The most recent messages from Germany must have sounded very encouraging to German allies. They have been demanding for a long time that Germany assume more responsibility internationally. Chancellor Angela Merkel has now emphasized that Germany is prepared to take on more commitments in Africa. That is precisely what Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had previously demanded: more responsibility in dealing with conflicts throughout the world, even militarily.
For many commentators it appeared to signal a renaissance of German foreign policy when Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared: "As correct as it may be to pursue a policy of military restraint, it should not be mistaken for a general shying away from responsibility. Germany has become slightly too big and too influential in Europe for that."
Africa is no unknown territory for Germany's armed forces
But Germany has not stayed on the sidelines entirely in Africa up to now. The neighboring continent has gradually been becoming a more important focus of German foreign and security policy. For years German soldiers have been deployed in and around Africa: In addition to supporting the EU anti-pirate mission off the Horn of Africa, Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, also contribute military observers and liaison officers in Sudan, Congo and the Western Sahara. In Mali, the Bundeswehr is participating in the training of Malian security forces.
Now the German government wants to bolster the troop strength of the EU training mission in Mali. Instead of the previous maximum of 180 soldiers, up to 250 German soldiers can be dispatched to Mali in the future. In regard to the Central African Republic, the possibility of the Bundeswehr supporting the future EU mission with transport planes and medically equipped aircraft is under discussion. But Merkel, Steinmeier and von der Leyen have all excluded dispatching combat troops.
In Germany itself, Bundeswehr deployments abroad are controversial. In an opinion poll conducted by the opinion research institute YouGov for the German news agency dpa, half of the people polled were opposed to a stronger involvement of the Bundeswehr.
For Wibke Hansen, the deputy director of the Center for International Peace Operations in Berlin, there are several arguments in favor of German engagement in Africa. One of them is crossborder security threats: "In Mali, for example, transnational organized crime in the Sahel zone is certainly a factor for Europe, as is the threat posed by terrorist groups," Hansen says. Therefore, it is in Europe's interest that Africa is stabilized.
Another reason is that a larger conflict in crisis-stricken areas of Africa often does not only mean a humanitarian catastrophe, but also generates streams of refugees to Europe. So far, economic interests have only played a secondary role for Germany. Nevertheless, Germany is interested in economic cooperation with African countries.
Greater focus on alliance policy?
What is also of major importance to the German government is a strengthening of European alliance policy. For Defense Committee chairman Hans-Peter Bartels of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the coalition partner of Merkel's Christian Democrats, it is clear that Germany and Europe will continue to face challenges when there are crises in Africa.
"For the Americans and the Chinese, conflicts and civil wars in Africa will not be a a major focus. It's the Europeans who have to come to the aid of the neighboring continent," Bartels said in a DW interview.
But European allies have also repeatedly criticized Germany in the past. Under Steinmeier's predecessor, Guido Westerwelle of the Liberal Free Democrats (FDP), German foreign policy was characterized by strict military restraint: support for allies, yes; military intervention, no. Particularly Germany's abstention in the UN Security Council vote on intervention in the civil war in Libya had annoyed the Western allies.
The search for an Africa strategy
How a further expansion of Germany’s involvement in Africa could look is still open. The government has not yet presented its strategy in detail.
A long term strategy for Africa cannot be a military strategy, says Hans-Peter Bartels. It must above all be a strategy for development. But the military operation in Mali is not likely to end soon. The German armed forces association estimates that it could last at least 10 years, due to the desolate state of the Malian army. Defense Minister von der Leyen intends to see for herself how accurate this is when she travels to Mali in early February.