On March 1, the German Parliament will debate sending 80 soldiers to Mali to provide medical care and help French soldiers train Malian government troops to clear mines and build bridges. That may not seem like a big task for the world’s fourth largest economy, but it represents a significant change for a country that has spent the past 68 years trying to live down its martial past. The mooted deployment looks likely to be waved through by the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament, though not without controversy.
Germany’s politicians are then expected to discuss a proposal, made earlier this month by German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, to work with France to develop a European killer drone. On Jan. 31, Parliament overwhelmingly voted to extend Germany’s decadelong Afghanistan mission by 13 months, a commitment that surpasses Germany’s swashbuckling French neighbor, which ended its Afghan mission in November.
For people who fear a resurgence of German military might — and Germans themselves may top that list — the German constitution provided reassurance. In 1956, the Allies allowed West Germany to establish a military but troops stayed at home unless the German public could be convinced to back neutral peacekeeping or humanitarian missions.
These days, with nearly 6,000 troops deployed outside its borders, Germany has the second largest such commitment among Europeans after the U.K. That includes more than 4,260 personnel serving in the NATO-led coalition in northern Afghanistan, soon to be reduced to 3,500. In Kosovo, Germany’s 816 peacekeepers make up the largest national contingent. The rest patrol for pirates off the Horn of Africa, man Patriot antimissile batteries in Turkey — which Chancellor Angela Merkel toured on Feb. 24 — and perform peacekeeping and training missions in Lebanon, the two Sudans, Uganda and Congo.
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The scale of these deployments attracts some criticism in foreign capitals, not for being too big but for being small in proportion to Germany’s economic muscle. Officials in the U.K. especially, as well as in France and the U.S., bemoan Germany’s cautiousness, both in joining missions and its strict rules of engagement when the Bundeswehr, or the Federal Defense, does deploy. Though German per capita defense spending increased from $461 in 2007 to $500 in ’11, the country spent between 1.3% to 1.4% per annum of its gross domestic product during the decade ending in ’11, according to an annual NATO survey. That percentage was lower than Britain, France or even Greece. Unlike other Westerners, who generally see their military as a vital component of government, Germans have tended to view theirs as a necessary evil.
“As a consequence of two World Wars begun and lost by Germany, there’s a deeply rooted understanding in society that military means are not a normal part of the political arsenal, as other European countries tend to see it,” says Thomas Wiegold, a longtime defense journalist who runs Augen Geradeaus! (Eyes Forward!), a website on the German military. “Military conflict is something to be avoided at all costs.”
Two years ago, when the U.N. Security Council authorized aerial force against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, France rushed in while Germany demurred. It was no surprise, coming less than a year after Germany had paid compensation to families of 91 Afghan civilians reported killed in a 2009 airstrike ordered by a German commander in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. The tragedy forced the government to admit that it was fighting a war and not just building schools, clinics and wells as the deployment had been initially spun to the German public.
With German elections anticipated at the end of September, one could reasonably expect a revival of nonintervention politics, the kind that helped then Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder win on an anti–Iraq War platform in 2002 when his fellow Social Democrats went as far as comparing President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy to Hitler’s lead-up to World War II. Merkel and de Maizière have made it clear that the government will send only support personnel to Mali, not combat troops. While this is an important distinction for German politicians, Islamist insurgents have shown in Afghanistan and elsewhere that they don’t differentiate between the two in choosing their targets. The elections will certainly be a test of the thesis that Germany has become comfortable with the necessity of foreign military adventures.
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The German Ministry of Defense says attitudes have changed. “German contributions to these worldwide missions are supported by the Bundestag and the German public to an extent that was unimaginable in the past,” says ministry spokesman Withold Pieta. “After the sometimes lively discussions that had taken place as a matter of principle in the beginning of the ’90s,” he says, such missions are now “a matter of course.” In a 2012 survey, the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences reported that 68% of Germans think the Bundeswehr does a good job in its overseas missions, while a quarter did not. This was up from 66% the previous year.
Ultimately, though, this year’s elections are expected to be more about economic challenges far closer to home — military imbroglios aren’t high on the agenda. That’s partly because Germany suspended its mandatory military-service requirement for young Germans in 2011.
“With the end of conscription, massive troop reductions and base closures, [news of] foreign missions are the few moments when many Germans might be aware they still have armed forces,” Weigold says. Politicians and soldiers say they desire, but don’t expect, a wider military-policy debate.
Why the acquiescence over the latest deployments? Many say that one reason is that Berlin wants to transcend the asphyxiating public image of just being the conductor of the euro crisis, and committing its military assets in aid of allies is part of that makeover.
“We carry a special responsibility, a responsibility to the soldiers who are on mission in Afghanistan, a responsibility for the international aid workers and especially a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan,” said Social Democrat MP Stefan Rebmann during the extension debate. His left-of-center opposition party supported the extension, while more liberal Greens party MPs abstained.
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Army Major Andre Wuestner, who is preparing to head the German Military Association, which represents soldiers, says the public needs to be made more aware of Germany’s global responsibility. “That’s where we sometimes lack the courage to say, ‘Our role is getting more important than ever.’ The security structures change,” he says. “We need to show our colors.’”
Constanze Stelzenmueller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, also gives credit to the per diem of more than $130 a day volunteers get while stationed in Afghanistan. “The German public got the impression [that] people were being paid quite well to expose themselves to risk,” she says. “And that changed the culture and the public perception.”
While the quagmire of Afghanistan has dampened the U.S.’s appetite for foreign intervention, it hasn’t had the same effect for Germany. In 10 years, the long-muzzled successor to Europe’s most feared war machine has moved out of the Cold War into the geopolitical terrain of the 21st century. The question that remains for future conflicts is how far its tether will reach.