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Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and German flags
Guttenberg has to explain the country's military role to the German publicImage: AP

Wunderkind's new challenge

October 27, 2009

The shooting star of German politics, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, earns advance international praise for his new role as defense minister. But with that praise come tough challenges and great expectations.


Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is setting yet another record. At 37, he is the youngest defense minister ever to be in charge of Germany's more than 250,000 armed forces and a budget of more than 30 billion euros ($44 billion).

But setting records is nothing new for zu Guttenberg. After serving just 100 days as secretary general of his party, Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), he was elevated to the lofty heights of federal politics, becoming Germany's youngest economics minister ever in February this year in the midst of the global economic crisis. A novice in such a high-caliber post, Guttenberg quickly became one of the country's most popular politicians with even political opponents conceding that he significantly raised the profile and influence of the previously lackluster economics ministry.

While managing the economics portfolio of Europe's largest country in times of a severe global recession is a tough act to follow, Guttenberg now faces an at least equally daunting task: guiding Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, during its most critical international mission since its founding in 1955, recalibrating its traditional role and at the same time managing diverging domestic and international expectations on Germany's contribution to global security.

Notwithstanding the upcoming challenges, Guttenberg can muster a good amount of international goodwill as he takes over as Germany's new defense minister.

In the US, arguably Germany's most important security partner, he made a name for himself in his earlier role as the CSU's foreign policy expert. "Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is well known in many foreign policy and security/defense circles as he participated in many different networks among parliamentarians and US members of congress", says Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University. "He's been involved in many types of different think-tank efforts on foreign policy issues. He knows people in the Obama administration as well as in previous US administrations, so I think he is quite a well-known figure in the foreign policy circles."

Positive reaction from Eastern Europe

Guttenberg's selection and his atlanticist credentials are also being viewed positively in Central and Eastern Europe, says Marcin Zaborowski of the EU's Institute for Security Studies. He notes that the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel in the past four years tried to reestablish trust in Central and Eastern Europe that was lost to some extent after former Chancellor's Gerhard Schroeder's heavy focus on Russia. "It is significant for instance that different from the Schroeder government when she or senior members of government were travelling to Moscow, beforehand they were briefing the Polish, Czech and other ministers," says Zaborowski. "And clearly with an even more atlanticist direction in German foreign and security policy this is something that most Eastern European governments would welcome."

Flags of NATO members
The new minister must convince NATO members that Germany is pulling its weightImage: AP

The written agreement that provides the basis for the new center-right government underscores this reorientation of Germany's defense policy and will be appreciated in Eastern Europe, adds Zaborowski: "What the coalition document is saying is that NATO is the most important security alliance for Germany. It says that very explicitly and that is quite new. That suggests that there is considerable change here, and I would imagine, also looking at the personalities of the government that it will be more atlanticist, more committed to strengthening NATO than to the development of the EU defense structure."

Despite the advance praise for Guttenberg, Germany's allies have high expectations for the new defense minister. Not surprisingly Germany's role in Afghanistan must be his most urgent priority, say the experts. With a mission that's seen by many analysts to be at a crucial juncture, the pressure on Germany to do more is bound to increase.

"I think there is certainly an expectation among many allies that Germany participate fully without the caveats that are associated," says Hamilton. "The simple fact is that Afghanistan represents the most accute security threat to the German public today and Germany is participating, but only in certain ways."

German contribution to Afghan mission

There's a key question that the US and other allies are asking, says Zaborowski: "What can Germany deliver in Afghanistan?" Among countries involved in Afghanistan, he notes, German troops "are seen as not risking their lives as to (the) same extent the British, Canadian, Dutch or Polish soldiers are, not to mention the Americans. And for that Germany gets a lot of criticism in the United States and in Great Britain for that matter. The British are furious about the fact that they keep sending body bags back home and some allies are not pulling their weight as they see they should."

While Hamilton and Zaborowski agree that Germany needs to increase its contribution in Afghanistan, both also point out that the country has in fact come a long way. "I think people also misappreciate that Germany has participated significantly in recent years and sort of emerged from the cold-war syndrom of not really sending soldiers abroad and participating", says Hamilton.

Germany has one of the biggest troop contingents in Afghanistan, says Zaborowski. "It has certainly done a great job in the North and it's important that it continues to do that. But from the point of view of public relations, what Germany has been doing the last few years didn't get much credit."

Therefore, one of Guttenberg's main tasks will be to better explain Germany's position and manage growing international expectations for Germany's role in Afghanistan. His challenge, says Zaborowski, is to respond to incoming requests from Washington and other capitals in a way that convinces Germany's allies in Europe and the US that the country is pulling its weight in Afghanistan.

Compared to his predecessor Franz Josef Jung, who was mainly a domestic politican without much of an international background, Guttenberg is better-prepared to deal with the allies, argues Hamilton: "Guttenberg, I think, has an outward perspective. He understands the pressures Germany is under to perform as an ally in Afghanistan, the constraints on the German defense budget, questions about the NATO strategic concept and how Germany should particpate in the future as an alliance member and I think he will focus on that."

German soldier talking to Afghans
Germany's mission in Afghanistan is a prime task for GuttenbergImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

But that's only part of the job, adds Hamilton. At least as important as engaging with NATO allies is convincing an increasingly war-weary German public of the importance of the Afghan mission. "I have spoken to him about this in his previous role when he was a member of parliament and he has always said to me it's very hard to explain why German soldiers are in the Hindukush. And he said, I am with you, but these are tough issues to explain," says Hamilton.

The new defense minister, the experts agree, must explain to Germans in stark and simple terms why it is in the interest of their country that it must participate in international military missions like the one in Afghanistan.

Guttenberg, according to Hamilton, is well-prepared for the task: "I hope there's no age discriminination against a young rising star. He seems to be doing quite well, he's very articulate, he's well-known and I think respected in foreign policy and defense circles and a face like that on German defense policy is a positive. "

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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