Germany Takes a Steely Look at the World


On October 24, 2006, the first Angela Merkel government issued its first white book on defense and the future of the German Armed Forces. Four years later, on May 31, 2010, the president of Germany and official head of state, Horst Köhler, resigned. He stepped down over harsh criticism,  after alluding to the fact that Germany should consider military force abroad in order to guard maritime supply routes and to combat regional instabilities. These were precisely some of the key policies of the 2006 White Book, yet the outcry in the German public four years later was so tremendous that it forced the president’s hand. Although the role of the head of state in Germany’s parliamentary system is more ceremonial in nature, this was highly significant because Köhler was the first president to resign in the history of the Federal Republic.

Earlier this month, the most recent German white book (the first since 2006 and only the third since the end of the Cold War) was issued by the current and third Merkel government. And in February 2017, the 12th President of Germany will be elected for a new five-year term. Should he or she be more careful when commenting on security and defense policy, and perhaps even order a moving van for the year 2021? Well, not so fast. Germany’s coming-of-age since its reunification a quarter of a century ago and the tectonic shifts in the international security environment have contributed to a sobering but ultimately necessary ‘normalization’ of the German strategic mindset. Most recently, this was symbolized by the resurgence of Russia and military conflict on European flanks, more than 1.14 million immigrants in 2015 alone, the E.U. crises, and the rise of Islamic extremism.. It appears that the international order, from a central European point of view, is eroding (including a cooled off relationship with the United States in the wake of transatlantic turmoil over the NSA affair). Indeed, the West as a whole has lost much of its global soft and hard power projection capabilities. The 2016 white book seeks to reflect much of that. The process to which the document is but an outcome informally builds on a debate that has been going on in informed German think tank and academic circles since 2013. That year, two leading think tanks came together to publish an influential paper on the future of German defense and security policy. Some of that language found its way into speeches at the Munich Security Conference 2014, where Secretary of Defense Ursula von der Leyen (a conservative), Secretary of State Frank-Walter Steinmeier (a Social Democrat) and — low and behold — current German president Joachim Gauck (a former pastor and opposition member in East Germany during the division of the country) all underlined that requirement for more military engagement in the world should the need arise. This set the scene for the new German capstone document.

The process of writing the current white book has been more inclusive than ever. A staggering series of workshops featuring numerous participants from Germany and abroad was held between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016 in Berlin and elsewhere. The overarching aim of that process, complete with its own campaign logo , was to include the broader public into the decision-making process early on. Public feedback then informed the writing of the document, which then happened in Berlin over the past six months. Surprisingly, drafts were not leaked. The timeline was tight since the white book needs to be kept out of the campaign for the 2017 general election and to be untangled with a European Union Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy due out later this year. Naturally, the white book took into consideration established frameworks, strategies, treaties, and other documents of binding relevance to Germany. The process alone motived military services, academics, and the public to consider the strategic role of Germany and the use of military force.

In the words of Brigadier General Carsten Breuer, the German Army one-star in charge of writing the white book, this iterative process was infused by a sense of “strategic patience” in an increasingly chaotic world. The project was ambitious nonetheless. To start, it represented the government’s first effort to conduct a strategic review and provide a far-reaching outlook (10 years) for more than a decade. Second, the document sought to not simply identify shortcomings and problems, but rather provide a more positive outlook and underline the shaping value of sound security and defense policy. Third, not less than five “reforms” of the Bundeswehr since 1990, shedding its Cold War posture and attempting to adapt to the challenges of the new era, had left the German Army, Navy, and Air Force hollowed out and in a desperate state of material and personnel readiness.

Germany, long-since been uneasy with the use of military force for political ends, had deployed military assets to Afghanistan support of the international force to provide security. For more than a decade (and certainly for the 2006 white book), the idea of nation-building, counterinsurgency campaigns, and combatting irregular challenges dominated how the German armed forces, its political masters, and the German public thought about and prepared for the use of military force. In parallel, the German Navy was deployed in such maritime security operations as Operation Active Endeavour (in the central Mediterranean, 2002 to 2016), the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s Maritime Task Force (UNIFIL, Eastern Mediterranean, since 2006), and the European Union’s counter-piracy operation ATLANTA (Horn of Africa, since 2008). Collective security, not coalition defense, was the name of the game.

Russia’s resurgence and its willingness to use force to coerce neighbors, the collapsing Middle East in Syria and Iraq, the challenges of an Iranian nuclear program, a number of failing states and uprisings in Northern Africa, and the disintegrating European Union in the wake of the Euro currency and migration crises have changed the way Germans think about the challenges of the world around them. Now, homeland security and alliance defense are as important as global collective security (something that the recent NATO Summit in Warsaw echoed). The Northern, Southern, and Eastern flanks of the continent will be the future areas of concern and operations for Germany and its allies. For Germany, this is a paradigm change, and the Bundeswehr for the first time is looking at being provided with more resources to overcome a strained force with little to no reserves. For years, the force structure shrank as the alleged peace dividend was happily collected.

A white book, given how it is written and shaped in the whole-of-government system, only goes so far as to give impulse and hint at current and future responsibilities for a country like Germany and the leadership roles that come with it. As any strategically minded document, it has various audiences. Russia, for one, is no longer considered as a partner (like it was the case in the 2006 white book), but rather characterized as a challenge. And while Germany underlines its principal foreign-policy consensus that it is committed to alliances and would only in exceptional cases circumvent a E.U. directive, a NATO mandate, or a U.N. resolution to deploy military force, it now recognizes that coalitions of the willing (like the Counter ISIL operations) cannot be ruled out. This is a clear signal to allied partners and non-allied friendly nations alike. A powerful message is the idea that in the future, foreign E.U. nationals could serve in the German armed forces. This could reduce the personnel and recruitment crisis that the Bundeswehr is challenged with after conscription was suspended in 2011. It would also be a powerful sign that Germany means business when it comes to building up a more integrated European force in the distant future. The notion that the armed forces could also play more significant role in homeland security and domestic counter-terrorism operations, a hotly contested issue in the public (which likes to see the Bundeswehr in Germany only for disaster relief) and also strictly limited by the German constitution, will likely go to the Federal High Court to be resolved. It helps to drive the debate about the famed, and often failed, comprehensive approach and the limits of dividing inner and outer security from each other. Finally, any future German head of state should be relieved that maritime security and its global horizon are once again mentioned in the 2016 white book. The German Navy, much like the Luftwaffe, the Army, and other branches are currently working on subsidiary strategies to implement the aspirations of the white book. It should be hoped that no resignations need to take place by senior leaders for stating the obvious for a country like Germany.


Dr. Sebastian Bruns heads the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel (ISPK), Germany. He is one of the editors of the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security (2016), Project Director to the “Kiel Conference” on maritime security challenges, and a member of the German Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations strategy advisory group. Before coming to Kiel for his PhD, Sebastian served as a congressional staffer for an Indiana Republican, handling the Congressman’s defense and military affairs from 2010 to 2011.