BERLIN — The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago has forced Germans to confront variations on a basic question: “How did we get here?”
That reflection is particularly fraught when it comes to the issue of security, a challenge many in 1989 hoped would be resolved with the end of the Cold War.
Instead, security concerns have returned to the forefront of the political agenda, with the country once again struggling to define its role in the transatlantic alliance, Europe and beyond.
If there’s one thing Germany’s politicians and talking heads would agree on, it’s that their country needs to “take on more responsibility,” as everyone from the German president to the chancellor to successive foreign and defense ministers have repeated again and again over the past few years.
Put simply, given Germany’s outsize role in Europe, its export-driven economy and its wealth, Berlin should be playing a more active role on the global security front instead of hiding behind the skirts of the U.S.
“We shouldn’t just wait to see if others take action and then decide to either participate or not” — German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
So far, so good. Where Germany’s political elites struggle is on the question of how to go about it.
Those divisions were on prominent display in recent days — both before and after French President Emmanuel Macron’s now infamous remark that NATO was “braindead.”
If the tenor and pace of the debate are anything to go by, Germany is nowhere nearer to “taking on more responsibility” than it was when former President Joachim Gauck first issued the call at the Munich Security Conference in 2014.
The latest debate began after Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of the Christian Democrats and a candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, called Thursday for a more robust German role in combating global crises.
“We shouldn’t just wait to see if others take action and then decide to either participate or not,” she said in what her office billed as a “major” policy speech at a university that educates German army officers. “We should be making proposals, developing ideas, presenting the options.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer recently learned the hard way that in Germany’s reflexively passive security culture, a proactive approach is not all that popular. When she suggested last month that Germany and its allies help create a “safe zone” for the Kurds in Syria, purposely leaving the details of how she would go about it vague, the test balloon was dismissed by all sides as naïve and unworkable. And that was the charitable criticism.
One prominent critic, Green leader Robert Habeck, said in a radio interview that aired Sunday that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s security ideas were wrongheaded and would undermine public trust in the government.
Habeck, a man polls suggest could have a shot at becoming Germany’s next chancellor, said Germany’s focus should be on developing common European defense structures. He said he shared Macron’s analysis of NATO, though he would have used different language.
“As long as [Donald] Trump is [U.S.] president — and who knows what will come after him — we can no longer fully count on NATO and the security systems of the past decades to dependably function,” he said. “Therefore, the European states need to get together and develop common strategies.”
More broadly, Habeck said Germany needed to decide what the mission of the Bundeswehr, the German army, should be. Instead of promising to spend billions more on the Bundeswehr, as Germany has done in line with the NATO goal for members to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, Berlin should go back to the drawing board and debate what threats the army should be equipped to confront. Never mind that the defense ministry did just that three years ago.
“A foreign and security policy without Washington would be irresponsible; a decoupling of Europe and American security, dangerous” — German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas
Not to be outflanked, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat and another vocal critic of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s Syria proposal, added his own voice to the chorus.
“We have to take on more responsibility in order to ensure our own security in Europe and Germany,” he declared in an op-ed that appeared on the online version of Der Spiegel on Sunday, repeating the mantra without offering specifics.
Maas and his party oppose Kramp-Karrenbauer’s activist approach, but they’re also wary of the Europe-first tack pushed by Macron and Habeck if it damages the transatlantic alliance.
Maas warned against taking steps that would “undermine NATO,” adding that neither Germany nor Europe would be able to effectively defend themselves without the support of the U.S.
“A foreign and security policy without Washington would be irresponsible; a decoupling of Europe and American security, dangerous,” Maas said, responding to Macron’s critique of the alliance. “We will need NATO for many years to come.”
The remarks came as something of a surprise because Maas has previously advocated Germany moving away from the U.S.. He spent the last few days hosting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for celebrations surrounding the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an encounter that appears to have left a strong impression.
So where does that leave Germany’s security debate?
Rudderless, muddled and lost in contradiction.
In other words, same as it ever was.