Moving on. Can Germany’s World Cup win reconcile the public to military deployments overseas?By Patricia Hogwood on 23 July 2014
What do Germany’s World Cup victory and military strategic culture have in common? More than first meets the eye, it seems. This month’s sporting success has relaunched a perennial debate about German identity and national confidence. Germany’s 2006 World Cup win proved to be a catalyst for the ‘normalisation’ of national pride in sporting achievement and beyond. For the first time, fans unselfconsciously waved their national flag and sang their national anthem, the politically acceptable third verse of the traditional Deutschlandlied. Since then, commentators and academics have discussed the impact of this new self-confidence on Germany’s fractured relationship with its own past and the healing of its east-west rift. With this World Cup, the debate has expanded beyond Germany’s national borders to take in its external identity and its role in the world. The feel-good factor offers a rare opportunity to bring a cautious public opinion more into line with the new global ambitions of Germany’s leadership. Could this be the time for Germany to step out of the shadow of its National Socialist past and confront some of its foreign policy taboos?
Nowhere is this more pressing than for Germany’s anachronistic military strategic culture. Germany’s complex and conflicted relationship with its military highlights the weight of the memory of the Third Reich that still hangs over a startling range of policy fields, including citizenship, education, media regulation and foreign policy. Forged in the aftermath of the Second World War, military policy was constructed in the interests of the Allied powers the new Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was keen to appease. The FRG willingly cast off Nazi Germany’s association with military aggression and adopted the role of a ‘civilian power’. Its mission was to ‘civilise’ international relations by strengthening norms of peace, cooperation and the rule of law; realising its foreign policy goals through multilateral institutions and economic cooperation; and endorsing the use of military force only as a last resort, and then only in the context of a multilaterally authorised action. In fact, throughout the post-war years, the FRG’s foreign policy activity has focused squarely on external trade. This carried no negative associations with territorial expansion or military aggression and allowed the FRG to develop as a ‘geo-economic power’. However, since the end of the Cold War, an increasingly self-imposed passivity on the global security scene no longer meets the needs of Germany’s allies in NATO. Particularly since the Gulf War of 1991, German governments have come under growing pressure to take on international security responsibilities more in line with the country’s global economic presence.
So why has Germany remained a ‘reluctant hegemon’? Until the end of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s period in office in 1998, Germany’s political leadership had grown up with direct memories of the consequences of Nazism and the international disapprobation this provoked. Working under Cold War global structures, they recognised and upheld the external symbolic commitment of Germany to ‘civilian power’ and were therefore confined to a foreign policy characterised by inertia. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (in office 1998-2005) was the first of a new political generation to operate both under a post-Cold-War global framework and without the devastating personal memory constraints of his predecessors. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s background in eastern Germany means that she grew up without the baggage of a formal state discourse of German war guilt. Since the new millennium, then, resistance within the political elite to a more instrumental development of international security policy has been steadily eroding. There have been signs of a new openness in German elites’ attitudes towards the military. In 1994, in response to the Gulf crisis, Germany ‘s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that German troops could legitimately take part in ‘out-of-area’ operations specifically sanctioned by the UN and the Federal Parliament, the Bundestag. This ruling permitted German troops to take part in UN peacekeeping activities. The Kosovo war (1998-9) marked Germany’s first major combat mission since the Second World War, when Schroeder sent four German Tornado bombers on NATO missions over Serbia. With Merkel’s second grand coalition, a new discourse has begun to accompany these cautious first steps. It has been suggested that Merkel has ‘nothing against’ a more visible German foreign policy identified with its core challenges, while Foreign Minister Steinmeier notes that Germany’s traditional military ‘culture of restraint cannot become a culture of disengagement’ and has called for a public debate about the ‘the terms and perspectives of German foreign policy’.
So far, though, Germany’s relaxation of its self-imposed constraints on military deployment overseas have proved highly contingent. In March 2011, Germany opted to abstain in the UN Security Council vote on military intervention in Libya, alienating its allies and undermining its efforts to be seen as an engaged and reliable partner in international relations. In last year’s federal election campaign, candidates from both the government CDU and opposition SPD skirted nervously around the issue of Germany’s potential participation in international actions against Syria. The main reason for this is the widespread resistance of the German public. The ‘culture of restraint’ is deeply embedded in the political culture of the FRG. Post-war civic education and government rhetoric bred public attitudes favouring pacifism or at least a highly restricted military. German participation in the war in Afghanistan has severely tested the limits of the public’s tolerance. This conflict shattered the ideals of Germany’s civil-military culture. After the Second World War, FRG political elites had anchored the new German military in civil society by representing serving soldiers as an ethical force of ‘citizens in uniform’, carrying out humanitarian and rescue tasks abroad. However, conditions in Afghanistan forced the engagement of German troops in combat situations that far exceeded these parameters. The ‘citizens in uniform’ designation personalises the public perception of German soldiers. Troop and civilian deaths alike are viewed as unacceptable and distasteful incidents such as the desecration of war victims’ remains have provoked widespread public shock and anger. From 2007 onwards, opinion polls showed that the majority of Germans wanted their troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
The challenge now facing Germany’s political elite is to forge a new German military strategy for a radically new security environment: one that can encompass both government foreign policy needs and the ethical demands of the public. While there is every sign that Germany intends to build on its traditional ‘civilising’ mission, there is also a recognition that the more negative associations of the ‘culture of restraint’ must be addressed. At the Munich Security Conference on 2 February 2014, German President Joachim Gauck called on Germany to take on greater responsibility and play a more active role in the European and global context. Gauck stressed that Germany has no wish to dominate other countries but needs to make use of its post-war experiences of democracy and prosperity on the global stage. The question is how to apply this sentiment to international security responsibilities in a way that convinces a cautious public. Germany’s World Cup euphoria offers a brief window of opportunity to build on the values attributed to the football champions: team spirit, hard work, responsibility. Referencing these as ‘German’ values may help to transfer the new self-confidence generated by the World Cup to a wider stage. In this way, Germany’s sporting victory may prove to be one small step in the erosion of the anti-participation reflex of the culture of restraint and another towards a new consensus on Germany’s role in the world.
Patricia Hogwood is Reader in European Politics at the University of Westminster, and convenor of the PSA German Politics Specialist Group (GPSG).
Image: Isafmedia CC BY