territorial defense role for the Bundeswehr, committed to Innere Führung – introspection – totally different from earlier German armies and an obligation under the Basic Law for the respect for human dignity and democratic values.

Although the Balkan wars of the 1990s challenged united Germany’s defensive security policy and demanded the German military deploy out-of-NATO area to end ethnic cleansing, Germany stood the test. When the wars in Yugoslavia broke the country apart and genocide was visited upon Europe’s Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovars in Kosovo, Germany rose up in defense of human life.

However, if today when Gaddafi’s threat to annihilate innocent civilians like “rats” as well as their murder by his military forces is not sufficient for Germany to act under a legitimate UN ‘Responsibility to Protect’ resolution, supported by the Arab League and other Arabs, what is? Leadership that relies on public opinion polls at the expense of principles is destined to fail.

Germany’s decisions in the Libya case are quite baffling; they seem to go totally against Germany’s governing philosophy, and they also conflict with support for multilateralism of NATO and the UN, institutions which had been pillars of German foreign policy. The decisions taken against the Libyan humanitarian intervention have undermined and done long term damage to Germany’s reputation for reliability. Provincialism and isolationism may be tempting policy choices, but they would be wrong. Simply stated, Germany’s role has been predictable in the past, but is no longer.

Germany faces the challenge of being sidelined when the danger of the moment in the Middle East urgently needs European leadership. This shift in German policy has come at a time when the United States wished not to lead an attack against another Muslim country and give strength to an Iranian-led “resistance block” in the next round of regional conflicts that will include Iran and Israel. Obama’s policy in the Middle East, articulated in his Cairo speech in 2009, set the U.S. as an honest broker in a new beginning. Nevertheless, American goodwill is not sufficient to manage alone the turmoil of the Arab uprising.

The Arabs went to the streets to fight for liberty, justice and respect for individual dignity. Western states like Germany and the United States, which believe in these values, must learn from the Arab Spring: Continuing humiliation and punishment of the Palestinians have become rallying calls for militant Islam, and will lead to more regional violence. If we are to encourage democracy and reinvigorate our efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Germany has an important role to play.

The Arab Spring has brought much political uncertainty – and much hope. Germany now stands to decide whether it will be on the right side of that hope.


J.D. Bindenagel is vice president at DePaul University in Chicago and a regular contributor to the Advisor. He is a former U.S. Ambassador and career U.S. diplomat whose negotiating career included agreements on bilateral aviation, U.S.-German Status of Forces Agreement, Holocaust Issues, and Blood Diamonds.

This essay appeared in the May 20, 2011, AICGS Advisor. A German version appeared in the May 18, 2011, edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung and is available here.