Germany’s debate over its foreign policy parameters is a portrait of a country struggling with its own past and present. Yet this same debate does not shed much light on its future. That is not necessarily different from other countries, including the U.S. But the benchmarks of the debates reflect different ways of measuring the balance between values and interests in foreign policy.

The traditional American dialogue between the idealist vs. realist positions in foreign policy is as old as the country itself. The argument runs between those who see a mandate for the U.S. to promote and protect its values in its foreign policy vs. those who see engagement strictly limited to defend American core interests.

Germany is having a somewhat similar debate but with a different cast, one that is driven by both the lessons of the twentieth century as well as of the past decade.

The case of Syria
By many measures, the conflict in Libya is a test for both values and interests. The values argument is framed by humanitarian concerns and the need to act to prevent further slaughter (responsibility to protect). With millions of refugees from Libya seeking shelter from the conflict and roughly seventy thousand dead, the situation is intolerable from any angle. Those were the arguments to intervene in Libya and they are now no less relevant in Syria.

The realist argument says the need to intervene is only when one’s vital interests are involved or threatened. Those were the arguments to go to war in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan (and in 2003, although the arguments became discredited afterwards), as well as to hold back in Libya (lead from behind) and now in Syria.

But in fact, Syria is a case where both arguments begin to merge. Intervening in the conflict in Syria involves stopping further mass bloodshed and refugees, along with preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the form of chemical weapons (which may already be in use). These objectives must be pursued while simultaneously containing further instability throughout the larger region—which is of direct interest to the U.S.

The consequences could become some form of military intervention, such as no-fly zones, along with assisting those groups attempting to overthrow the Assad regime with weapons.  Yet there is hesitation in Washington due to the threats of radical Islamist groups maneuvering to get control of a post-Assad Syria and the uncertainty of assisting such groups who can grab both the weapons and the money offered to the rebels. The meeting this week in Turkey between the leader of the rebel group, General Salam Idriss, and the donor nations attending underscored this dilemma for those able to offer help and those who need it. The U.S. and Germany, along with nine other nations attending, refused to intervene with weapons or no-fly zones, instead offering more non-lethal military support like body armor, communications equipment and aid. Here Germany and the U.S. appear to be on the same page for now. Nevertheless, the past ten years of engagement in Afghanistan is casting its shadow on attitudes toward Syria.

Yet in all likelihood the U.S. is going to have to take further steps on both idealist and realist terms of interests as things continue to deteriorate in Syria. And a disintegrating Syria has serious ripples beyond the Middle East, inlcuding Germany and Europe.

The United Kingdom and France are pushing for more European engagement and a lifting of the arms embargo on supplying weapons to Syrian groups, but they cannot get a consensus in Europe on the issue. There may be another coalition of the willing developing—again without Germany.

A Hesitant Germany
While Germany agrees with easing the embargo on oil imports from rebel held areas in Syria, it remains unwilling to supply military aid in light of the potential danger of that aid falling into the wrong hands. This was an argument used in Berlin to stay out of the Libya engagement. But such a response either by Germany or the U.S. does little good for those dying by the thousands.

Germans may be exhausted by the experiences of the Afghan war and unwilling to engage in another unpredictable conflict, especially as the future of Afghanistan after a decade of efforts remaining uncertain. Americans are also tired. The fact that this mess in Syria is also connected with the Russian and Iranian protection of the Assad gang makes a solution that much more difficult. But a fire is burning and it needs to be managed—if not put out—so as to avoid yet another conflict spiraling out of control.

For Germany and the U.S., as well as the other countries aiming for the end of Assad’s regime, the options are not promising, particularly if the strategy is to simply react to the developments on the ground in Syria. Inaction also has consequences.

The United States finds itself facing the need to act on the basis of necessity, both for humanitarian and strategic reasons. Germany faces a similar choice. Yet if the response is to hold back because engagement is deemed principally wrong, then it will certainly be drawing the wrong lessons from the past decade.
Further Analysis on Germany’s Foreign Security Policy:

Germany’s Dishonest Foreign Policy, by Jochen Bittner, Matthias Geis, Jörg Lau, Bernd Ulrich, Ronja von Wurmb-Seibel. Originally published in English by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V. (originally published in German by Die Zeit).

Nicht ohne uns, von Markus Kaim und Claudia Major, Die Zeit