Monday, February 03, 2014

German leaders want more robust foreign policy

MUNICH - German leaders are pushing a vigorous new case that it is time for their nation to find a more muscular voice in foreign affairs, even suggesting that Germany should no longer reflexively avoid some military deployments, as it did in Libya almost three years ago.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to weigh in on the use of the military, and it is not clear how willing the German public is to embrace a more assertive posture. But a variety of senior officials are urging a rethinking of the country's assumptions about its diplomatic and military role.
They are driven partly by alarm about crises from Ukraine to Africa but also by unease about the strength of Germany's partnership with the United States after revelations of American spying, and about US officials' increasing reluctance to take the lead in interventions.
President Joachim Gauck sent the strongest signal yet of a possible change in direction with a speech late on Friday last week at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering that attracts an array of world leaders and defence experts and has historically been a forum for sharp policy debates.
Germany's Nazi and Communist pasts are no excuse for ducking international duties, said Mr Gauck, who has no power to make policy under Germany's Constitution but is expected to guide debate.
He argued that the current Germany - "the best we have ever known," he said - was well established as a democracy and as a reliable partner and ally and that it should step out "earlier, more decisively and more substantially" on the world stage.
Mr Gunther Nonnenmacher, co-publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine, a centre-right newspaper, wrote after the speech that Mr Gauck "may well have spoken the authoritative word in the debate over German foreign and security policy."
Germany's defence and foreign ministers have also suggested a willingness to pursue a more robust foreign policy, beyond the strong role the country has taken in setting economic policy in Europe.
Although it is unlikely that the ministers would propose such a change in tone without Dr Merkel's concurrence, it is possible that the Chancellor, known for her caution, is letting others make the case for Germany to leave the sidelines of international affairs, and waiting to see whether the discussion takes off.
In his speech, Mr Gauck told his 80 million compatriots that stepping up to the demands of a fast-changing world was "the greatest challenge of our time".
Without mentioning Libya - Germany abstained from a UN vote endorsing military intervention there in 2011 and refused to take any part - Mr Gauck signalled that such behaviour should not be repeated.
International air strikes against Libya helped lead to the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
German troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and in the Balkans since the 1990s. But, particularly during Dr Merkel's second term, the country has shied away from other military action, in part because the euro zone crisis has consumed its attention.
France has taken a more active role in policing recent conflicts, including sending troops to Mali.
Germany's new defence minister, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, took the stage after Mr Gauck and said: "Indifference is not an option for Germany."
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed US officials and other foreign policy makers who have encouraged Germany to act in accordance with its status as Europe's largest and the world's fourth-largest economy by saying: "Germany is really too big to just comment from the sidelines."
Mr Norbert Rottgen, a member of Dr Merkel's conservative party who heads the foreign affairs committee of the German Parliament, said in an interview that the new tone stemmed from "a coincidence of several events that shake you awake", such as the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine, as well as what is known here as the NSA affair: the vast intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency, including the tapping of Dr Merkel's cellphone.
Longtime observers of German affairs said it was not clear that the new tone would result in major change.
Mr Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a visiting professor of political science at Stanford University, wrote in Die Zeit that even the government's proposal for muscularity envisioned military engagement only in homeopathic doses.
Washington, though, appears to have taken heart.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed Ms von der Leyen's pledge to take on a larger role in Africa, and the two agreed that she should visit the Pentagon soon.