The end of “Zurückhaltung”?

Has German foreign policy reached a turning point? Is the country finally ready to leave behind its “culture of restraint”? It certainly seems to be the case. At the Munich Conference last week Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck pronounced an eloquent speech about Germany’s responsibility. Not responsibility for past wrongs but responsibility to stop standing on the sidelines on world issues. For Gauck it is time to move past the “genocide-guilt” and adopt a more robust foreign policy.

This is likely to please Berlin’s partners. European neighbors and the US have been critical of Germany’s poor record in global security and crisis management. Some even claim that Berlin uses the “Nazi past” argument as an excuse not to get involved militarily. It certainly shaped Germany’s decisions on foreign deployments. But as an economic powerhouse in a polyphone Europe, Germany is now expected to do a lot more. Military engagement under Merkel is low and Germany seemed to have no security and foreign policy strategy. While German troops are stationed in Afghanistan and the Balkans, Berlin did not vote on the intervention in Libya and barely contributes to the mission in Mali, leaving crisis-ridden France do the dirty work.

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Most of Berlin’s political class now seems to acknowledge that Germany’s return among the concert of powers must be complemented with more international engagement. Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen told Der Spiegel that given Germany’s capacity and resources, it has the responsibility and obligation to be a bigger player in global crises. “Indifference is not an option,” she said, and announced that Germany plans to send more soldiers to Mali and to the up-coming EU mission in the Central African Republic.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized that while economic interests and foreign trade are important, it is in the national and moral interest of Germany to engage in other spheres too, especially in security and defense. Like Gauck, he mentioned the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect”, a term that many governments and politicians are reluctant to utter.

Nonetheless, this new rhetoric will not lead to a full revolution in German engagement abroad. Gauck, Steinmeier and von der Leyen made it clear that Germany would never act alone. Responsibility is not simply responsibility to act but also responsibility to abstain, they say. Berlin will continue to rely on multilateralism and partnerships, share military capacities and expertise with its partners, in particular the European Union and NATO. Germany is not ready to be a foreign policy leader yet.

More importantly: what do Germans think? For historic reasons, the question of German military engagement is an old national debate and it is not going away soon. While the political class may more or less agree with Gauck, the German public is a lot more reluctant to see their country commit militarily. Indeed, a new poll suggests that while most of them want Germany to be more engaged internationally, 75% are against military deployments and argue that they are is already doing enough. Skepticism and self-doubt (and fear) remain widespread. Yet, key to mobilizing international support is mobilizing domestic support. Knowing this, would politicians have the courage to move beyond their self-interest and short-term political calculations when the decision must be taken to intervene? Will Gauck’s eloquent rhetoric be translated into action?

Fortunately, Gauck seems to be aware of this. He suggested that municipal and state levels of government, churches, union and parties initiate discussions with civil society in order to define what Germans want – or persuade them that, in a globalized world, it is in their national and moral interests to occasionally contribute to foreign deployments. This is smart. Foreign policy discussions should not be left to the political elite but discussed among Germans. Ultimately, Germans must define their foreign policy values and interests, whether or not they have the courage and will to assume more responsibilities.

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