Germany and European Security

Viadrina European University By Imre Bartal

The preamble of the official translation of the German Constitution states the determination of the German people “to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe”. The meaning of a “united Europe” remains disputed to this day but promoting world peace is a relatively clear and concrete goal. As is often the case with translations however, the original text does not quite carry the same meaning. “Dem Frieden der Welt zu dienen” translates more accurately to “serving the peace of the world” and “serving” is in linguistic terms a more intense expression than “promoting”. Of course, preambles in constitutions are, in legal terms, not binding. They do however carry important interpretive weight, serving as the spirit in which the constitution should be read. This ‘peace interest’ anchored in the Grundgesetz on closer inspection tells us much about the way Germany thinks about itself and conducts its military and foreign policy; and where a fundamental rethink of the current approach is necessary.

Peace can be served and promoted by various means. Ultimately however, the threat and implementation of military sanctions or in simpler terms, violence, becomes the ultima ratio. This occurs when one side is not willing to engage in diplomacy anymore and instead chooses to fight or is unwilling to lay down its arms. The ability to muster and deploy military force is therefore a crucial determinant of the ability of a country to contribute to the resolution of conflicts and deter potential (or actual) enemies. With respect to the German armed forces (Die Bundeswehr), the facts speak for themselves. Currently, none of the six submarines of the federal navy is operational and as things stand will not be until mid-2018[1]. The navy has also not been able to formally commission any of its new F-125 class frigates because of failed sea trials.[2] Only 13 of the 59 transport helicopters of the Luftwaffe are capable of flying and only 105 out of a total of 244 attack tanks are operational.[3] In Afghanistan, the army has resorted to renting helicopters from private firms to transport troops[4]. Mechanical failures on transport aircraft have become routine and just this year soldiers who were bound for home from the MINUSMA mission were stranded in Mali after their craft was unable to take off. The head of the Federal Armed Forces Association, in an interview with Die Welt, spoke in dramatic terms about the state of Germany’s defence capabilities: “The essential question which politicians across the spectrum have to answer is: should Germany once again possess operationally ready armed forces or not? If not, I recommend the dissolution of the Bundeswehr.”[5] That such a prominent soldier would raise such a question should be a grave cause for concern.

This striking list of problems have their origins in the end of the Cold War and subsequent changes in the political environment. The size of the German military had peaked at approximately 585,000 troops at the end of the 1980s. The number of troops was quickly reduced to 370,000 after reunification as required by the Two Plus Four Treaty as Germany’s contribution to an overall reduction of conventional forces in Europe. The reductions did not stop there, as successive governments had sought to reap the ‘peace dividend’ brought about by the end of the East-West conflict. The strategic necessity for maintaining such large armed forces had simply disappeared and reductions continued, reaching to 180,000 personnel today. The last conservative-liberal government (2009-2013) implemented the suspension of national service, as a part of the package of an overall reduction in the size of the armed forces. The necessary budget cuts significantly reduced the amount of money available for essentially everything. Germany’s defence expenditure in 2016, in real terms at 1.2% was lower than in 2005 at 1.3%. The trend seems to be changing, with the federal government allocating €37 billion to the defence budget in 2018, which in netto terms (once the spending for non-active personnel is discounted) represents a 9,2% increase[6]. Welcome as the increase is, it does not raise defence spending significantly in real terms. This, combined with declining operational readiness, comes at a time when NATO members have committed themselves to raising their defence expenditures to 2% by 2024. However, when policy makers involved in defence and security matters talk, they like to talk much more of Europe and the German identity within Europe than NATO. The affirmation of the German commitment to Europe has essentially become a ritual.[7] At the Munich Security Conference this year, Von der Leyen said: “We made it our political task to create an Army of Europeans. This is about creating a Europe that can throw greater weight on the scales in military terms.” ‘Europe’, in light of the problems mentioned, seems to have become nothing more than an ad-nauseaum repeated and conceptually empty phrase, with the aim of avoiding all difficult discussion about the state of the armed forces and their future. Another thing that seems to be often overlooked in this Europhoria is a simple fact: if Germany is weak, Europe will be weak too.

Many outsiders would likely be surprised at the extent of the troubles plaguing the Bundeswehr. The overall picture is not just one of deficient funds and malfunctioning equipment but also of a hyper-sensitive and cautious political culture. German politicians routinely mention and discuss Germany’s “historical responsibility” for aiding the cause of peace in Europe and across the world. Many are keen on actively countering any perception of Germany as “militaristic”, even if this means not participating in missions with Germany’s allies.

The German abstention on the UN resolution authorising intervention in Libya was greeted by widespread criticism, domestically and among Western governments[8] and no doubt damaged German credibility abroad. Back then, the abstention was justified by Merkel with the following words: “We unreservedly share the aims of this resolution. Our abstention should not be confused with neutrality.” Seven years on, the rationale for not doing anything has hardly changed as Merkel referred to the allied strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria as “necessary and appropriate” but shortly before said that Germany would not participate. Why not? One could argue that the politicians are simply following the public mood. In a public survey, 90% of Germans were against German participation in Syria[9]. But the overall public mood is heavily bifurcated. In another poll, the majority question the usefulness and continued necessity of German presence in Afghanistan but a majority still favours participation in foreign missions to tackle terrorism[10]. Supporting our allies in word, but not deed, seems to be fast becoming a cornerstone of German foreign policy and many politicians don’t seem very keen to push for a change.

Supporters of Germany’s current approach to security, as well as government officials would likely contest this picture of non-participation by pointing out the on-going foreign missions of the Bundeswehr. A total of 3,374 German soldiers are currently deployed in fifteen different locations around the world, with almost a thousand troops in Afghanistan alone. In addition, Germany will be the fourth largest contributor to the UN budget in 2018. These contributions are indeed vital for maintaining global security. However, the Bundeswehr at its current operational capacity is already severely overstretched, because of a lack of equipment and the neglected problems of financing.

The UN also does important work, but its limits have to be kept in mind. In the ongoing discussion concerning the intervention in Syria, many were keen to point to a report of the Parliamentary Research Office, which argued that the strikes were against international law. On the one hand, they would be, if one state deliberately paralyses the main organ responsible for taking action. On the other, international law cannot be seen in the same black and white terms as national law, because any international rules only apply if states are willing to observe them and be sanctioned for non-observation. In the absence of a world government, often the only thing that counts is power and coalitions of the willing, in its various facets.

Thus, the defining condition of international affairs remains anarchy. As sobering and uncomfortable as these words may be, the possibility of war in the European continent has not disappeared. It is at the moment very unlikely that members of the EU or NATO, organisations to which most European nations belong, would directly confront each other with their militaries. Nonetheless, the emphasis is on “at the moment”. There is no guarantee that one or both of these will survive the next decades intact or that there will be enough political will left across the continent to preserve them. In fact, researchers and scientists of the Planning Division of the Bundeswehr have entertained the possibility of the EU as we know it crumbling by the 2040, as part of the Division’s strategic analysis for likely continental and global developments within the next two decades.

The analysis should serve as a reminder to Germans not to take the current political and strategic situation for granted. To any observer who prefers to look at the world with a naked eye and not through rose-tinted lenses, the three decades since the end of the Cold War must have surely dispelled the liberal fantasy of an ‘End of History’ and Kant’s naive notion of an ‘Eternal Peace’. The world (including Europe) has been witness to genocide, civil war, transnational terrorism, major-power aggression, population expulsions and the continued proliferation of weapons of all kind. None of these problems will or can be solved through diplomacy or by international law themselves. There are also threats that do not recognise national borders, which means more cooperation is needed in the future in the international community but failing that, at least among the Western allies.

Greater leadership on the global stage therefore means saying what is wrong and what we should do about it. This means being pro-active. This requires above all self-confidence, which in Germany is in short supply. In light of the challenges faced by Europe, politicians in Germany more than ever need to project and promote a policy of strength and confidence. Machiavelli wrote admiringly of the Romans’ pro-active approach to foreign policy, which was a product of not only healthy self-confidence, but a recognition of the realities of the world surrounding them. It is a lesson worth keeping in mind: “They trusted rather their own character and prudence — knowing perfectly well that time contains the seeds of all things, good as well as bad.”








[7] Zeit Artikel, Josef Joffe