This essay is based on a detailed analysis on how media and think tanks responded to Joachim Gauck’s speech at the 2014 Munich Security Conference. The study is available in German in the latest issue of Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik Vol. 8, No 1 (2015).

On January 31, 2014 Federal President Joachim Gauck addressed the Munich Security Conference, calling on Germany to assume more responsibility in world politics. As the world changes at high speed, Gauck argued, Germany needs to shape it together with its partners because Germany’s relations with the rest of the world are interwoven and interdependent. In extreme cases and after careful consideration, Gauck said, more responsibility could mean using armed forces.

As the Munich Security Conference meets again this year it is time to ask how Germany responded to Gauck’s call. This study looks at both the media and think tanks, asking whether both worked toward building a domestic consensus.

Public opinion in Germany is divided. Many support an active role for Germany in world politics. However, when it comes to the use of armed forces, an even larger majority is unequivocally opposed. The majority of the media misrepresented Gauck’s call for assuming more responsibility by stating that he had just asked for more military engagement. With their biased interpretation of the speech, the media sought to rally the German public against a more active role in international relations in general. The subsequent debate carried by the media actually showed that nobody argued in favor of an increase in the use of armed forces.

Arguments focused on the conditions under which the use of force can be justified and the appropriate standards for such a justification. At one end of the spectrum, some debate participants limited the use of armed forces strictly to national and collective defense purposes. At the other end, others argued that Germany is one of the main beneficiaries of the current international order and therefore has a high stake in its stability. Maintaining that stability could ultimately mean defining it by the use of armed forces. Many share the view that the use of armed forces is overrated and recent missions, particularly in Afghanistan, have demonstrated that it achieves mixed results at best. The emerging consensus across the spectrum indicates that the use of force can only be a last resort and has to meet a number of other conditions, including the principle of proportionality, which requires a mandate from appropriate international organizations—mainly the United Nations. The intense discussion clearly indicated that Germany’s partners should not expect the Federal Republic to contribute more than the current level of military forces to international missions.

This leaves the question of whether Germany will compensate for its reluctance to use armed forces by contributing more non-military means to collective purposes and thereby carry more responsibility. Most participants favored the use of a wide range of foreign policy tools that should be integrated into a comprehensive concept. However, this argument is mainly driven by popularity and legitimacy. Studies showed that Germany’s contributions of non-military means to international missions do not exceed the level of reasonable expectations based on economic or other performance indicators. The Federal Republic should be challenged to put its money where its mouth is and be asked to increase its non-military tools substantially. Moreover, participants of the debate completely failed to ask for an honest assessment of whether civilian tools achieve better results than military ones. In fact, no evaluation exists. Think tanks have just started to build a methodology to assess the use of civilian capabilities in international missions. The use of civilian conflict managers did not move beyond a number of very small projects. Even more important, there are no clearly visible signs that Germany builds up substantial civilian capabilities in order to compensate for its reluctance to use armed forces—nor is there any substantial work of developing a comprehensive concept that systematically and consistently integrates the entire range of foreign policy tools.

One year after President Gauck’s call that Germany should play a more active role in international relations by assuming more responsibility in world politics, the results are mixed. The media, think tanks, and the public are deeply engaged in a debate on the legitimacy of the use of armed forces, on the one hand, and how to assume more responsibility by using a range of non-military means, on the other. The emerging consensus indicates that the use of armed forces should be severely limited. Instead, most Germans strongly support a more active role in international affairs by using civilian tools. However, this resulting consensus has not yet produced any operational outcomes. Unless it does, the debate is just a camouflage of Germany not answering its president’s call. The participants of this year’s Munich Security Conference will observe whether Chancellor Angela Merkel actually delivers.