The Quiet Giant

Germany’s reluctance to play a more decisive role in diplomatic talks on Syria raises wider questions about the relationship between democracy and foreign policy in the West.

The Syrian crisis is quickly becoming one of the foremost geopolitical challenges of our time. Even with the recent inauguration of a joint Russian-US plan to remove the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, initiatives to end the civil war itself are yet to achieve concrete definition. So far, over 100,000 people have lost their lives. Moreover, as millions of refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, the involvement of both regional and global powers – each with their own interests at stake – underscores the international complexities of the crisis. It in in such a context that Germany’s relative absence from diplomatic proceedings is ever more acute.

In the weeks since the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, the international community has erupted into a cacophony of admonition. Hence, the Obama administration was quick to call for military strikes against the Syrian state. So too in France, where ministers previously stalled attempts to gain UN backing for the Iraq war, French President, Francoise Hollande, intimated that in this particular crisis his country might offer military support to US-led strikes without UN approval. Even in Britain, where the case for military action fell apart before gaining any real traction, the very fact of the debate itself underscored consideration of Britain’s role as a stakeholder in Syria’s future. In Germany, which is the world’s forth-largest economy, such ideas failed comprehensively to gain any such hearing.

In many ways, Germany’s refusal to support military action is no surprise. In 2011, rather than voting alongside its NATO allies in favour of military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Germany followed Russia and China by abstaining. Such action inspired congratulation from Qaddafi himself. So too in Mali, where Western forces agreed on the need to prevent the permeation of dangerous terrorist networks, Germany provided only limited and non-aggressive support to a French- and British-led operation.

Undoubtedly, German reluctance to engage seriously with the military elements of geopolitics owes much to the historical legacy of the Nazis. Since the Second World War, Germans have remained hostile both to the use of force, and its evocation by the country’s leaders. At the heart of the European project, meanwhile, is an idea that the use of force can be gradually phased out. Reluctance also stems from a feeling that decisions based on force are morally contentious. In the case of Syria, both punitive strikes against Assad and arming the rebels risk mobilizing extremist factions that may pose equal or greater threats to regional stability.

Above all, Germany’s relative silence on questions of geopolitics stems from a desire to avoid falling on the wrong side of domestic public opinion. Hence, the refusal of both the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the leader of the main opposition, Peer Steinbrück, to debate military action in Syria is based on a view that any such debate would damage their respective electoral appeals in the approaching general election. One opinion poll has suggested that some seventy percent of Germans oppose US force in Syria. It is likely that many more would oppose Germany’s own use of force. Overall, even as she is expected to win the chancellorship for another term, Mrs Merkel knows that her hands will only remain “safe hands”, as they have been characterized throughout the campaign, if they remain well away from the red button of military intervention.

At the same time, the problem is not merely that policy-makers are fundamentally against the principle of military action itself. The German military’s pivotal role in removing pirates from the Horn of Africa, thereby protecting German exports, speaks volumes to this assertion. Instead, and as Mrs Merkel’s support for American military action in Iraq contributed to her loss of the Chancellorship in 2002, the issue is that German politicians are increasingly unwilling to act without domestic support. More worryingly, they are unwilling to engage in any debates that might allow them to generate such support.

From one angle, such evidence points to a crisis in confidence amongst Western leaders. Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama’s recent eagerness to seek congressional backing for planned US strikes was as much motivated by a desire to make up for his own uncertainty as it was guided by his desire to listen to others. Mrs Merkel’s own quietude on issues of foreign policy throughout the recent election campaign stems from her own such self-consciousness regarding her power to persuade.

Above all, this reluctance to play an active role in geopolitics raises questions not only about the relationship between power and global responsibility, but also on the nature of democratic leadership itself.  Notably, as Germany’s experience of chemical weapons during the First World War should inform its perception of the moral seriousness of any such attacks in the present day, and as the proximity of the Middle East makes the region’s stability an immediate concern for all Europeans, there is a strong case for a more visible German presence in debates on Syria’s future. Equally, as Germany’s economic prosperity is contingent on global security, the German leaders should make a stronger case for the country’s role in shaping such security. Such a case has yet to be made. Until then, one must hope that future rogue states lack the gumption to synchronize their illegal activities with the election seasons of the opposing democratic side.

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