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Germany's abstention runs counter to its alliesImage: picture alliance / dpa

Damage control

March 25, 2011

For the first time in post-war history, Germany has publicly taken a position contrary to virtually all of its major allies. The fallout of Berlin’s abstention from coalition operations in Libya could be far reaching.


By abstaining from the UN Security Council vote to intervene in Libya, Germany has managed to position itself against both the United States and Europe for the first time, said former NATO General Klaus Naumann in an interview with the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung.

Berlin's abstention has sparked controversy domestically with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government coming under bi-partisan political fire. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, member of the Green Party, wrote in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that he was "ashamed" of the German government's "failure." And Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Merkel's party and chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, expressed concern that Berlin had isolated itself.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has declared Berlin's "unreserved support for the goals of the resolution" despite its opposition to military intervention. And Merkel has sought to demonstrate this ambiguous support by offering humanitarian aid for refugees and pushing for an oil embargo against Gadhafi. However, Berlin's attempts at damage control are unlikely to contain the negative political fallout from its abstention.

International fallout

Karsten Voigt, former foreign policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats, told Deutsche Welle that Germany had put itself in an even more difficult position than the one it faced during the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.

"Germany has brought itself in opposition to Great Britain, France and the USA," Voigt said. "It has isolated itself more than it did during the crisis over the Iraq war. At that time, NATO and the EU were divided and France agreed with Germany's position."

German warships
Germany withdrew warships from NATO command to avoid enforcing the Libyan arms embargoImage: picture-alliance / dpa

However, in the case of Libya not only did the vast majority of EU and NATO members support military intervention, but the Arab League itself called for a no-fly zone. With a decisiveness not seen since the 1991 Gulf War, the international community voted to use military force to uphold international law against a dictator. Yet Berlin disagreed with its allies and found itself taking the minority position with the awkward company of Russia and China.

"That's why I consider this to be a major foreign policy mistake," Voigt said.

Karl Lamers, former foreign policy spokesman for the center-right Christian Democratic Union, says that the regard for Germany as a serious world player could suffer as a consequence. In the future, the allies may keep Berlin out of the loop when it comes to important decisions regarding security policy.

"Initially, it will be the case that the others will plan amongst themselves and not with the Germans," Lamers told Deutsche Welle. "You have to participate from the very beginning, particularly when it's about - as in this case - the use of military force."

Domestic hurdles

According to Lamers, domestic politics may explain Berlin's decision to stay out of the conflict in Libya. Merkel's government already faces intense criticism for its position toward nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukishima power plant crisis in Japan. And with a series of regional elections approaching, military intervention in another Muslim country may have been judged politically impossible.

"The federal government is already experiencing considerable difficulties over the question of nuclear power," Lamers said. "A discussion about a military deployment would have been too much in the eyes of (Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle."

German popular opinion toward the allied operation in Libya is ambiguous. A recent poll published by the German tabloid Bild found that 62 percent of Germans supported intervention. However, only 29 percent thought Germany should participate.

Meanwhile, the Merkel government maintains that its decision was made based on a cold calculation about the uncertainties of the mission in Libya and its chances for success. John Kornblum, the former US ambassador to Germany, says that Berlin's position originally mirrored Washington's assessment of the conflict.

"[Berlin] said - I think they're honest about this - that they didn't see a clear mission," Kornblum told Deutsche Welle. "And the fact is neither did the Secretary of Defense in the US. The US joined this consensus only very late in the game so in a way Germany and the US have had the same position, the difference is that the US decided to change its position and go along with the British and the French and Germany didn't."

EU Sondergipfel zu Libyen NO FLASH
Berlin has struck a more independent course from its old EU alliesImage: AP

Europe divided

Kornblum does not anticipate Germany's decision having any major impact on its relations with the US, since it is likely that Washington never expected Berlin to participate in the mission. However, European countries are beginning to question whether Berlin is still committed to its traditional multilateral foreign policy.

"Inside Europe - yes - there's going to be an effect because European allies are already worried that Germany is taking a more independent approach than before," Kornblum said. "[That] it is not always with the allies and this is just going to be another example that people are going to criticize them for."

Although the European Union rarely finds a common position when it comes to questions of war and peace, in the case of Libya the major powers - Britain, France and Italy - all came to the conclusion that an intervention was necessary. In light of this rare consensus, Lamers says Berlin will not be able to stand on the sidelines over the long run.

"The fundamental reason why Germany should participate is that we're so deeply integrated in the Western world and above all in Europe that we cannot just be absent." Lamers said. "Germany is on the one hand too big and too important to stand on the sidelines and on the other hand it is not small enough or unimportant enough not to participate."

German national interest

According to Lamers, stability in Libya is critical to Germany's national interests. North Africa is a region where security, energy, and human rights are interwoven. And chaos just across the Mediterranean has the potential to land on Europe's own doorstep.

"The Arabs are our neighbors and in the future - in this one world - we're going to have more to do with them than in the past," Lamers said.

Deutschland Bundestag Bundeswehr Afghanistan AWACS
German AWACs crews will help NATO in Afghanistan as it takes over the Libya missionImage: AP

"It is in our interests to preserve stability in this region and long-lasting stability is based on prosperity and the respect for human and civil rights," he continued. "The revolutions in the Arab world against dictatorships have shown that the majority of the people there also view it this way, and it's in our interests - in the best sense of the word - to support that."

However, questions remain as to whether military force can bring Libya back from the brink of collapse and help create a long-lasting stability rooted in democracy and human rights. After deploying thousands of its soldiers to Afghanistan for a decade now, Berlin has come to the conclusion that another war without a clear endgame is too big of a risk - both for Germany and the world.

"We have to carefully discuss these issues and we can have different views as to whether military force can actually create stability," Voigt said. "With a military intervention it's always important that you know not just how it begins, but also how to bring it to a successful end."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge

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