German president urges greater engagement in solving conflicts

Joachim Gauck says time for 'distrust' in German State and society has past

German president Joachim Gauck has urged his fellow citizens to show greater confidence in themselves and demonstrate greater willingness to engage in solving world conflict.

In a ground-breaking speech yesterday, Mr Gauck said the terrible shadow of Germany's "Sonderweg" or "special path" in the past was no longer reason enough to sit out military and civil co-operation in the present.

"Postwar generations had good reason to be mistrustful of the German state and Germany society, but the time for such categorical distrust has passed," said Mr Gauck, a former East German pastor and civil rights activist with considerable moral authority.

Universal values
He acknowledged that German embrace of "über alles" nationalism had lead to delusion, hubris and disaster in the past. But today's Germany was highly dependent on a stable world order and, rather than "close its eyes to threats or flee danger", was obligated to work with partners to "defend universal values".

"We should not trust in ourselves because we are the German nation but because we are this German nation," he said. Six decades living in peace with its neighbours, respecting the rule of law and human rights was reason enough for Germans to have greater confidence in themselves.

“People who trust in themselves gain strength to open themselves to the world . . . and is a reliable partner,” he siad.

The president’s speech, dubbed yesterday one of the most significant in three decades by a German head of state, will drive on further a fresh round of an old debate about Germany’s place in the world.

His intervention in the debate raises the stakes for German chancellor Angela Merkel. As opposition leader a decade ago she was criticised for supporting the US-lead war in Iraq and, as chancellor, has taken a cautious approach on international conflict. Berlin abstained on a UN vote on military action against Libya and has sent ambiguous signals on possible action against Syria. Its offer, instead, to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons reflects a so-called "Merkellian doctrine" that prefers to supply technical assistance and non-combat troops than send soldiers to warzones.

On Thursday in Berlin Dr Merkel insisted Germany was pulling its weight in the world, from a deployment in Kosovo and readiness to participate in African missions.

“Germany has to get involved to solve certain conflicts but this is not about more or less military engagement but political influence,” she said. “We will look on a case-by-case basis to see what contribution we can make.”

Yesterday in Munich her new defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, increasingly named as a Merkel successor, warned against an over-reliance on military intervention while conceding that Germany was “ready to expand its international responsibility”.

Strident criticism
Social Democrat (SPD) foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier has been more strident in his criticism of recent German security policy, warning that the country's current culture of military restraint should not be "misunderstood as a principle of keeping out".

“Germany is too big to merely comment on world affairs,” said Mr Steinmeier.

In a public television poll yesterday, some 45 per cent of Germans felt they already did too much in the world and 58 per cent felt Germany should help resolve conflict with diplomacy and money. Just 20 per cent said Germany should engage more in the world.

Opinion was split evenly over whether Germany’s military past should influence its role in today’s world.

This year's Munich Security Conference will be dominated by ongoing instability in Ukraine and Syria.

US secretary of state John Kerry will meet Ukrainian opposition leaders and hold talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.