Can Germany Grow Up?

All of a sudden, Germany says it wants to be a grown-up.

“There are people who use Germany’s guilt in the past as an excuse for withdrawal and laziness,” President Joachim Gauck said at the opening of the 50th Munich Security Conference late last month. “This restraint can lead to a notion of being privileged, and if this is the case, I will always criticize it.”

These are remarkable sentences, a direct challenge to Germany’s postwar pacifist edifice. They are of a historic piece with a famous speech by one of Mr. Gauck’s predecessors, Richard von Weizsäcker, in 1985. Then — 40 years after Germany’s capitulation in World War II — Mr. Weizsäcker said that the Germans should regard themselves as a liberated people.

Now President Gauck is asking them for something more: Feel good about yourself — and feel responsible for others.

Though Mr. Gauck, as president, has no formal power, he was not alone. A few minutes later, Germany’s new foreign and defense ministers said much the same in their own speeches. The foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, even repeated Mr. Gauck’s rhetoric: German contributions to international politics should come “earlier, more substantially and more decisively.”

Officials familiar with the speeches told me that Mr. Gauck and Mr. Steinmeier had coordinated their approach well ahead of Munich. They had also informed Chancellor Angela Merkel. She chose to remain silent, but she, too, will soon have to show her colors.

This is not what the world has come to expect from Germany, nor is it something Germany is entirely comfortable with. Commitments in Bosnia and Afghanistan aside, Germany has long failed to pull its weight in international affairs. Now, at least rhetorically, it may be taking up a political role commensurate with its outsized global economic power.

Of course, the Munich rhetoric has to be translated into Berlin politics. And at this point, the one thing that Ms. Merkel wanted to avoid is almost certain to happen: a controversy within her newly formed governing coalition about what the new German responsibility actually means.

Ask the coalition partners, the center-right Christian Democrats and Mr. Steinmeier’s center-left Social Democrats, how they imagine Germany’s new role, and the answers could not be more different.

Social Democrats will tell you a lot about strengthening civilian crisis prevention, rethinking arms exports and generally being skeptical toward expensive defense projects.

In contrast, Christian Democrats will emphasize the need to maintain and expand the capabilities of the German Army, in technical as well as in legal terms.

Some even argue that the German Parliament should grant the army units a general mandate — that is, permission to use force without Parliament’s specific approval — if they do so within NATO or European Union structures.

This last item is a necessary step if Germany is going to help create the nucleus of a true European defense capability and become, to use the fashionable German phrase, an “Ahnlehnungs partner” — roughly, a shoulder to lean on.

Without unfettered leadership from Germany, European-level military operations will be hobbled. The multinational European Union battle groups, for instance, have never been used since their formation in 2005, although they could have been helpful in theaters like Mali or the Central African Republic. Why not? Because Germany, whose size gave it a virtual veto, never wanted them to be used.

Unfortunately, the idea of loosening the army’s leash is extremely toxic to the Social Democrats. They could imagine, as a compromise, giving up parliamentary control once the European Parliament gets the right to approve military action.

But this is a chicken-and-egg problem: A European Army mandated by the European Parliament will remain a distant fantasy without German participation.

That said, the basic structures for such a role are quietly falling into place. On Jan. 1, the Dutch government put 2,100 soldiers under German command as part of a binational rapid-response force. Dutch soldiers, in other words, are happily receiving orders from German officers. A similar agreement is currently being discussed with the government of Poland. It is extraordinary to think of this happening 100 years after the outbreak of World War I.

In fact, the Great War may contain the kernel of the kind of military synergy Germany could foster today, should Parliament step back. At the time, the German Army consisted of the forces of four kingdoms: Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg. During times of peace they were under the control of the local rulers; in wartime, like in 1914, they merged to defend the German empire.

Germany could help lead the same sort of coordination today, albeit under democratic, European terms, not imperial ones.

There remains a large divide between this sort of initiative and the political reality in Berlin. But it is what Europe needs, and it is what Germany needs to encourage, even if that means casting off its war-woven hair shirt.

Mr. Gauck’s remarkable rhetoric in Munich has not made it easier, overnight, to implement his demand in practice, but the speech is a serious step forward into the realm of the politically possible.

Ms. Merkel is, by all accounts, far from pleased with the message from Munich. The last thing she wants is a fight with the Social Democrats so early in her third term. But with the euro crisis receding, the two sides have no option but to grapple with the new European gauntlet thrown down by Mr. Gauck.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

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