Germany’s Post-Reunification Foreign Policy

Germany has played an outsized role in Europe after reunification in 1990. But that role has largely been economic. There were many fears at the end of the Cold War that a reunified Germany would destabilize Europe. Margaret Thatcher kept a map of Germany’s 1937 borders in her purse to illustrate her anxieties about the “German problem,” and many of her French and Polish interlocutors didn’t need convincing. But those fears never came to pass. With one or two exceptions, Germany went along to get along.

One of those exceptions was Germany’s decision in 1991 to recognize the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, which went against the recommendations of both the United States and the UN. Another exception was the decision in 2003 to withhold support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But in general, Germany has kept its head down and focused a great deal on domestic issues.

“Germany certainly in a sense increased its stature in the European Union at the very least,” foreign policy expert Philipp Rotmann of the Global Public Policy Institute told me in Berlin last February. “On the other hand, the whole endeavor of unification took up a lot of energy and resources of various kinds, financial the most obvious, but also a lot of political energy and social energy. Germany was very busy with itself in the first decade. This whole business of coming to terms with reunification — and what it means, and how we treat different life stories in this country — is far from over.”

Coming to terms with reunification also required creating a unified foreign policy after 1990. For the most part, however, this meant absorption more than integration. The East German army was radically downsized and absorbed into the West Germany military. Retirement was an important part of this process.

“The diplomatic corps similarly got retired,” Rotmann explained. “A few people who were relatively young and junior at the time are still hanging around in the reunified diplomatic corps. But basically like most state institutions, it was a Western takeover of the East. And that’s also how the people feel about it, including those few people who have made a career in these institutions in the army or in the foreign office. In the foreign office, there’s more of an intellectually aware cadre of people who are very careful not to marginalize people. And obviously for people who joined later, there’s been no problem in general, but they are a small minority and don’t exist at certain levels of seniority yet.”

The East German experience of foreign policy did not contribute much to post-reunification relations with the world. “Basically post-unification German foreign relations with other countries have been a continuation of West German relations with these countries,” Rotmann concluded. “West Germany had relations with the Communist countries. In some cases, East Germany had the better embassy, and so the reunified Germany got to take over the East German embassy, because it was the nicer one. In Ethiopia, for example, it’s the most beautiful embassy we have in Africa. It was the old German embassy of the German empire. But after the Second World War, the Ethiopians gave it to the East Germans rather than the West Germans. That’s as much as I can say in terms of special relations to Eastern European and Communist countries.”

We also talked about relations with NATO, the German experience in Afghanistan, peacekeeping, and the debate within Germany about humanitarian intervention.

 

The Interview

 

Since you were quite young in 1989, when did the importance of the fall of the Berlin Wall dawn on you?

 

In my teens, I developed an interest for politics and for the world. I was interested in the Balkan wars, and looking through news magazines— my dad’s newsmagazines—I remember following events in Somalia and the Balkans, and also how Germany was starting to send troops abroad. The internal dimension only became interesting to me when I met Eastern German peers in my age group, through various endeavors. We had a student newspaper at school, and I was also part of the regional organization. We had contact with other parts of Germany, and some of the students were from Eastern Germany. That’s when I retroactively understood where that person had come from who joined us in third grade. She came just before the Wall fell, and she fulfilled all the stereotypes that you now hear: totally out-of-fashion clothes and trouble fitting in. But at the time, I didn’t realize where she came from and what this meant.

 

When you learned about the history, did it explain other things, things other than that little girl’s clothing?

 

No. I didn’t really grow up in a political family, and so the partition of Germany, or the whole Cold War as such, wasn’t a big topic for me when I was little.

 

Let’s move to German foreign policy. How would you characterize the shift in German foreign policy after 1989?

 

There’s a kind of mainstream description of it that I’m sure you’re familiar with: that German foreign policy, to some extent, normalized after the end of the Cold War. Like any of these characterizations, it has a kernel of truth. But it’s also very hard to quantify, and you can find many exceptions. Germany certainly in a sense increased its stature in the European Union at the very least. On the other hand, the whole endeavor of unification took up a lot of energy and resources of various kinds, financial the most obvious, but also a lot of political energy and social energy. Germany was very busy with itself in the first decade. This whole business of coming to terms with reunification — and what it means, and how we treat different life stories in this country — is far from over.

So, on the one hand, there’s some increased weight, but it is less a matter of increased activism or increased sense of purpose and more a matter of increased expectations that have come from the outside, which are much more problematic for many politicians and diplomats. The weight can be measured obviously in terms of the very simple measures of power and influence and prestige, such as GDP and population. It can also be measured by the kind of soft power of having reunified peacefully, with the Korean delegations asking us about what’s going on and how they could prepare for the eventuality. Since all this hit us precisely when we Germans were so busy with ourselves, it was very hard to meet these expectations.

The tip of the spear, the extreme cases of military deployments, showed this. In 1991, during the Iraq War, Chancellor Kohl had money to give: nothing else, just lots of money. Then, during the 1990s and into the Afghanistan War, the question was: what can, should, must Germany contribute? It was always under an obligation to its allies. But the independent evaluation of whether it was good or bad, of what precise German interests would be affected in a place like Afghanistan or not affected in Iraq, always played a minor role. Obviously in the Iraq case, for once the German government broke with the United States. But before that, it was always a mixture of Western and multilateral impulses.

 

One of the first controversial decisions for German foreign policy after 1989 was the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. How would you assess that more than 20 years later?

 

I think it’s a very interesting rare case that I don’t fully understand. I’ve never researched this particular decision in depth. It was a rare moment of activism for Germany, which usually went down the path of least resistance and followed whatever the Americans did, or perhaps in some ways, what the French and the British did, especially in those early years after of unification. So it’s a curious outlier that I can’t really explain right now. Given the history of the Balkan wars, it has obviously had negative consequences, but I’m not sufficiently an expert on this to judge how much of a difference it made. Ultimately it was part of a pattern of partisanship, with the French on one side and the Americans and Germans on the other. We now know that both sides had blood on their hands at that point. So, it was a problematic decision, but I won’t necessarily say that something else would have been that much less problematic in a situation like that.

 

As a rare example of activism, has it had any impact within German foreign policy, or has it remained a singularity in that respect?

 

I don’t think people analyzed this and said that it was a model or “never again.” If I just look at the last 20 years, it has remained an anomaly. Perhaps it was just a weird confluence of factors that led to a policy that Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his advisors cooked up at the time. We don’t stick our neck out as a matter of course. We might do it in exceptional circumstances, like in the Iraq decision, but not on a general basis.

 

There seemed to be a choice point sometime over the last 20 years about where Germany and France in particular would decide to put the emphasis in terms of military force: to stay with NATO structures or to develop an independent European capacity. There is an independent European capacity, of course, but it remains relatively small. I’m curious how the German position has evolved on that issue, looking at these two options.

 

The German government was always puzzled with this and always tried to reject this choice. At times the French have pushed for the choice, at times the British have pushed from the other side, or the Americans on the side of the British. Then a few years ago they basically dropped the choice and found that actually they would be better served with a strong EU pillar inside NATO. Pushing to make these things compatible was always the German position, because it was always clear that the Germans couldn’t choose if it came down to it. I too personally found this choice puzzling. A lot of this was on paper, in work charts, in training and exercises. You could double-hat some of these forces anyway, and so what did it matter? And why couldn’t the EU, which was for all intents and purposes allied with the United States and Canada, just be 100% compatible with NATO?

 

Certainly there is that tendency in French foreign policy thinking of having an independent force. Of course they made the decision to basically incorporate their independent force, at least nuclear weapons, into NATO. It reflected a certain suspicion more of U.S. foreign policy intentions than NATO per se. And American interests aren’t always congruent with European interests.

 

Yes, American interests aren’t congruent with European interests. What the American population expects from its politicians isn’t congruent. Especially after the Cold War, all the anxiety that you see now in Europe with the Obama administration moving to the Pacific is reflecting that. It obviously does not encourage what many in the United States would like to see, which is serious investment in defense in Europe. This unease is real, but I think then that there are two parts of the explanation. On the one hand, Europeans are perhaps from Venus and they don’t think that they need to have as much of a military role in regulating world affairs. And on the other hand, they are not. Europeans are worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons, for instance. But they are not sufficiently worried. They are worried about the United States turning away from Europe, but they are not sufficiently worried to make serious choices.

 

I think virtually every country in Europe is involved in military cuts, despite the United States putting pressure directly on the EU.

 

True, and I would say they’re not even engaged in serious leveraging of synergies among each other. If you just sum up everybody’s military expenditures, it’s rather sizable, but obviously it’s extremely inefficient if everybody keeps their own little military capability.

 

I understand, for instance, that the British and the French are working pretty closely on pooling their military capacities.

 

Yes, I couldn’t even list all the projects. There’s the British and the French. There’s European air transport command. There’s the first German-Netherlands corps, the German-French brigade. There’s lots of integration at all these levels, but this is not a strategic game-changer.

 

And the amount of money connected to those projects is relatively small.

 

Yes, and many of them are duplicative. They’re ultimately for window dressing. They also have a political purpose. The German/French brigade is very old, and it’s a symbol of the connections and mutual socialization of the European project. I don’t want to belittle that. It has a historical value, a political value. But it does not have an enormous operational use. The financial pressures could’ve been used as the impetus toward creating a generally European army to take care of European military needs, but that hasn’t happened. That’s mainly because even within Europe there’s still no common definition of what those European needs are, and under what circumstances and with which decision-making mechanisms they should be met.

 

What’s the debate right now in Germany on military spending questions?

 

We’re in the middle of the biggest reorganization since the end of the Cold War and the absorption of the Eastern German army. And there is no debate. The minister of defense is trying to stoke debate, because he thinks it’s important, and very few people are picking up the ball. The army is downsizing, but it’s not reducing at least for a period. They’ve managed to secure extra funding to organize this whole downsizing and increase professionalization. The whole abolishment of conscription is only just being implemented. They started last year.

 

I thought it happened earlier for some reason. I didn’t realize it just started last year.

 

It’s happening under the banner of increasing the number of deployed forces. That is largely uncontroversial, although everyone is reeling from an Afghanistan hangover in the debate. But that’s not something that’s being questioned a lot.

 

That deployment would that include peacekeeping contributions?

 

Yes, but peacekeeping contributions are extremely small. Germany has like 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, and it doesn’t have more than 50 in peacekeeping. We pay significantly in terms of peacekeeping dues, and politically, German governments have always supported it, but without much interest. This is changing a little. There’s more openness, and the foreign office has done some things in the last year or two. But manpower-wise, Germany is not making a contribution to getting over this peacekeeping apartheid in which some people pay and other people send their folks. Percentage-wise, Germany’s contribution is similar to the American contribution to peacekeeping. It’s different for the United Kingdom, for example, which has always had some contingents in Cyprus and the Middle East as part of peacekeeping. And the Irish have also been big contributors in European peacekeeping. Now, of course, they have to reduce because they’re broke.

 

That’s what makes Germany in some sense unusual. The budget reductions are not coming because the government is broke.

 

The impetus was still the financial crisis. But there was so much unresolved pressure to adapt to a new role while remaining a primarily territorial defense-oriented army.

 

A couple years ago there was quite a lot of public outcry over the German army bombing some tankers in Afghanistan.

 

The 2009 bombing in Kunduz. What happened is that Germans got a call from an informant that the Taliban had had captured two gasoline tankers on the road, and they were trying to drive it away and use them potentially as bombs. After some other options were not seen as workable, the local regional German commander requested an American airstrike. Before the airstrike actually took place, these tankers got stuck in the mud somewhere, and lots of people from the nearby villages came by to get free gasoline from these tankers. So, in the middle of the night, when this bomber actually released its bombs, there were lots of civilians around, including children. There was lots of “collateral damage” — civilian deaths — and that led to a huge investigation, but also a public outcry. It was a crystallizing moment where the German public realized that there was a war going on in Afghanistan, rather than some kind of peacekeeping mission.

 

And that fed into the debate over the timing of German withdrawal from Afghanistan?

 

Actually, it didn’t really. It certainly heightened anti-war or anti-Afghanistan War sentiment. And it had immediate consequences in German politics, but they were surprisingly small. At the time there was a grand coalition between the conservatives and the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats had started this deployment in Afghanistan together with the Greens in the previous government. The Left party, the ex-communists, had always been against it, so there was very little risk of playing politics with this. The Greens had a bit of an insurrection internally, and so their votes on the parliamentary mandates for Afghanistan changed after that. By and large, the fallout from Kunduz made it harder for the government to maintain cross-party support in parliament, with the exception of the Left party, but the government managed.

There were also some decisions made both by the Greens and then later on by the Social Democrats that were very damaging for Germany’s credibility in the eyes of its European and transatlantic partners. For instance, individual AWACS, airplanes with Airborne Warning and Control Systems, were parceled out from the general mandate so that some politicians could vote against them. At some point Germany withdrew the AWACS from Afghanistan. Only after Germany’s decision not to contribute to the Libya operation was there suddenly a reassessment that Germany did not have a problem sending AWACS to Afghanistan. So basically we placated our allies by saying, “You need extra AWACS for Libya in March 2011, which you don’t have and we’re not giving to you, but we’re giving them to Afghanistan, which you wanted two years ago. So now you can release your AWACS from Afghanistan to use in Libya.” But of course this had nothing to do with Germany’s Libya decision! So these were to some extent the ripple effects of this Kunduz bombing.

The German population felt betrayed by its policymakers from all parties for having portrayed this war for so long as a very benevolent peacekeeping thing building schools for girls and so on. But given that feeling of betrayal, these shenanigans about AWACs were very small. In the Dutch and Canadian parliaments, they had huge debates about withdrawal. And in the Dutch case, they actually withdrew. So compared to that, there was very little storm in Germany. There was already beginning to be a general sense of winding down the war and an end to the broad political consensus that had gotten Germany involved in this Afghanistan mission. Now you have a situation inside the Obama administration, on the eve of Karzai’s visit a month ago, of the National Security Council saying, “We’re talking not 10 or 30,000 troops, as the Pentagon has suggested, but 0 to 7,000 troops.”

We have a roadmap on Afghanistan here in Germany, and nobody is questioning that. We don’t need to accelerate the roadmap. Of course, if the Americans are going to accelerate, we’re going to come with you.

 

What about the issue of humanitarian intervention? Is it as controversial here as in the United States?

 

Here in theory it’s pretty controversial. Also, national character-wise, Germans like to theorize about everything and have a big gesamtkonzept (master plan), right? You remember the Kosovo debate in 1999 when Joschka Fischer invoked the whole Auschwitz history and basically tried to turn around the lesson of history. Mainstream Germany has drawn the lesson from the Second World War of “never again” to war and genocide. Of course, there were aspects of “never again genocide” in the staunch support for Israel and this particular constituency of the Jewish people. But otherwise it was “never again war.” The whole German peace movement was already up in arms, to use the inappropriate metaphor, when the Bosnian War turned violent on NATO’s side. And then to have this Kosovo thing thrown in their face, it flew against all their instincts. A lot of the German population was with them on this. But the left part of the political spectrum was in power at the time, and so the peace movement was stuck: it wasn’t going to support the conservative opposition whom they felt were even worse in their security policy than the center-left government. It was clear that a conservative government would have intervened with the other Europeans and the Americans just the same. The Social Democrats and Greens were therefore well placed to make that case for humanitarian intervention.

But there is no constituency for humanitarian intervention in Germany. Which is in many ways a good thing, because we’ve seen how these constituencies can be abused, how these constituencies can get overly excited about some things and run off in the wrong direction. The questions are extremely complex and even more demanding than conventional Just War theory. To make a case to use organized violence for purely moral reasons to save strangers: what’s the standard to which you hold this violence? And how discriminate and proportional and careful does that have to be? And is it possible in operational terms? So there are many hard questions.

On the other hand, it’s much easier in Germany to mobilize public opinion against a war. In the Iraq case, for example, this public sentiment did not come out of an enlightened understanding of the weakness of the Bush administration’s case, or Blair’s case. Most people who went to demonstrations didn’t look into these details to find the evidence for Weapons of Mass Demonstration wanting as Fischer did at the time as foreign minster. In his case, it was genuine, and he was well informed. In addition, the decision not to support intervention in Iraq was also good politics in the German domestic situation in an election situation. So, the anti-war demonstrations were not necessarily taking place because the German population was incredibly well informed.

It’s still much much easier to stage an anti-war protest than it is to support the case for humanitarian intervention, at least in Germany. There’s a big constituency in Britain and in the United States for intervention in Sudan. There is a big constituency obviously in France for intervention in the former French colonies, for good and bad reasons. But in Germany, there are none of these constituencies. Germans don’t know where Mali is on the map. We don’t have area studies whereas countries with a colonial past keep area studies alive. There is also very little debate where you can empathize with these populations and feel some kind of responsibility. The comparatively small colonial history that Germany does have is totally forgotten and buried under the Shoah. This is one of the big bads of history that Germany is not involved in: that’s what 95% of people would say, despite the Herero in Namibia. But on this issue we are very very happy to preach to our British and French brothers.

 

It’s interesting that there’s no constituency for any given humanitarian intervention, and at a theoretical level there’s controversy over the concept of humanitarian intervention. But you also said that there was uncontroversial support for increasing interventionary forces.   

 

There is definitely support for peacekeeping. But the fact that the German contribution to UN peacekeeping is so small has nothing to do with any domestic political problem. It has to do with the armed forces being to some extent over-extended by other missions—by Afghanistan and others—and a deep-seated reluctance by the military establishment that has a lot of condescension toward the UN and its “ragtag armies” from other parts of the world. The German military believes that it would be irresponsible to risk our soldiers’ lives in these operations, because they are not as responsibly set up and as well endowed resource-wise. They are worried about a certain requirement of professionalism on the part of the German army that is being met by NATO operations and by EU operations but not by UN operations.

I might have been wrong with my earlier estimate of 50 troops, because I forgot the German naval contribution to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. That’s the only sizable German contribution that goes up and down, because we’re sharing the leadership role with Italy and some others. When it’s our turn, our contribution is actually in the hundreds. After the 2006 Lebanon War, when Israel even asked Germany to make a contribution to this new naval part of the Lebanon peacekeeping mission, there was no reluctance whatsoever. Well, there was some reluctance among the military but after the initial six months or so, they were convinced that a lot of their prejudice about the UN wasn’t true.

That was the beginning of rethinking this. If in Syria there was some kind of political resolution, a roadmap to peace or whatever, and one part of that roadmap would be a peacekeeping mission, and there was a reason to ask the Germans to make a contribution, and this whole thing would happen when the troops from Afghanistan were being reduced and you wouldn’t have as much of a drain on those resources, I can easily imagine Germany sending more troops to UN peacekeeping. So that’s not the problem. The reluctance is really around the case for humanitarian intervention.

Libya is the best example. A colleague of mine has actually written the most detailed reconstruction that I’ve seen of the German decision to abstain in the Security Council on Libya. What strikes me is that there was a very early decision not to make a military contribution. There was a mixture of reasons, including the usual understandable doubts about the feasibility of the operation, and what would happen, and what the consequences would be. It was many of the same doubts we saw in the American decision-making process. It was very close when Obama finally and suddenly came down on the side of action. There was also a very early assessment, really a gut instinct, among the main actors in the German government, that to make a military contribution of any kind to a Libya mission—at the time, there was a debate about a no-fly zone—would require by German law a vote in parliament. Going to parliament and making a case for humanitarian intervention in Libya was basically a “no go” for Merkel. She said, “I’m not spending any political capital on this.” It would have cost probably less capital than it did for Fischer at the time for Kosovo, but it would still have required political capital.

 

As it required political capital for Obama.

 

Yes, so that was not an option. And I think that still speaks to this reluctance to consider humanitarian intervention.

 

I want to bring it back to that initial question I asked you about impact of reunification on German foreign policy. What has been the influence of the former GDR on German foreign policy? And I’ll give you three levels. One would be the relationship to other former Communist countries in Eastern Europe as well as currently Communist countries, like China. The second would be the military question. Do the military resources of the GDR still figure in any important way in terms of German military? The third is diplomatic personnel and whether the East German diplomats found a place in a unified Germany.

 

The second and third questions are easy to answer. There was basically a purge of all the politically and militarily sensitive positions. And the East German army was totally absorbed in the West German army, and extremely downsized. So a lot of former soldiers were retired. I think they got acceptable pensions, but basically the whole officer corps above the rank of army captain was kicked out. A lot of these people are probably now the backbone of the private security business. Unified Germany has also given away some of the used equipment and stuff to poor countries. But by and large these were small things, and the military resources of the GDR played no role.

 

That includes arms manufacturing?

 

I’m not sure if there was a competitive arms industry at the end. Perhaps there were a couple of Western companies that cannibalized these factories, but it didn’t play a major role.

The diplomatic corps similarly got retired. A few people who were relatively young and junior at the time are still hanging around in the reunified diplomatic corps. But basically like most state institutions, it was a Western takeover of the East. And that’s also how the people feel about it, including those few people who have made a career in these institutions in the army or in the foreign office. In the foreign office, there’s more of an intellectually aware cadre of people who are very careful not to marginalize people. And obviously for people who joined later, there’s been no problem in general, but they are a small minority and don’t exist at certain levels of seniority yet. After the initial purge, it’s been purely a biological problem. I don’t think there’s any general from East Germany right now, but perhaps there will be the first one soon. Similarly the senior ambassadors are all from the West, so this is still very much the case.

In terms of relations, basically post-unification German foreign relations with other countries have been a continuation of West German relations with these countries. West Germany had relations with the Communist countries. In some cases, East Germany had the better embassy, and so the reunified Germany got to take over the East German embassy, because it was the nicer one. In Ethiopia, for example, it’s the most beautiful embassy we have in Africa. It was the old German embassy of the German empire. But after the Second World War, the Ethiopians gave it to the East Germans rather than the West Germans. That’s as much as I can say in terms of special relations to Eastern European and Communist countries.

 

Berlin, February 6, 2013

 

 


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