For far too long Germany has avoided any discussion about its security interests. These are issues that Chancellor Angela Merkel has rarely broached.
Taking a stand, in any case, is not Merkel’s style. She prefers others to start the debate and then see how it develops, or fizzles out.
Germany’s European allies in NATO, the United States, and Germany watchers have long criticized Berlin for its intellectual distaste for discussing something as fundamental as strategy.
It was Germany, among others, that discouraged EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton from working on a new security strategy—not that Ashton was enthusiastic about it in the first place.
Ashton feared that the many divisions among the 27 members states would prevent consensus. So much for the member states delegating any kind of authority to their foreign minister.
The first and last time the EU attempted setting out a security strategy was in 2003. Attempts to bring it up to date in 2007 did not go very far. Today, Europe is left without a security doctrine of any value despite the extraordinary changes that are sweeping across the Middle East, south-east Asia, and, of course, the United States.
German defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, has now stepped into this European and German vacuum by writing a lengthy guest column for the Frankfurter Rundschau daily newspaper.
De Maizière’s central argument is that it is time that Germany had a debate about international security and about the role of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, in international missions.
“As defense minister I ask myself why we don’t discuss German defense and security policy in schools, universities, churches or any other public forums,” he wrote.
Of course, he hasn’t done much of that himself. Since becoming defense minister in 2011, de Maizière has been more than willing to address security conferences and academic fora. But he has not really tried to involve the general public.
De Maizière, scion of a well known French Huguenot family, is always eloquent and polite but also elliptical over sensitive issues, such as Germany’s strained relations with the United States, or Germany’s reluctance—along with other EU countries—to pool and share military capabilities.
It is hard to recall when de Maizière has ever given a trenchant analysis of Germany’s role inside the EU, or NATO or the UN, from the security perspective.
His predecessor, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg—who resigned in March 2011 because he had plagiarized his PhD—had tried to begin that debate. He startled the German public when he first spoke of a “war” in Afghanistan. That was an expression that German politicians, despite the realities on the ground, had done their very best to avoid. Given Germany’s history, war is still a very ugly word here.
Guttenberg also managed to abolish military conscription, against all the odds, with resistance coming from the opposition parties and from within his own conservative bloc. Faced also with budget cuts, Guttenberg began transforming the German armed forces into a professional corps. His policies and excessive need to be in the news ruffled the military establishment.
De Maizière has had to pick up the pieces of the unfinished business Guttenberg left behind. That, however, does not exonerate him for not writing a security strategy. Without one, Germany’s allies have no idea why Germany acts the way it does or what its long-term goals are.
The security doctrines of the United States and Great Britain, Russia and China are worth looking at for that very reason. They give fascinating insights into these countries’ national interests and values.
In the case of France, President Francois Hollande is undertaking a major defense and security review—with the participation of a British and a German expert. What an opportunity it could be for brain-storming sessions but also for sharing different attitudes towards strategy and interest.
De Maizière says he wants a debate about the role of the armed forces in Germany and their role in international missions. Yet it’s far from certain that Merkel would support that. She faces re-election next September so she is not prepared to sanction a debate that that would inevitably have to confront the issue of hard power. Now that is something Germans do not want to hear about.