Syria provides another balancing act for German foreign policy

Berlin is struggling to align its culture of restraint with its changing place in the world

Military forces often boast about the awe of airstrikes and missile launches, but what’s it like to experience their deadly shock on the ground? Video: New York Times

 

“Same procedure as every year” is the punchline of a farcical sketch shown every New Year’s Eve on German television. For Berlin wags, same procedure as every year is just as accurate a description of German foreign policy.

After the Syrian chemical weapons attacks prompted a retaliatory US military strike, backed by France and the UK, Germany rushed to offer verbal support.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a hawkish former German defence minister, joked that offering rhetoric rather than missiles made Berlin the “grandmaster of dialectics”.

The Syrian strike is just the latest manifestation of Berlin’s struggle to recalibrate its post-war culture of restraint with its changing place in the world.

Last May, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned supporters that “the days when we could depend on others are, to some extent. over”. Earlier this year in Brussels she warned that there was no “perpetual guarantee” from the US to defend Europe, meaning the continent “has to learn to take on more responsibility in the world”.

So what has changed? Berlin shrugs off claims that its foreign policy is held together by contradiction. A military contribution was not considered in Syria, Berlin officials say, because it is not a role Germany envisions for itself. Its rhetorical support, seasoned onlookers suggest, is a diplomatic fig leaf to spare blushes as it applies for a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.

Credible solution

In the days after the attack Merkel insisted, as she has since the Syrian conflict began, that she views diplomacy and not military action as the only credible solution.

World View podcast (April 17th) Syria/Theresa May

Even a German chancellor who sees a case for military action must secure parliamentary approval for deploying armed forces. The policy requires herculean effort given Germans’ ambivalent relationship to their military and largely pacifist views. Yet Berlin’s post-Nazi logic behind military restraint works both ways.

In 1999, then foreign minister Joschka Fischer justified Germany’s participation in air strikes in Kosovo by saying: “Never again Auschwitz.” If genocide in Kosovo was enough to get Berlin on board in Kosovo, why not in Syria?

While that question torments German officials, they insist Berlin’s rhetorical response to last week’s attack was as symbolic as a bombing that, in reality, did little to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capability or reverse its military victory in eastern Ghouta.

If the art of the compromise is about leaving everyone unhappy, Germany has hit the target by leaving no one happy on the Syrian military strike.

Those tensions have also coloured debate over Germany’s response to Russia, tensions particularly visible in the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The centre-left party is the home of “Ostpolitik”, iconic leader Willy Brandt’s policy of détente with Moscow beginning in 1969. Respecting that legacy has created an obligation among party grandees to reach out to Russia even when times are tough.

Tougher approach

Since Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, however, the SPD has struggled with a balancing act between political empathy and appeasement. The German term “Russlandversteher” – someone who understands and advocates for Russia – has taken on a distinctly pejorative tone.

Last weekend the new SPD foreign minister, Heiko Maas, signalled a new tougher approach to Russia. In Der Spiegel magazine he argued for a German policy on Russia that was “rooted in reality” – a dig by a rising SPD politician, with support of the party leadership, at those who cling to a romantic understanding of “Ostpolitik”.

German military planes may remain on the ground, but Merkel remains a crucial conduit to Moscow

Russia has chosen to define itself in distinction – even opposition – to the West, said Mr Maas, denouncing Moscow’s embrace of cyber-attacks, including on his own ministry, and its reported involvement in a taboo-breaking chemical attack in Salisbury, England.

It marks a striking change in tone from his predecessors Frank Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel. While Gabriel argued for a lifting of sanctions against Russia, Steinemeier, now federal president, warned at the weekend that the “galloping estrangement” towards Russia was as much of a concern as the Skripal attack.

Concerns

Many SPD delegates at Sunday’s party conference will share their concerns. But Gabriel and Steinmeier are about as influential in Berlin these days as their mentor Gerhard Schröder, discredited for work as a consultant for the Nordstream Baltic gas pipeline controlled by Moscow.

This week Merkel announced plans to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin “in the foreseeable future”. It is unlikely to be an easy meeting with a man who she said was an “Assad ally” and had “joint responsibility” for the use of chemical weapons on Syrian soil.

German military planes may remain on the ground, but the veteran Berlin leader remains a crucial conduit to Moscow. The Merkel foreign policy balancing act is back in business: same procedure as every year.

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