How many times in the past few years has Germany been described as a leading nation? The US president’s impulsive and ignorant personality traits have even led many to call Angela Merkel the new “leader of the free world.” Yet this weekend’s events have shown how little reality there is to such descriptions of Germany’s secret hegemony.
The US Air Force, supported by the British and French, set fighter jets on Syrian military bases to retaliate against chemical weapons attacks. Ms. Merkel sent out a press release. Her statement can be summed up as follows: There must be retribution, just not by us. Germany’s sense of responsibility, in practice, amounts to nothing but lip service.
To be clear: What is disturbing about Ms. Merkel’s position is not her refusal to participate in one bombing mission. What is disturbing is the moral double standard underlying Germany’s foreign policy: an “oh, go ahead” doctrine that supports military action but refuses to take part. Germany upholds international values, but when things get tough, it ducks away.
Rather than take a clear position, Germany has again tried to sit on the fence.
In terms of foreign policy, Europe's economic powerhouse behaves like a larger version of Belgium. The political scientist Herfried Münkler has deplored Germany’s “fixation on the rule of law as a means of dealing with political challenges” and its refusal to engage in “strategic thought.” Both traits are very much in evidence in Germany’s handling of the Syrian crisis: Berlin denounced the breaking of international legal norms, but will not take responsibility for upholding those norms.
It is four years since then-German president Joachim Gauck, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, demanded that “as a good partner, Germany should participate earlier, more decisively, and more substantially.” But little has happened since. Although German politicians like to speak of a new foreign policy maturity, almost no one in Berlin is ready to take the decisions necessary to make that happen. As before, Germany's armed forces are managed with a scarcity of resources. This has the pleasant side-effect that, when the going gets tough, no one will ask for a German contribution.
To repeat: This is not to bemoan the lack of participation in this latest attack on Syrian military facilities. But what should be criticized is the lack of consistency at the heart of Germany’s foreign policy, the insistence that words will not be followed by action. Instead, the chancellor could have expressed herself differently. To use her own vocabulary, there were alternatives to bombardment. Ms. Merkel could have made good arguments to justify her military non-participation: The missile attack will not change the course of the war; The Syrian regime remains highly unwilling to make a peace deal with the rebels; The chief outcome of the bombing is an increased risk of confrontation with Russia, the protector of the Syrian army.
The US government justified military strikes in Syria as a necessary enforcement of the international chemical weapons ban. Mr. Trump, of course, suffers from his own double standards. Suddenly, Mr. Trump is supposed to be a defender of international humanitarian law? The same man who hardly misses an opportunity to trample on norms, supports torture and wants to kill terrorists’ families? Mr. Trump was the one to cite a poem comparing refugees to poisonous snakes. He was the one who refused entry to Syrian children. And now he supposedly has discovered a heart for the victims of civil war? All of this suggests something very different to a man upholding international law.
The German government had a choice. It could have refused Mr. Trump’s Syrian operation, or could have joined in with it. But rather than take a clear position, Germany yet again tried to sit on the fence. Better not to take risks. Yet again, we see how German foreign policy, more than anything, reveals the gap between what is expected of the country and what it is prepared to deliver.
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