After Afghanistan, Germans rethink their country’s foreign policy
ATHE DEBACLE OF AMERICA in Kabul caused great concern in Germany. Two decades ago, after fierce parliamentary debate, Germany approved its first military deployment outside Europe since 1945, in Afghanistan. The vision was that of a Bundeswehr (the armed forces) acting in the service of noble goals: state building, humanitarianism and diplomacy. “It sounds like a joke today, but read the proceedings and it really looks like the plan was to turn Afghanistan into Sweden,” said Peter Neumann, security expert and adviser to Armin Laschet, the Conservative candidate for chancellor in this month’s election. The fact that Joe Biden’s administration now claims those goals were illusory has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Germans as they head to the polls.
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Initially divided on the wisdom of the mission, German policymakers found a rationale for what would become its largest post-war deployment: some 150,000 troops had passed through Afghanistan by the time the last left in June. Throughout the 2000s, Germany intensified its police training and civilian reconstruction efforts there. Yet at the same time, polls have revealed growing public skepticism. Later, in the 2010s, Afghanistan slowly crept out of the minds of voters. Among the main contending parties, only the Greens find space to mention the Afghan mission in their manifesto.
Germany’s allies have long urged it to play a more assertive role abroad. Critics complain that these calls have gone unheeded. But it is unfair. Shaken by the adventurism of Russia in Ukraine, the defense budget of Germany, although still insufficient NATO ‘s target of 2% of GDP, has increased by almost half since 2014. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who as defense minister tried to get her compatriots to think seriously about security, explicitly linked Germany’s security policy to his business. China Sea to emphasize this point. Over 80% of voters say they support the Bundeswehr; over 40% want more defense spending.
But they also know very little about the dozen missions in which German troops serve, from the Atalante, an anti-piracy naval effort off the Horn of Africa, to stabilization forces in Kosovo. Polls also show that the Germans are constantly reluctant to use their full military weight. There is a yawning gulf between the views of voters and the security establishment. This finds expression in the mandates that parliament gives to the military, which can reach absurd heights. At one point, German troops in Afghanistan carried cards with instructions on what to say to enemies in the field: “United Nations — Stop, or I shoot! A Pashto translation was also provided.
It is therefore not surprising that Afghanistan failed to shake up Germany’s election campaign. There were ritualistic expressions of support for the EU doing more for his own safety amid a dawning realization that, as one official puts it, Mr. Biden’s administration is “Americans first” focused. But the only substantial idea in the air is to set up a national security council to weave cohesive policy out of the competing strands of Germany’s foreign policy apparatus. Opinions vary as to whether such bureaucratic responses correspond to Germany’s strategic challenges.
There are nuances in the party foreign policy platforms. In government, the Greens would inject a certain warmongering towards authoritarian states; the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has a contingent of Russian doves. But whatever the emergence of possible coalitions, it is unlikely to have a decisive impact on Germany’s foreign policy prospects, says Fritz Felgentreu, a SPD Deputy. None of the four parties vying for the government questions Germany’s transatlantic link, its European vocation or its position in NATO. All accept the need to recalibrate the relationship with China. The foreign policy chapter of the next coalition agreement will be less the result of a thoughtful reflection on Germany’s place in the world than of a bitterly disputed compromise between several parties who must find a way to govern together.
Yet there is still room for quarrels. The next parliament must resolve a long-standing debate on the granting of armed drones to the Bundeswehr; it must strengthen Germany’s cyber-resilience; and he must consider his role in NATOis nuclear sharing. Overwhelmed armed forces need stable funding increases, even as Germany grapples with debt distress over covid-19. He must also articulate a new Chinese policy that takes into account American pressure and the growing Sino-skepticism of German companies. During this time his EU partners will expect him to lead the response to the next crisis, whether it is a new Russian military challenge or another influx of refugees.
We must also rethink the exceptional deployments of the Bundeswehr. This is particularly the case of the Sahel which, now that the mission in Afghanistan is over, is the largest: around 1,200 German soldiers are taking part in EU and UN missions. The parallels with the Afghan effort are obvious. A German force dispatched initially to support an ally fighting against terrorism (America in Afghanistan; France in Mali), with a limited mandate, uncertain prospects of success and growing questions about its purpose. French troops are engaged in serious fighting, but German soldiers are exposed: a dozen were injured in a suicide bombing in June. “We need a serious discussion about the conditions under which we are deploying,” says Carlo Masala of the Bundeswehr University in Munich. “If we do things like Afghanistan and Mali in the future, we have to go all out: do the dirty work. “
However, a “profound overhaul” of public life would be necessary to make Germany a truly autonomous power, says Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Better to carve out a role as a “hinge” power, conducting judicious diplomacy in areas where America or other allies are struggling, including with China. But even that will require a rigorous assessment of Germany’s interests, ambitions and limitations. If the election campaign is any guide, the country is far from ready for one. ■
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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Still in Search”