Germany's unhappy abstention from leadership
“The world knows it can rely on us,” said Guido Westerwelle in October, when Germany had secured its goal of a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. A month earlier, he had assured UN delegates: “Germany is ready to assume global responsibility.” And so it seemed, as he flew to Tunis and Cairo to join in celebrations of the Arab world’s democratic spring.
But can the world rely on Germany when it counts? It has just refused to join the United States, France, Britain, and seven other Security Council members in endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Muammer Gaddafi’s slaughter of his citizens. Abstaining with Germany were Russia, China, Brazil, and India. These are important trade partners, but a dubious group of bedfellows to seek out on an issue of war and peace – even without the uninvited fifth party, the Libyan dictator himself. Col. Gaddafi, by way of thanks, opined that Berlin (rather than Paris) ought to have a permanent Security Council seat.
Germany’s abstention led to a public relations meltdown abroad and at home. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel firmly endorsed the decision, even her own conservative party’s foreign policy experts voiced disgust. Germany’s diplomats must now defend a position many of them are unhappy with.
As it happens, the German government has raised some crucial points. Our understanding of Libya’s power dynamics is poor. It is clear this conflict is also a civil war. No-fly zones have in the past caused the carnage to escalate, as one or more sides attempted to consolidate their gains. It may well be that western politicians are exorcising the ghosts of genocide in central Africa and the Balkans, where intervention came late or not at all.
Still, all of these are reasons to act responsibly, not reasons not to act at all. Unlike the war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, the legal foundation of this action is clear. Had the Security Council not acted, the UN’s commitment to a “responsibility to protect” would have lost all meaning and the council the last shreds of credibility. So Berlin’s decision to abstain was wrong, and some of the justifications invoked, bizarre. To suggest, as senior German officials have, that diplomacy or sanctions should first have been exhausted, or that Libya’s opposition ought to have kept to “non-violent” action, is delusional or cynical.
The foreign minister has manoeuvred himself into a corner. He claimed that voting yes but not sending troops would not have been “honest” and would have put Germany on a “slippery slope.” “Consistency,” he argued, required the withdrawal of Germany’s ships and surveillance aircraft from potential participation in the naval embargo against Libya because they might have to use force. The jets are now being sent to Afghanistan in a desperate attempt to mollify alliance partners.
This may sound odd coming from a man who invokes Hans-Dietrich Genscher as his mentor and role model – a fellow liberal, Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister, and a past master at navigating grey zones, from Ostpolitik to the Balkans wars. Still, he has been faithful to Genscherism in his consistent opposition to foreign interventions, whether in Lebanon or Afghanistan.
But Genscherism is the product of an age when Germany was divided and semi-sovereign, and even eastern Europe was a faraway land of which we knew little. Today’s Germany has been sovereign for two decades. In economic terms, it is to the European Union what America is to Nato: the superpower that gets to call the shots. And north Africa is our neighbourhood.
Germany now has responsibilities Mr Genscher never dreamt of – as the chancellor, at least, is aware. Supporting democratic change in the Muslim world is the challenge of the age for Europe; and Germany does not have the luxury of abstaining from its leadership role.
Ms Merkel would do well to remember this as she pursues a permanent Security Council seat. Otherwise, she should consider a disclaimer to her government’s declaration of reliability: “Offer Subject to Exceptions, Restrictions, Caveats & Domestic/Commercial Considerations.”
The writer is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.