Germany is in crisis mode. Every day trains packed with refugees arrive from the south, and despite tightened border controls, as many as a million are expected by the end of the year. For all the warm and open talk coming from Chancellor Angela Merkel, everyone knows that the financial and social costs of absorbing so many people will be considerable.
Germany and its less-welcoming European partners are treating the wave of refugees, many of whom come from Syria or other parts of the Middle East, primarily as a humanitarian crisis. But it is also a security crisis for Europe, and it should force a thorough rethinking of how Europe approaches the regions of the world that abut its southern and eastern borders.
Germany, which is absorbing by far the largest number of refugees, is reaping the results of its own reluctance to engage abroad and its failure, as the leading country in the European Union, to galvanize fellow member states against the mass atrocities of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad — crimes that fueled the refugee crisis and helped the rise of the Islamic State.
In recent years two successive German foreign ministers have warned against engagement in Syria and against arming moderate parts of the opposition. The results were predictable: While Mr. Assad has been propped up by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and while the Islamic State has seen radical Islamists from Europe and elsewhere rallying to its flag, the moderate forces, which should have been natural allies of the West, have been crushed.
Berlin has repeatedly argued that Western intervention of any kind would just make the situation worse. But Germany and the United States failed to understand that not acting was itself a form of action, and that it has led directly to the battlefield escalation and refugee outflows that the West tried to avoid.
It was not for a lack of alternatives. In 2013 one of Germany’s most seasoned diplomats, Wolfgang Ischinger, and others warned that Syria risked becoming another Balkan crisis, and advocated a no-fly zone inside Syria and humanitarian corridors. Mr. Ischinger, hardly a hawk, even called for limited military intervention to force a diplomatic solution, as was done in Bosnia. Needless to say, the German government disagreed, opting instead for a diplomatic approach, without the military teeth.
The spread of the Islamic State and the beheading of American citizens last summer set off a fierce debate in the United States about the limits and the costs of President Obama’s policy of disengagement. Unfortunately, the refugee crisis has not caused a similar reckoning in Germany so far.
After World War II, Europeans grew accustomed to the United States’ taking the lead in addressing security threats in and around Europe. That has nurtured a complacency in Europe’s foreign and security posture, the dangers of which have now been fully exposed. With Washington unwilling to act, Europe could no longer pretend that someone else would step in, as happened so often in the past.
The Syrian conflict, and the resulting refugee crisis, should serve as a reminder that Germany’s foreign policy doctrine of recent decades, a much softer version of the Obama doctrine, urgently needs a reassessment. It would be too much to expect Berlin to become a confident military power in the foreseeable future. Even limited intervention in Syria to enforce a no-fly zone and thereby push for a political settlement always was a tall order, given Germany’s limited capabilities.
Nor can the world be content with having Germany habitually shy away from military action. Working with France, Britain and other European countries, Germany should have helped to forge a European response to the Syria crisis when it became clear that the United States wasn’t prepared to step in.
This probably won’t be the last time that Germany will be called upon to show more proactive leadership. President Obama’s past reluctance to act in the Middle East might only be the first phase in a long-term American withdrawal from the region because of its growing energy independence.
And given political volatility in this part of the world, Syria might not be the last country to slide into a brutal civil war. Indeed, today Central and Western Europe is surrounded by a belt of insecurity ranging from Ukraine in the east to Libya and parts of sub-Saharan Africa in the south. So Europe had better get its act together, before waves of refugees pouring into the Continent become not a crisis, but a chronic condition.
Clemens Wergin is the Washington bureau chief for the newspaper Die Welt.