Opinion: A vote for democracy | Opinion | DW | 16.06.2015
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Opinion: A vote for democracy

Parliamentary oversight and approval of Germany's military missions abroad is essential, according to a new report by a former defense minister. And that is a good thing, writes DW's Melinda Crane.

At a time when nearly every military mission is multilateral and alliance partners depend on one another as never before, national parliamentary approval is more essential than ever.

That was the tenor of former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe's argument as he presented his commission's report affirming Bundestag consent to Bundeswehr deployments. And although it sounds paradoxical, the reasoning is sound: parliamentary approval is no anachronistic luxury, but the only means of ensuring public acceptance for military deployments in messy conflicts far from home.

Today's affirmation for Germany's "parliamentary army" is therefore a necessary condition for the more engaged foreign and security policy that Angela Merkel's government has been espousing for the past 18 months.

In principle, all OSCE member states have endorsed democratic political control of military forces in accordance with the framework of the OSCE Code of Conduct. In practice, that commitment is often honored more in the breach than in the observance: the US Congress' avoidance of serious debate or a vote on military engagement in Iraq is a glaring case in point.

01.2012 DW Quadriga Moderatorin Melinda Crane

DW's Melinda Crane

Germany, however, takes its "parliamentary army" very seriously. It's worth recalling the circumstances under which the concept emerged.

In July, 1994, as conflict inflamed the Balkans and debate raged at home, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe decided that the Bundeswehr could take part in armed operations within the framework of UN, NATO or EU systems of mutual collective security - but only subject to the approval of the German Bundestag by a simple majority vote for each and every operation.

In 1995, the parliament consented to the Luftwaffe's first mission since World War II: participation in the NATO air campaign to undermine the capability of the Bosnian Serb army. That campaign was known as "Deliberate Force," a title that aptly captures the fundamental principle underlying the court's decision: the use of force should be deliberate and deliberated, not left to the executive branch alone, but subject to detailed examination by the democratic representatives of the German people.

Then and now, domestic democratic accountability and external alliance solidarity constitute the twin pillars of security policy in a country whose history has engendered a deep wariness of military adventurism.

But is that approach commensurate with the exigencies of complex multilateral missions that must react quickly and flexibly in the face of pressing demands? Many observers had expected the Rühe Commission to say ‘no' and impose limits on parliamentary consent, given that its chairman is a member of the conservative CDU, which has been critical of the alleged inefficiencies associated with the parliamentary approval process.

The Rühe Commission, however, concluded that the process had in no case delayed or hindered Bundeswehr deployments. That is a small victory for democracy at a time when cynics are wont to claim that its processes are cumbersome and old-fashioned, and at a comparative disadvantage vis a vis top-down systems.

Bundestag oversight is more important than ever in view of the public's skepticism about foreign "entanglements." As Volker Rühe pointed out while introducing the commission report, the parliament is a crucial link in the chain of persuasion. Its consent to deployments is a necessary condition for a more robust German stance, but not a sufficient one, as the history of parliamentary approval clearly reveals.

Since it was introduced in 1994, legislators have ultimately signed off on every foreign mission proposed by the defense ministry. In the end, it is the government that can and must lead the way if Germany is to take on a stronger role abroad.

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