Syria Tests Germany’s Culture of Reluctance

In the wake of the chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Western military strikes against Syria seem imminent. And Germany will once again demand a special role.

With elections less than four weeks away, the developments in Syria are putting Chancellor Angela Merkel in a tough spot. Certainly, Berlin has felt compelled to ratchet up its rhetoric vis-à-vis President Bashar al-Assad, dubbing his regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons as the “breaking of a taboo” and a “crime against civilization.”

On the other hand, an escalation of the conflict could derail Merkel’s plans to coast to easy re-election on Sept. 22.

German political leaders know full well that the country’s public opinion remains highly skeptical of any military deployments abroad, let alone combat operations. In March 2011, the Merkel government decided to abstain in the United Nations Security Council vote authorizing the use of force against Libya just days before contesting important regional elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg (the ruling center-right parties still lost).

Berlin’s controversial decision to side with Russia and China rather than back its traditional NATO allies was viewed by international observers at the time as evidence that Germany, despite being an economic powerhouse, is still a pygmy in foreign and security affairs.

Unfortunately, prominent German political leaders across party lines continue to believe that the country’s economic weight creates enough leverage to compensate for Germany’s failure to realize its full potential as a capable and responsible member of the Atlantic alliance and the international community.

At a time when Europe’s global reach, influence and credibility are threatened by rapid decline, “checkbook diplomacy” by the biggest European Union member is not a viable substitute for contributing military assets to the joint defense of our common values and interests. Neither is “offset diplomacy,” like Berlin’s offer to boost its military commitment in Afghanistan during the Libya crisis. That option, in any case, is no longer available.

Just this week, Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic party’s candidate for chancellor, urged “maximum restraint” and sternly warned of “falling into a military logic” on Syria. Steinbrück’s position is reminiscent of the one espoused by the former Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who famously told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in February 2003, “Excuse me, I’m not convinced” of the case for war against Iraq.

The fact that history ultimately vindicated Fischer’s stance makes a similar approach today even more attractive. And while the current foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, the architect of Germany’s Libya abstention, has made it clear that the chemical attack in Syria must trigger direct action by the international community, he has said only that “Germany will be among those who deem such consequences as appropriate,” and has remained firmly opposed to any military participation.

Berlin’s culture of reluctance exposes the underlying paradoxes of German foreign and security policy. Even during the severe frictions between Washington and Berlin in 2003 over the Iraq war, Germany’s center-left Red-Green government led by Gerhard Schröder provided far more tangible support — ranging from flyover rights to intelligence sharing — than the self-styled leaders of the German “Friedensmacht” (“peace power”) were willing to admit to their own public.

Ten years later, the Merkel government may try to chart a path that shows a certain degree of solidarity with whatever Washington and other allies decide to do in Syria, perhaps using German naval reconnaissance assets off the coast of Syria and Lebanon to collect intelligence. Or German Patriot missile defense units currently deployed in Turkey could see action in the unlikely event that Damascus tries to retaliate against Ankara. Finally, Germany might provide support to Israel against potential attacks from Hezbollah units in southern Lebanon.

At the same time, Merkel and Westerwelle will be extremely careful to deny the opposition parties any political opening. A direct participation by the German military in Western military strikes on Syria is not on the table.

While the reasons for Germany’s approach seem understandable, both in terms of the country’s past and the natural desire of political leaders to win, following such an approach in the high-stakes realm of foreign and security policy carries a potentially steep cost in international influence.

While it will take a long time for Germany to move beyond its deeply entrenched culture of reluctance, taking a stronger, more principled stance on Syria today would be an important step in the right direction.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former German defense minister, is Distinguished Statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. Ulf Gartzke teaches at Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies.

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