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Low expectations

Wolfgang Dick / slkFebruary 26, 2014

Leading German politicians have said they want Berlin to take on more responsibility internationally, including military missions. But Germany's allies are wondering if Berlin will come through when the chips are down.

German troops departing a military transport plane
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the EU meets on Thursday (27.02.2014) to discuss troop commitments for its planned peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, member states such as France will once again face the reality of Germany's cautious foreign and national security policy. So far, only 500 of the planned 1,000 soldiers have been committed to the mission, according EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Berlin, for its part, has not promised any troops.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel believe in Germany's "culture of restraint" when it comes to deploying German soldiers for combat missions. Berlin, however, has promised to send a special Medivac aircraft to transport the wounded.

For many representatives of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations, it initially sounded like a fundamental shift was occurring in Berlin's foreign policy. Just a few weeks ago, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had said that the German military, the Bundeswehr, was not stretched thin, and that she would not rule out German participation in future combat missions.

During the Munich Security Conference at the end of January, German President Joachim Gauck said that Berlin must not shrink from threats and should do more for its security, which in the past had been guaranteed by others. Many of Germany's allies got the impression that Berlin would be more willing to participate in future military missions.

Defense Minister Von der Leyen greeting army officiers
Von der Leyen said she would not rule out future combat missionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"German officials went too far out on a limb and weren't really aware of the effect it would have," Jana Puglierin, an expert on security policy and transatlantic relations with the German Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

No enthusiasm for militarism

Above all, in the US media, the many clarifications made by the German government went largely unheard, according to Puglierin.

"There won't be any enthusiasm for militarism in the future," she said. "Defense will be the main focus." Germany will continue to focus on training foreign armies and providing logistical support, Puglierin added.

Many members of the governing coalition have made similar statements. Foreign Minister Steinmeier made clear that Berlin will continue to emphasize political and civil solutions over military missions as a fundamental principle. Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy expert with the center-right Christian Democrats, told DW that greater engagement could come in the form of more development and economic aid or police training. It's not primarily about the military, he said.

This carefully considered position is shared by most of the parliamentarians who sit on the defense and foreign relations committees. These two bodies prepare all the legislation relating to German military deployments, which the broader parliament must then approve.

"Across the partisan divide, there's a consensus that we do not want to depart from the culture of military restraint," Agnieszka Brugger, a Green Party representative on the defense committee, told DW. According to Brugger, parliamentarians are focused on ensuring that future foreign policy decisions are integrated into a long-term political strategy.

German troops welcoming Afghan elders
German policymakers do not want a repeat of AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"That's a lesson that many representatives have learned from the mission in Afghanistan," she said.

Conflict prevention preferred

The annual report published by the armed forces commissioner said that the German military is already operating near the limits of its capacities. And planned budget cuts will place additional restrictions on ambitious military missions in the future.

German parliamentarians, regardless of party, want to pursue crisis prevention using non-military means, as espoused by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to Brugger. Germany should think about how it can send its judges, police and administrative experts to help rebuild destroyed state structures in former war zones, she said. A good example of this approach is the 2006 EU mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which helped stabilize the democratic process there, according to Brugger.

The yearly reports published by Germany's numerous peace research institutes have significant influence on the defense committee's formulation of security policy. A recent study by the Frankfurt-based Peace Research Institute was particularly attention-grabbing for parliamentarians. The study examined the impact of military interventions for humanitarian purposes.

"Our conclusions were sobering," Matthias Dembinksi, a researcher with the institute, told DW. In half of the cases examined, violence between the belligerents could be reduced, but military intervention had hardly any effect on the duration of the conflict. Furthermore, a relapse into war and the failure of democracy did not occur less frequently than in similar cases without military intervention.