Merkel's Final Act

German flag is seen outside the German lower house of parliament Bundestag before the election of a new chancellor in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

International security will be a crucial part of how Merkel’s last term will be remembered.

May-June 2018

While urgent initiatives are required to salvage as much as possible of the arms-control system, conventional disarmament will have to take a back seat until there is another opportunity for détente. NATO’s credibility rests in part on reestablishing the German contribution to alliance defense; it provides the best chance to maintain the U.S. security guarantee for Europe for as long as possible. At the same time, both the diplomatic service and the Bundeswehr need to build up their conflict-management capabilities. “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace” is the title of a government white paper issued last summer as a road map for the coming decade. Issuing the white paper was a start, but much remains to be done to meet its aspirations. Germany must invest in early-warning political analysis and strategic coordination in conflict regions as much as in key military capabilities to strengthen UN peace operations, for example, since the UN bears the bulk of the conflict-management burden in Africa.

Germany needs different capabilities for Asia. For example, more than half of the EU’s foreign trade, or almost 20 percent of German exports, passes through the Indian Ocean. The region itself is a growing export market, but also an emerging hot spot, since geostrategic rivalries among the key actors are heating up. It would be in Germany’s and Europe’s strong interest to support the development of a multilateral security order around the Indian Ocean. So far, for lack of both diplomatic and naval resources, German efforts have been minimal.

BEYOND THE necessary investments, crafting a “peace and security policy” will not be easy, because the effectiveness of many of its means is fundamentally in question. Rather than trying to pass every litmus test established by a prominent ally or commentator, Berlin and its partners must face up to the fact that many past attempts to manage violent conflict have failed dismally. Mismanaged interventions have done terrible damage, even as some, as in Libya, have also saved thousands of lives. Low-level interference, as in Syria, failed entirely to limit the bloodshed. Ill-implemented development spending helped hollow out the state in Mali, facilitating its near collapse in the face of the 2012 rebellion. Berlin must help Europe learn from these mistakes. Rather than reinventing the (broken) wheel of interventionism at the EU, taking responsibility for security requires investing in tools that work better, such as some of the UN’s, and for the EU to design even better tools of its own.

Particularly in light of Macron’s call for a common strategic culture of “interventionism,” Germany needs to better signal both the extent and the limits of the current shift in its strategic culture. Too many international observers still expect higher defense spending and growing expeditionary capabilities to merely indicate growing support for intervention. The reality is more complicated. On the one hand, there is a growing popular acquiescence to the use of force even if the strategic case is not very well made. Germany began deploying to the UN mission in Mali in 2013 and to the counter-ISIS air campaign in 2015. Neither has raised many eyebrows, although the German reconnaissance aircraft is strategically pointless and the overall Mali operation has been both irresponsibly underresourced and lacking a plausible political strategy. On the other hand, the government is beginning to make its own strategic determinations. The pivotal example is Germany’s reluctance to send arms to Ukraine. That decision was in fact the result of a careful strategic assessment—one similar to that made by other Western experts who opposed the idea.

All told, while there is growing realism about the occasional necessity of violence, Germany is not on a path to “normalization,” if the norm is the traditional interventionism of Western major powers. Given Britons’ backlash to the Libya intervention and Macron’s own call for strategic restraint, it is in fact likelier than ever that a European strategic culture will emerge somewhere in the middle between French and British traditions on the one hand, and German traditions on the other. That, however, will require a major investment in strategic thinking—an investment that Germany’s parties cannot simply outsource to think tanks and bureaucrats, but that instead requires fresh debates about international security within political parties.

Philipp Rotmann is associate director at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, where he leads the work on peace and security.

Image: German flag is seen outside the German lower house of parliament Bundestag before the election of a new chancellor in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke