The Munich Security Conference this year found a German leadership comfortable with its new role in the world, but not without its critics. In the year since President Gauck announced at the conference that “It’s time for Germany to lead,” the country has demonstrated in the negotiating room and through deployments that it takes the task seriously. The reported rift between the United States and Germany over sending arms to Ukraine has been overblown, as was shown by the recent meeting between Obama and Merkel in Washington. But the ultimate test of German leadership will come at the meeting with Putin in Minsk, when the world will watch whether Merkel and her allies are ready to draw a hard line for Russia.
Long before German chancellor Angela Merkel even stepped to the podium Saturday at the Munich Security Conference (MSC), Germany had already grabbed the spotlight on the international stage. Arriving at the Bayerischer Hof on the tail end of her trip to Kiev and Moscow with French president Francois Hollande, Merkel’s diplomacy whirlwind, not the first since the Ukraine conflict started, placed her in a pivotal role as crisis manager for the East-West conflict. But will those efforts be enough?
When German president Joachim Gauck announced at the conference last year “It’s time for Germany to lead,” many of his compatriots winced. In the conflict-laden year since then, German policymakers have shown that this notion is for them no longer a matter of controversy, but of necessity.
In the wake of aggression by the Islamic State (ISIS) on Turkey’s borders, and refugees fleeing to Germany from Africa, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine in light of conflicts there, German leadership in foreign and security policy has had a reach beyond its own territory. From arming the Kurds and pushing through a new mission in Northern Iraq, to having boots on the ground in Kosovo, Turkey, Afghanistan, and across Africa, Merkel and her defense minister Ursula von der Leyen have spent the last year taking the German responsibility to lead seriously.
Yet over the weekend at the conference, that leadership was called into question due to Merkel’s resolve to not send weapons to Ukraine. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier commented at the conference in defense of Merkel’s rejection of arms contributions that there is no “one size fits all” solution to foreign policy, but he said this does not mean that Germany is not prepared to continue to take a leadership role in solving the crisis.1 Germany’s willingness to approve arms for the Kurds to fight ISIS should prove otherwise, in his opinion. Yet how can one handle a Putin unwilling to keep the ceasefire and to halt arms trafficking promises made in last September’s Minsk Protocol, ever-smiling over the endless negotiating rounds while Ukraine’s territorial integrity is being violated?
MSC director and former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger sees the best solution—out of a number of bad options—to be for the United States to send arms to Ukraine: “Sometimes one needs to apply pressure to win the peace.”2 Who doles out the weapons is not the important question, he said. While journalists covering the MSC focused on the “growing rift“ between the United States and Europe over the arms question, the “rift“ is one of media making, as was shown by the solidarity in Washington yesterday between Merkel and President Barack Obama. “This does not have to be a rift, it’s called division of labor,” said Ambassador Ischinger.3
Collapsing Order, or Changing Power Vortex?
What is clear is that the events of the last year have changed the power vortex from institutions to actors. Meeting under the title of “Collapsing Order, Reluctant Guardians,” many of the panels at the conference argued that broken institutions are responsible for a growing ISIS force, a conflict-laden Africa and an East-West conflict that has served to time warp international relations thirty years into the past. The institutional argument is far too simplistic. The same broken institutions presided over the reunification of Germany, the Allied mission in Kosovo, the expansion of NATO, and the creation of the euro. The difference is that today, the world’s superpowers are willing to ignore them.
Nevertheless, Germany is focusing on fixing the world’s institutions to solve that problem. Foreign Minister Steinmeier outlined how Germany’s increased responsibility within the European Union, the National Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United Nations will serve to promote more security across Europe: “We, more than any other country, depend on a rules-based international order and on keeping the rules. Our security and our prosperity are dependent on predictable circumstances far beyond our borders.”4
What to do when those posing the greatest threat to international security do not abide by the “rules-based international order” and do not provide the world with “predictable circumstances”? Is there a collapsing order? No. It is not institutions alone, but united coalitions of power, willing to apply physical pressure when words fail, that will change the game.
Is there then a dearth of guardians? Absolutely not. Defense Minister von der Leyen called for a “leadership from the middle” that decides and trusts and provides for the security with and of its allies. Germany and France have stepped up to the plate this last year and agreed to assist the United Kingdom and the United States in defeating ISIS and in stopping the bloodbath in Ukraine. Reaffirming this leadership from the middle of Europe, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said Saturday, in response to accusations that Germany was leaving Ukraine to defend itself, “I trust Merkel not to leave Ukraine alone.”
Yet, as both Vice President Joe Biden and Chancellor Merkel said over the weekend, time is the key factor that determines what tools are to be used when. Dialogue has been given a chance, but time is running out. Over 5,000 have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, with a mass increase in civilian deaths in the last month.5 Large swaths of territory have been taken by force by Russia or their insurgents, including Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
It was no doubt a strategic move for Merkel to go to Moscow again. The meeting in Minsk for a final round of negotiations with Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel, and Hollande will put the onus on Putin to deliver. If he doesn’t deliver this time, Germany and the United States will need to turn to other options in their foreign policy toolbox. These could include making proposals that address Putin’s oil concerns through alternative energy sources, while ensuring the territorial security of Ukraine is kept intact. SWIFT sanctions, which would cut off Russian businesses from the international banking transaction system, would isolate it from its key trading partners in Europe. Defensive weapons must also not be left off the table.
As von der Leyen said on Friday, “Unconventional and diverse tools of hybrid war must be fought through unconventional and diverse means.”6 The test for German leadership will be whether it is ready to draw a hard line that Putin will not be able to cross, before circumstances dictate that some tools on the negotiating table be eliminated. It is Germany’s moment. Let’s hope that for an exit to the vicious circle of violence, the moment has not come too late.
Sarah Lohmann is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Political Science at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany.
4. Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Munich Security Conference, 8 February 2015: “Wir sind wie kein zweites Land auf eine regelbasierte internationale Ordnung und die Einhaltung der Regeln angewiesen. Unsere Sicherheit und unser Wohlstand hängen von berechenbaren Verhältnissen weit jenseits unserer eigener Grenzen ab.” The above “predictable circumstances” was the interpretation provided by the MSC translator.
6. Ursula von der Leyen at the Ursula, Munich Security Conference, 6 February 2015: “Es sind die unkonventionellen und vielfältigen Mittel des hybriden Krieges, die unkonventionell und vielfältig bekämpft werden müssen.”