Germany's missed opportunity
Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, was jubilant last October. His country was just elected to join the world’s most exclusive club for the next two years as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and on the first ballot to boot -- clearly an expression of the reputation and confidence, post-war Germany earned over the last decades.
Although Westerwelle had good reason to be proud, back home, a few pundits raised the question: What was Germany was about to do with its seat? During his tenure, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder launched a campaign to lobby for a permanent seat on the East River, and Angela Merkel’s center-right government has continued to do so.
Whatever objections may exist against another seat for a single European country, there is no doubt that Germany would make a splendid candidate. The country is the UN’s third-largest contributor, Germany is supporting UN missions all over the world, hosts UN institutions in West Germany’s former capital of Bonn, and in many aspects has led the way toward renewable energy. Hence, the tenure at the security council was seen as a logical next step to join the “big five.” But Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the German state of Baden-Württemberg got Germany off track.
When the Security Council passed a surprisingly robust resolution to impose a no-fly zone on Gaddafi’s regime and authorized all necessary steps to protect civilians, Germany abstained. Berlin, Westerwelle said, has doubts about the use of military force and fears uncontrollable escalation. These are, to be sure, doubts, which I share. However, they don’t sufficiently explain why Germany voted together with Russia and China. And this is where the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg makes his debut on the world stage.
Germans have become increasingly skeptical toward military means. An overwhelming majority supported Schröder’s opposition against the Iraq war, and opinion polls indicate a constant rejection of Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan. With one regional election already lost and six more to come over the course of this year, Merkel seems determined not to repeat the mistake she made when the support for George W. Bush’s war almost buried her political ambitions in the 2005 campaign. That is especially so now, with elections in traditional conservative Baden-Württemberg looming this Sunday which, as everybody seems to agree, she cannot afford to lose.
So the explanation seems to be found in Stuttgart rather than in Tripoli. But history is not repeating itself, and Libya is not Iraq. Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, had considerable support among Germany’s traditional allies, especially France. And, according to his recently published memoirs, Fischer made it clear that he would have never allowed Germany to stay alone. Germany, Fischer wrote “could not afford be isolated, this would put into question Germany’s integration into the West and in Europe as a whole.”
That is, though, exactly what Merkel and Westerwelle did, when they cast their vote in New York. The other difference to Iraq is at least as obvious. The United Nation gave a clear authorization and, even more remarkable, the Arab League requested this decision from the Security Council, a fact that makes the German decision even more difficult to explain. By no means does this invalidate all the arguments Mr. Westerwelle has presented. There is little knowledge we have about the opposition in Benghazi, and it seems unclear what the international community will do if Gaddafi, despite of a no-fly zone, stays defiant. Clearly, a further escalation is still possible. But nobody assumed that Germany had to send soldiers in the first place.
It looks as if Westerwelle’s assumption was that the United States would finally decide against a no-fly zone and that a Russian or Chinese veto would have gotten him off the hook anyway. When the situation on Benghazi deteriorated and the United States finally pushed for a resolution, Westerwelle had no policy in place. Germany failed the first test in the Security Council spectacularly. Merkel, perceiving that she made a colossal mistake, quickly reassured the public that Germany was supporting the goals of the resolution.
And as to underline her steadfastness as an ally, she offered an increased commitment in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Germany, for the first time, is isolated between the West and standing on the sidelines while France and England take the lead. Even worse, in the matter of her immediate neighborhood, Europe is divided once again. The consequences of this abstention could be long-lasting and put an end to Germany’s ambition to become a permanent member. It is not even clear if this decision resonates with voters. Germans may be skeptical toward military means if they cannot justify an intervention on a moral high-ground. In the case of Libya, a recent poll indicates, 62% are in favor of an intervention.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.