The Opening Shots in a German Security Debate?

The signs of new strategic thinking on the German international role have emerged over the past year, particularly with the new Grand Coalition.  A more visible role in security policy would signal a turning point in German foreign and defense policy, with implications for the international community. That point has not yet arrived, but the remarks given by President Joachim Gauck at the Munich Security Conference belie early stages of a discussion by the German policymaking elite over a larger role and—as he suggests—“an equal partner with equal responsibilities.”[1] Furthermore, “I don’t believe Germany can simply carry on as before in the face of these developments. […] The key question is: has Germany already adequately recognized the new threats and the changing structure of the international order? Has it reacted commensurate with its weight? Has Germany shown enough initiative to ensure the future viability of the network of norms, friends, and alliances which has after all brought us peace in freedom and democracy in prosperity?” [2]If his meaning was unclear, President Gauck repeated the thrust of those comments again during a radio interview[3] given shortly after remarks to a Nobel panel in Oslo,[4] albeit not without criticism.[5] In the interview, he argued that in “the fight for human rights or for the survival of the innocent, it is sometimes necessary to use weapons […].” The implications of a shift to a more “active” role on security issues within a “broader framework” would be considerable for Germany and for the international community. But this signals just the beginning, not the end, of a debate by a nation that has traditionally been reluctant to use force. It is a debate whose outcome remains uncertain.

Enhanced Responsibility

The indications of new thinking or, at least, a more robust discussion, do not stop with the president. The new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen before the same Munich Security Conference indicated a potentially greater role for Germany in the future of “enhanced responsibility.” She commented that “we have the obligation and the responsibility to contribute to at least modest progress toward a possible solution of the current crises and conflicts. Indifference never is an option—neither from a security perspective nor from a humanitarian perspective.”[6] But the exact extent and parameters of this responsibility remain undefined. On the one hand, in the same speech von der Leyen points to the German decision—unlike that of a number of other allies—to participate in Resolute Support, the follow-on to ISAF should the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Pact be signed with the new Afghan president (which is expected). Germany’s willingness to take on deputy command of this remaining deployment in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal of combat forces is telling, not to mention its commitment of the third largest force in Afghanistan for over twelve years. Remarks during a Spiegel interview this month outline as well a greater German contribution to deterrence in light of the Ukraine crisis.[7]

On the other hand, numbers of German troops abroad have fallen from a high of nearly 10,000 a few years ago to nearly half that currently. Additionally, the recently-proposed defense budget would decrease Germany’s already low spending even further below the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP. The budget issue, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in 2011, needs urgently to be addressed if Germany is to take up a larger role in security and, more broadly, internationally.[8]

Is Germany shifting from the “reluctant power” it has often been termed to one that is in fact more “forward leaning” and willing to step up to the plate on security issues? Chancellor Merkel has, to date, not revealed her sentiment, but von der Leyen has spoken out on several occasions. At the end of her recent Spiegel Online interview in response to reporters on why she is encountering resistance in her new foreign policy from within her own government, von der Leyen responded that “My experience has been that persistent persuasion pays dividends in the long run.”[9] The markers for a discussion of future roles are clear.

Another significant—but more bureaucratic—indication of a rethinking of the decision-making process by the Bundestag is the creation of a Commission for Review and Assurance of Parliamentary Rights in the Mandate of Foreign Missions of the Bundeswehr.[10]  While clearly the Bundeswehr will remain a parliamentary army as laid out by the Karlsruhe Constitutional Court in 1994, the need for more flexibility in the use of the Bundeswehr is under consideration by a Commission co-chaired by former CDU General Secretary and Minister of Defense Volker Ruhe and SPD defense expert Walter Kolbow. The sixteen member commission reflects the composition of the Bundestag—7 CDU/CSU, 5 SPD, 2 Die Linke, and 2 Greens/Bündnis 90—and will report in one year on the legal and political issues surrounding closer Bundeswehr integration into NATO and the European Union, as well as on the parliamentary role. Its members reflect the domestic differences on Germany’s role: While the Left and Green parties would like to use the Commission as a brake on the Bundeswehr and its deployments, the coalition parties appear interested in a potential way to streamline the parliamentary role for future missions.

Soon after arriving in office, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier requested a study by Christoph Bertram, former Stiftung Wissenschaft and Politik director; Thomas Bagger, Director of the Planning Staff at the Foreign Ministry; and Hans Monath, Redakteur, Parlamentsbüro of Der Tagesspiegel.  Former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had prompted an earlier collaborative study, funded by the the policy planning staff of the ministry, completed in Fall 2013 by Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the German Marshall Fund, co-directed by Dr. habil. Markus Kaim (SWP) and Dr. Constanze Stelzenmueller (GMF), on options for German foreign policy.[11]  The new minister Steinmeier invited groups of German and international experts to small dinners for discussion of the direction German foreign policy should take in the future. On the website created for the subsequent Steinmeier study, its stated objective was to take “a critical look at foreign policy.” In an interesting outreach to the international experts as well as the broader public, the website invites discussion in the introduction of “What is wrong with German foreign policy? What needs to be changed?” Fifty experts address topics within their expertise, which are posted on Review 2014 Aussenpolitik weiter denken.[12] In addition, blogs, videos, and a Twitter account are linked for individuals to contribute, addressing “What should German foreign policy be in the future? And what objectives should it therefore pursue?” (“Was sollte die deutsche Außenpolitik in Zukunft tun? Und welche Ziele soll sie dabei verfolgen?”). It includes as well a link to the Munich Security Conference speech by President Gauck and provides a platform to both an expert community of foreign policy scholars and the public to undertake a discussion about future directions.

The expert contributions to Review 2014 Aussenpolitik weiter denken include such noted scholars as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former U.S. State Department Policy Planning Director and Princeton Professor, on Germany and the EU: “The German foreign policy today is defined as much by what it is as by what it is not. The country needs a clear compass. For Germany to be both successful and effective internationally, she has to become Europe’s pivot power, the power-broker within a more de-centralized, intergovernmentalist EU to strengthen the EU’s hand as a whole in addressing any global problem.”

Norwegian Sverre Lodgaard, Researcher and former Director of the Norwegian Peace Research Institute and the Norwegian Institute for Foreign Affairs, on German leadership: “When […] the crisis in Ukraine has been alleviated, the European security system should therefore be revisited and lessons drawn. Europe can ill afford to conduct its affairs in the framework of today’s underdeveloped system. Germany is well placed, both by geographical position and political tradition, to assume a leadership role in this respect.”

And Jan Techau, German Director Carnegie Europe, on German responsibility: “[T]here needs to be a sea change in the debate over foreign and security policy in Germany. […] Because of their excessive need for moral clarity, Germans find these balancing acts almost unendurable. This causes them to compulsively attempt to avoid choosing. The result is a culture of passivity, fence-sitting and rejection of any active role in international politics, particularly on issues concerning military deployments.”[13]

Clearly there is not consensus and certainly no answers, but the foreign minister has sparked a robust debate over future directions for German economic and security policy.

As Foreign Minister Steinmeier weighed in on the debate during the Munich Security Conference: “The use of military force is an instrument of last resort. It should rightly be used with restraint. Yet a culture of restraint for Germany must not become a culture of standing aloof. Germany is too big merely to comment on world affairs from the sidelines. What we must do first and foremost, in fact, is sit down together with others and think harder and more creatively about how our diplomatic toolbox could be improved and utilized for productive initiatives.”[14]

Deploying a “Parliamentary Army”

A 1994 Constitutional Court decision reinterpreted the German position on use of the Bundeswehr outside its borders and thereby laid the legal groundwork for the German debate.[15] The ruling permitted German forces to participate in conflict situations or “out of area” missions—the limitation set by the Atlantic Alliance during the Cold War—albeit under tight conditions imposed by the Bundestag. Dubbed the “Parliamentary Army” since the 1994 ruling, the Bundeswehr can be deployed only with a Bundestag mandate that specifies the number of forces, length of deployments, and any other restrictions. In contrast to its allies, Bundeswehr deployment is far more dependent than any other NATO allied force on these parliamentary debates and decisions. The Bundestag has taken its responsibility seriously and has held over 240 debates dealing in some manner with overseas deployments. The Bundeswehr likewise exercises caution in deployments, always careful to keep force numbers under the prescribed limits set by the Bundestag and, in fact, restrictions on the Bundeswehr, as one Member of the Bundestag pointed out, have overwhelmingly been taken unilaterally by the Bundeswehr in anticipation of potential legislative restrictions.

While German troops deployed in a peacekeeping role in the 1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the first deployment of troops into a conflict occurred in Kosovo in 1999 when German pilots flew Tornado jets together with NATO allies. Interestingly, unlike the general expectation that German troops would be used only under a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, this was not the case in Kosovo, as Western powers assumed that there would be a veto lodged by Russia and potentially China. Perhaps ironically, Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer led the public discussion and decision to deploy forces, arguing “Never again Auschwitz” when the genocide occurring in Kosovo became clear. This was from the leader of a political party that had a history of opposition to NATO—opposition it had only given up in order to join the SPD as a coalition partner. The call by Fischer to participate in the NATO deployment proved convincing to an initially skeptical and hesitant German public. The sharp turn in policy did not require boots on the ground, but was significant for Germany as its first participation in conflict since World War II.

A second deployment to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the United States proved far less contentious, but more significant on a number of levels. Not only was it based on the previously unused Article 5, the underpinning of the NATO alliance, there was also a UNSC resolution and a Bundestag vote on which Chancellor Gerhard Schröder risked his chancellorship. Ultimately, the German Bundeswehr assumed command of Regional Command North for eleven years and counting, during which time it has cooperated with over fifteen other countries. The public perceived the Afghanistan mission as a humanitarian operation, although this changed with Afghan civilian deaths in Kunduz in 2009. It also prompted a new narrative by then-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg that for the first time termed the deployment a “war.” Germany also experienced its first fatalities in a conflict situation, which have grown to over fifty-four Bundeswehr members and three police since 2002. Assuming a U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement this summer, Germany has announced its intention not only to remain in country, but to assume deputy command of Resolute Support post-2014.

While Kosovo and Afghanistan appeared to set Germany on the path to increased participation in multilateral deployments, particularly under UNSC resolutions, Germany, France, and Russia used the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Elyseé Treaty to announce their decision not to join the U.S. in Iraq, a multilateral coalition led by the U.S. but without a second UNSC resolution of support (considered required by many). More surprising, in 2010 Germany then abstained on a UNSC resolution and declined to join seventeen NATO allies in the alliance decision to stabilize the situation in Libya. This decision meant a withdrawal from counterterrorism Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean. Internationally this put Berlin in the highly criticized position of abstaining with the Chinese and Russians in the Security Council while its allies—the U.S., France, and the UK—supported the Libya resolution and deployed. Furthermore, a year later the Germans decided to have only a minimal presence in the Mali counterterrorism deployment headed by France, its EU ally. These decisions have led to charges of ambivalence by Germany in setting a direction for its role on security issues in NATO as well as with European allies.

The Need for Active Engagement

Will there be a turn to a more active role in the international arena? Certainly Germany’s economic leadership role under Chancellor Merkel during the European financial crisis has grown substantially since 2008. But the indications of a more substantial leadership role on security issues are mixed and Chancellor Merkel to date has been silent. While Germany has come a long way as an international actor since Hanns Maull advanced the German civilian power paradigm theory over thirty years ago during the Cold War, German forays in defense and foreign policy have been cautious. A country that, over the years, has perceived itself to be reliable and steady in its commitment to multilateral organizations and the stability they create has often appeared hesitant and uncertain in its involvement where the potential for conflict has been present. This has been the case even after the 1994 Constitutional Court case accorded Berlin far more leeway in decisions on participation in conflict.

There is no question of the importance for Germany of diplomacy and the steadfast commitment to participation within multilateral alliances. As von der Leyen commented, “What is certain is that Germany can only participate militarily as part of alliances. And we believe strongly in the principle of networked security. This means that diplomacy goes hand in hand with economic cooperation and, if necessary, also with a military aspect. That’s the German trademark.” It is time for the Germans to accept the need for a debate on a more expansive, responsible military “aspect” in its security role and international commitments.

[2] Ibid.

[3] President Joachim Gauck, “Bundespräsident Gauck fordert Aktivere Rolle bei internationalen,” Interview on Deutschland Funk: Informationen am Abend (14 June 2014). See also Spiegel Online, “Außenpolitik: Gauck fordert größere Bereitschaft zu Militäreinsätzen,” 14 June 2014,

Quoting President Gauck with respect to human rights:

“Und in diesem Kampf für Menschenrechte oder für das Überleben unschuldiger Menschen ist es manchmal erforderlich, auch zu den Waffen zu greifen.” …”So wie wir eine Polizei haben und nicht nur Richter und Lehrer, so brauchen wir international auch Kräfte, die Verbrechen oder Despoten, die gegen andere mörderisch vorgehen, stoppen.” Ihm gehe es um ein “Ja zu einer aktiven Teilnahme an Konfliktlösungen im größeren Rahmen” mit den Partnern der Europäischen Union und der Nato. In Norwegen etwa habe er “auf allen Ebenen ein Ja zu einem aktiven Deutschland gehört”.

[4] President Joachim Gauck. Speech to introduce a panel discussion at the Nobel Institute in Oslo on 11 June 2014,

[5] Annett Meiritz, “Bundespraesident: Scharfe Kritik an Gaucks Ruf nach Militaereinsaetzen,” Spiegel Online, 15 June 2014,

[6] Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Speech to the Munich Security Conference, 31 January 2014,

[7] Defense Minister Von der Leyen Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Gordon Repinski, Spiegel Online, 11 June 2014,

[8] The Security and Defense Agenda (As delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Brussels, Belgium, 10 June 2011),

[9] Defense Minister Von der Leyen Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Gordon Repinski, Spiegel Online, 11 June 2014,

[10] Deutscher Bundestag, Commission for Review and Assurance of Parliamentary Rights in the Mandate of Foreign Missions of the Bundeswehr. Co-Chairs CDU General Secretary and Minister of Defense Volker Ruhe and SPD-Defense expert Walter Kolbow. Antrag der Fraktionen der CDU/CSU und SPD, Drucksache 18/766, 11 March 2014 and Beschlussempfehlung und Bericht des Auswaertigen Ausschusses, Drucksache 18,870, 19 March 2014. Also see Antrag der Gruenen, Drucksache 18/775, 12 March 2014. For the Bundestag discussion, see Stenografischer Bericht, Plenarprotokoll 18/21, 14 March 2014, pp. 1619-1640,

[11] Dr. habil. Markus Kaim and Dr. Constanze Stelzenmueller, New Power, New Responsibility: Elements of a German Foreign and Security Policy for a Changing World (Berlin: SWP/German Marshall Fund, 17 October 2013),

[12] See Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s remarks on Review 2014 Aussenpolitik weiter denken,

[13] See remarks on Review 2014 Aussenpolitik weiter denken,

[14] Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Speech to the Munich Security Conference, 1 February 2014,üSiKo.html

[15] Karlsruhe Constitutional Court 1994: The Constitutional Court opinion with respect to Bundeswehr deployments into areas of conflict resulted from a Christian Social Union (CSU)/Free Democratic Party (FDP) query in 1992 with respect to use of force in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia. See also Georg Nolte, “Bundeswehreinsaetze in kollektiven /Sicherheitssystemen – Zum Urteil des Bundesverfassungsgerichts vom 12. Juli 1994,” Zeitschrift fuer Auslaendisches Oeffentliches Recht und Voelkerrecht, 652, 673 (1994). BVerfGE 90, 286, 383-384.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Gale Mattox

Senior Fellow; Director, Foreign & Domestic Policy Program

Dr. Gale A. Mattox is Director of the Foreign & Domestic Policy Program at AICGS and a Professor in the Political Science Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. She is a former elected department chair and chair of chairs, and was awarded the Distinguished Fulbright-Dow Research Chair at the Roosevelt Center, the Netherlands, for spring 2009. Dr. Mattox served on the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, was a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at the State Department Office of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Policy, and an International Affairs Analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

She has been a Bosch Fellow in Germany (also Founding President of the Bosch Alumni Association), NATO Research Fellow, and a Fulbright Scholar. Dr. Mattox has held the offices of President (1996-2003) and Vice President of Women in International Security (WIIS), Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, and served as Vice President of the International Studies Association and now co-chair of the ISA Women’s Caucus.

She has served on numerous boards, including the Tactical Advisory Council, Center for Naval Analysis, and the George Marshall Center Advisory Board in Germany, and now serves on the advisory boards of St. Mary’s College Women’s Center, the Forum for Security Studies, the Swedish National Defense University, and WIIS. Dr. Mattox published, with A. Rachwald, Enlarging NATO: The National Debates, and Evolving European Defense Policies with C. Kelleher. She is the co-editor of Germany in Transition, Germany at the Crossroads, and Germany Through American Eyes, and has published widely in scholarly journals. She holds numerous awards and has appeared on the Lehrer News Hour and other media outlets.