A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Security Policy as Symbolism

German military and security policy still suffers from serious constraints.

At the Munich Security Conference two years ago, Germany’s political leaders spoke of new responsibilities. Yet despite military engagements in the Balkans and Afghanistan, German security policy remains risk averse and caught up in symbolism.


© REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Some still refuse to believe it, but the “post-Cold War era” is over.

When historians look back at the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, they will probably characterize it as a “transition phase” marked by an almost naive optimism. That optimism led Western societies to believe in an ever closer European Union and a democratic and Western-oriented Russia, just as they believed in the success of the Arab Spring and the triumph of economic interdependence in Asia over old geopolitical rivalries.

Meanwhile, a new wave of re-nationalization threatens to unravel the European integration process. Russia wages an overt and covert war against Ukraine, and boasts of its nuclear strength. In the Middle East, state borders are evaporating, a process hastened by a new type of terrorist army that attracts its followers via brutal internet videos. The risk of a conflict between a more assertive China and its neighbors remains undiminished. And Barack Obama, who used to be the object of high-flying expectations, is being asked by some of those who once awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize to return it.

As surprising – and disappointing – as these developments may appear, they were mostly predictable. What at first glance may look like a militarization of international relations is in essence the result of Western self-delusion. Since the end of the Cold War, the West followed a set of beliefs which were never shared by “the rest”. The notion that a more conciliatory United States could somehow lead the world towards the abolition of nuclear weapons was never more than a Western illusion; the same is true of the view that in an interdependent world military power would be of declining utility.

Yet while the unsatisfactory results of Western military interventions, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, confirmed that military power does indeed have its limits, here the West – particular Germany – indulged in a new delusion: that “there are no military solutions.”

“There are no military solutions” – the sentence is meant to reassure, and yet is deeply worrying. For if it were to become the basis of one’s foreign policy, it would be a standing invitation to those who remain willing to use force. Nowhere has this become more obvious than in the case of Russia. Moscow’s behavior has not only brought home that the German pet concept of change through trade (“Wandel durch Handel”) is a myth, it also demonstrated that for some issues there are indeed “military solutions”: for the moment, at least, Moscow’s use of force against Georgia and Ukraine has arrested Westward momentum in both countries. At the same time, it has demonstrated to other countries in Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” (Dmitri Medvedev) the risk they will run if they should try to wrest themselves out of Russia’s embrace. In Syria, Russia’s indiscriminate use of force has saved the Assad regime, has put it in a stronger bargaining position, and brought the Kremlin back as a “partner” of the West.

So far, so bad. But things are changing. A new US administration – no matter whether Republican or Democrat – will conduct a different foreign policy. The lesson learned in Syria, that any vacuum that the US leaves behind in the Middle East will be filled by Russia – or even Iran – has not been lost on Washington. Neither have China’s attempts to expand its territorial claims by building artificial islands. Clearly, “red lines” are being tested – reminding the US of its role as a global security provider.

Even in Europe, one can sense a change of attitude. After years of neglect, some countries are increasing their defense budgets. In part, this is a result of the need for European solidarity in the face of the Ukraine crisis. But it may also be an expression of the fact that any policy that seeks to defend and promote Western values can only succeed if it is backed up by the will and the ability to use force. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the current debate on the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the wave of refugees coming from the Middle East. When even the most hesitant observers are starting to argue for a more robust Western intervention in Syria, something is changing.

Germany is no exception. It is sending weapons and trainers to support the Kurds in Northern Iraq, a move that only a few years ago would have sparked a major political controversy. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany dispatched reconnaissance aircraft to the Middle East and a frigate to the Mediterranean. After the start of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, Berlin vowed to play a major role in implementing NATO’s decisions to beef up the military protection of its easternmost Allies. Germany also embraced the pledge to work towards a gradual increase of its defense budget towards two per cent of GDP.

One can interpret these decisions as an expression of Germany’s new willingness to shoulder greater responsibilities, as President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen expressed at the Munich Security Conference in 2014. However, the structural constraints of German security policy still linger. Indeed, on closer inspection, the decisions mentioned above exemplify the very limits of German security and defense policy. For example, Germany’s participation in the military coalition against IS is designed in such a way as to virtually rule out any combat role. The protection of NATO’s eastern members is to be ensured by rapid reinforcements rather than permanent deployments in-theater in order to avoid further irritations in the relationship with Russia. And the increase in Germany’s defense budget is so small that its percentage of GDP is actually shrinking further.

Each of these decisions may have its clear-cut rationale. Taken together, however, they foster the image of a security policy that, despite the substantial German military presence in the Balkans and Afghanistan, remains characterized by symbolism and military risk-avoidance. This is for both political and military reasons. One is the role of the Parliament. The term “Parlamentsarmee” (implying that the parliament constrains the use of the armed forces) is considered politically incorrect, since the German Bundestag has never rejected a request by the government to deploy forces. However, it is often overlooked that the government – wary of parliamentary resistance – only puts forward requests that have a high probability of success. As a result, Germany’s military contributions are often small and heavily caveated.

These political constraints are reinforced by serious military shortcomings. In terms of personnel, the German Bundeswehr, to quote the special parliamentary representative for the armed forces, has been “in free fall for 25 years.” Moreover, the German armed forces had to master the transition from a Cold War deterrence force to a deployable crisis management force without sufficient material and financial means. The impressive number of German soldiers deployed abroad must not obscure the fact that that the armed forces are badly equipped. Frequent media reports about technical failures of military equipment are more than just anecdotes; they are the inevitable result of an investment gap that the Bundeswehr has been accumulating since the end of the Cold War. Hence, Germany’s hesitation to participate in ambitious military missions is not just motivated by political or philosophical issues: it is also driven by the fear of mission failure due to obsolete equipment.

These political and military constraints reinforce one another, and thus cannot be overcome in the short term. However, it is possible to sketch some guidelines for German security at the end of the post-Cold War era.

First, military cooperation with United States must remain a priority, irrespective of whether it is in the framework of NATO or – as is currently the case in the Middle East – in ad hoc coalitions. Given renewed Russian militarism, the risk of state-failure across North Africa and the Middle East, and a new arms race in Asia, the United States remains an indispensable provider of order and deserves Europe’s support. By contrast, demands for creating a “European Army” are political posturing without military value. The mantra of saving costs by pooling and sharing among European forces has long become a mere alibi for avoiding substantial increases in national defense budgets. In any case, a military unification project is ill-suited for overcoming the current crisis of European integration.

Second, a new US administration is bound to call for fairer burden sharing from its European Allies. Hence, even without a “European Army”, Europe will have to take greater responsibility for the security of Europe and its periphery. The results of the first attempt to do so, the 2011 Libya operation, were at best mixed. With US support, some European countries took the lead; however, Berlin abstained in the UN Security Council, confirming concerns in Washington and elsewhere that a permanent seat for Germany in that forum would be a tool to hinder rather than to shape policy. A country that can only agree to a military mission once a “Comprehensive Concept” covers all eventualities is asking for a risk-free security policy, which makes any serious sharing of risks and burdens impossible.

Third, the German defense budget is another critical indicator of Germany’s willingness to share European and transatlantic burdens. After more than 20 years of decline in real terms, a substantial increase of the defense budget would send a powerful political signal far beyond its immediate military importance. The recent plans by the German Ministry of Defense to spend an additional €130 billion over the next 15 years just for procurement indicates that Berlin is aware of this. The defense budget will not reach 2 percent of GDP, as is the agreed NATO guideline. Yet a gradual increase would be both politically sensible and economically affordable. The counterargument, which holds that an increase of the defense budget would frighten Germany’s neighbors, is unfounded. These neighbors are not concerned that the country will show too much military engagement, but too little.

Fourth, the German strategic debate must focus much more on military realities. This is going to be difficult, not least because the German military leadership has long fallen silent. Still, the German strategic community is capable of delivering more than it has thus far been asked to do. Thorough expertise on Russia, which for the past 20 years seems to have been considered unnecessary, is now needed more than ever. The same holds true for expertise on thorny issues such as nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation. Research on Islam, which prefers to remain conspicuously quiet when it comes to terrorism, could also make valuable contributions to the debate. And Germany’s contribution to United States’ foreign and security policy should reach farther than the NSA scandal and TTIP conspiracies.

Finally, Germany must at long last bury the notion that it can fulfill its security responsibilities largely by engaging in military tasks of secondary importance. The reflex of joining the game only to reveal an unwillingness to go beyond mere support tasks – and to perform these tasks with hopelessly outdated equipment – is sending the wrong signal. Instead of projecting determination and a sense of solidarity, it invites the suspicion that Germany is cultivating its military shortcomings precisely to avoid being drawn into serious military action, hoping to not even be asked to take part in the first place.

“He who believes that the smallest steps are the right steps…will not be able to cope with the transformation of the strategic environment.” German President Gauck made this statement at the Munich Security Conference 2014, a few weeks before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Today, at the end of the post-Cold War era, it appears outright prophetic.

N.B. The views expressed are the author’s own.