The “specter” of German militarism appears exorcised once and for all. During the Cold War, the French writer François Mauriac expressed the continent’s concern about Germany with the quip: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.” Today, seventeen years after reunification, hard feelings bubble up from time to time—think of English football hooligans (Guardian) or populist Polish politicians (Der Spiegel). But Germany and its neighbors generally interact normally, and in recent years complaints from Washington, in particular, focus on Germany’s timidity, not its aggressiveness.
A new “White Paper on German Security Policy” pledges Berlin will act on security issues in a way more commensurate with its economic, diplomatic, and cultural heft. The paper, a product of the German Defense Ministry, spells out for the first time an intention to develop an “expeditionary capacity” for Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr (Federal Defense Forces). It pledges to “cultivate and deepen” bonds (MSNBC) with the United States, which still maintains upwards of 40,000 troops there, following deep strains between America and “old Europe” in the run up to the Iraq War.
Germany’s military, while still large by European standards, atrophied badly after the Cold War ended. A report from the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University noted in 2000 the Bundeswehr lagged behind EU militaries in moving from a draftee army to a professional corps (Deutche Welle). “ Most of Germany’s armed forces still consist of the same vehicles and weapons as in the 1970s and 1980s, and are thus lacking most of the smaller, more flexible equipment needed for UN missions.” The German Institute for International and Security Affairs looks at Germany’s efforts to develop a more effective peacekeeping capability.
The new plan would address this by creating a 35,000-strong rapid reaction force ready for deployment into hot zones, and another 70,000-strong “stabilization” force tasked with peacekeeping duties such as those German forces currently carry out in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Middle East (Der Spiegel). The blueprint also promises a more capable surface and submarine fleet, modernizing the Luftwaffe’s 1970s-vintage fighter wings, and a large increase in airlift capacity—one of Europe’s major military failings. The New York Times, in an editorial, called the plan “a welcome expansion of Germany’s role in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and antiterrorist actions.”
Germany certainly can deliver on these pledges if it chooses. Its industrial giants include some world leaders in warship construction (ThyssenKrupp), and it already exports more submarines and main battle tanks than any other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nation. But the plan has its doubters. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “grand coalition” of conservatives and social democrats failed to embrace the white paper (DefenseAerospace.com), which is the product of a ministry run by her Christian Democrat party. Moreover, sincere talk of a more muscular approach from Berlin ring hollow to some after years of similar promises going unmet. On Monday, Merkel again nixed a request from NATO to allow German forces to fight in southern Afghanistan, where combat is heaviest (DPA).
The question of public support also looms. Images from Afghanistan of German troops frolicking with a human skull spawned a storm of historically charged introspection (BBC) and calls from some quarters for a withdrawal. Elsewhere, Israel questions whether Germany’s naval patrols off the Lebanese coast—its contribution to a multinational deployment supposedly intended to help prevent Hezbollah rearmament—go beyond window dressing (Der Spiegel).