In his speech, to open the 50th edition of the Munich Security Conference, President Gauck called on Germany to shake off its sense of guilt stemming from World War II and to take more responsibility in shaping international affairs.
"Let us thus not turn a blind eye, not run from threats, but instead stand firm, not forget, neglect or betray universal values, but instead uphold these values together with our friends and partners," Gauck said.
He also said the use of force after authorization by the United Nations Security Council may sometimes be necessary, but that deploying troops could only ever be one element of an overall strategy.
"Germany will never support any purely military solution, but will approach issues with political judiciousness and explore all possible diplomatic options. However, when the last resort - sending in the Bundeswehr - comes to be discussed, Germany should not say 'no' on principle," Gauck said. "Nor should it say 'yes' unthinkingly."
The president also called on Germany to take a more active role in conflict prevention, saying it "should make a more substantial contribution, and it should make it earlier and more decisively if it is to be a good partner."
The president warned that "brutal regimes must not be allowed to hide behind the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention."
"Germany and its allies should not deny help to others when human rights violations in genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity are taking place," Gauck said in the speech, which was also posted on his website.
The sentiment was echoed in remarks from Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who said Germany's position in the world gives it a responsibility to intervene where necessary in conflicts.
"To sit and wait is not an option. If we have means, if we have capabilities, we have the obligation and we have the responsibility to engage," she told the conference. "If we Europeans want to remain a credible actor in security policy, we must plan and act together."
Germany's role in international affairs was at the forefront of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Thursday visit to Berlin, where he discussed the issue both with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Gauck is the first German head of state to give the opening speech at the Munich Security Conference, which each year attracts hundreds of dignitaries from around the world. Around 20 heads of state and government and some 50 foreign and defense ministers were to take part in this years conference, which runs through Sunday. Among those attending this year's edition of the conference is US Secretary of State John Kerry.
pfd,dr/jm(AFP, epd, dpa)