Seapower, Seablindness, and National Security: A German Perspective

German F210

Joachim Krause and Sebastian Bruns (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security (Routledge, 2016)

Germany is renowned for much, but she has rarely been seen as a traditional seapower — least of all by herself. Lutz Feldt, retired former Chief of the German Navy, often lamented “German seablindness.” Nevertheless, the sturdy — if little known — German maritime community has recently achieved a remarkable distinction: Of all major international naval institutions and prominent maritime research clusters, it was a German one — the Institute for Security Policy of the University of Kiel (ISPK) — that edited last year’s Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security.

The volume is a valuable contribution to, and (perhaps surprisingly to some) a positive indication of, the quality of contemporary maritime strategic thought in Germany. Although the ISPK’s director, Joachim Krause, and the head of its maritime strategy and security department, Sebastian Bruns, drew on a wide network of international experts, the fact that a German institution would be entrusted with and capable of assembling this kind of cross-cultural expertise is remarkable. It’s also not an intuitive choice, given that Germany has been very reluctant over the past decades to engage in strategic — let alone maritime strategic — debate. Seen this way, the Kiel-based institute’s editorship of the Routledge handbook could indicate a growing maritime and strategic awareness in Germany, spurred by European integration but somewhat hobbled by a prevailing reluctance to acknowledge the persisting role of hard power in international affairs.

The German Perspective

Despite her prominent position in the globalized economy — an economy whose lifeblood passes across the oceans — Germany has never cared much for her global maritime role, at least not outside small circles of shipping and naval experts. Seen this way, the ISPK’s commitment could be just another product of this small elite. But there might also be a broader trend at work: Germany’s growing attention to maritime affairs can be seen as a response to her increasingly assertive global role — the growing strategic debate that Bruns described in these pages not long ago.

However, though there is proof of Germany’s willingness to (cautiously) participate in military interventions since the end of the Cold War, the use of force is severely contested and only seen as a means of last resort. As Germany’s recently elected president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, put it in Foreign Affairs last year, “Germans do not believe that talking at roundtables solves every problem, but neither do they think shooting does.” This may be compounded by what one of Germany’s most prominent political scientists, Herfried Münkler, often described as the phenomenon of the “post-heroic society:” “[T]he idea of self sacrifice at the ‘altar of the fatherland’ is completely foreign to us.” The flexibility of naval power, with its comparatively low political cost and casualty records during deployments, makes it attractive to any nation that can afford the high cost of acquiring and maintaining it, but it must be especially tempting to Germany.

Thus, the heightened domestic media coverage of Germany’s counter-piracy commitment off the Horn of Africa between 2008 and 2012, and the prominent featuring of the refugees’ tragedy in the Mediterranean, could be signs of a general trend of giving greater attention to German maritime affairs. Furthermore, the ISPK is not alone in its academic field in Germany. Among others, the Institute of Peace and Security Studies of the University of Hamburg has also been steadily publishing quality maritime security research on a national and international level. In addition, a maritime lobby organization was established in Berlin in 2014: The Maritimes Hauptstadtforum, an ambitious joint project of naval, shipping, ship-building and defense-industry players that receives political attention, though with naturally hard-to-measure effects.

Germany’s tentative evolution toward a maritime consciousness may also be the result of her gradually increasing European integration and self-identification with the European Union, rather than just as a nation-state. As Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested in a speech at the National German Maritime Conference in April, Germany, by thinking more and more ‘European,’ may be on her way to thinking more maritime as well. According to her chancellor, Germany’s borders are no longer strictly national but reach (via Norway’s membership in the Schengen open-border-agreement) “from the North Pole via Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria to Morocco.”

European unity afloat: French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle accompanied by a task force of French, German and British vessels. (Bundeswehr/Marine National/Cindy Luu, Mission Counter Daesh)

Still, is the recent order of five corvettes for the German navy a sign of a decisive shift in maritime policy? It’s true the navy has suffered less in defense cuts over the past few decades compared to the army or air force, but Germany is still not prominently addressing the gaps in European naval capabilities in her planning with European partners. Germany still seems to see herself as a primarily land-focused power in the EU and NATO defense architecture, with her principal recent commitment being a full further armored army division by 2032. Additionally, efforts to reverse the downward trend of Germany’s onetime leading (container) shipping industry, in global competition with state-sponsored companies from Asia, are not showing much effect. Finally, we are still waiting to see Europe act on the commonly recognized need to increase cooperation and reduce redundancies in the European naval defense industry across the member-states, harmonizing acquisition and ship-types to make better use of the available budgets. Key European cross-border defense-industry mergers like Airbus (air-defense) and the still-fresh and much smaller 2016 Franco-German KMW-NEXTER-fusion (armored vehicles) await similar realization in the naval ship-building sector.

Explaining the State of Naval Security in This Maritime Century

The book is authentically international in its aim, targeted audience, and origins of the authors, with contributors from China, India, as well as the Western Hemisphere. It also broadly tackles the global dimension of naval strategy — not a trace of seablindness. Indeed, the ISPK has a long-standing partnership with NATO, including its nearby Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters. Thus, Bruns and Krause’s compilation benefits the international maritime security policy debate by focusing on geopolitical realities.

Still, as open-minded and remarkably knowledgeable as this handbook is on global challenges in relation to a rising China or an assertive Russia, there is a certain lack of interest in what Tim Benbow calls in his very readable chapter the “least ambitious end” of naval capacity: constabulary and humanitarian roles. These roles make up a large share of current duties in many major Navies. Certainly, concessions must be made to space in a handbook of close to 400 pages. However, the lack of interest in constabulary and humanitarian missions might also be driven by a desire to create an artificial distinction between “naval security” (for “hard power”) and “maritime security” (for operations “other than war”). The book’s dust jacket makes it clear from the outset that the editors aimed to re-focus the current naval debate on the “overarching hard-power role of navies.”

This may also be an internal division of labor in the Routledge publishing house, for their Handbook of Maritime Regulation and Enforcement, published the same year, fills a number of the gaps this book leaves open. For in the age of human security, it is not especially convincing that “war-fighting” should be seen as distinct from nation-building roles. Or, to allow Clausewitz a word even in a naval setting: If war is to serve political ends, which end is served if stability goes by the board once “proper” war-fighting has ceased?

Accordingly, even the classic “navalist” is mindful of social and cultural conditions, causes, and effects ashore, as John R. Holmes’ excellent chapter on Alfred T. Mahan’s thought suggests: “learning the cultural terrain can be just as crucial” as considerations of proximity to shipping lines of communication, resources or geography. Therefore, not just in terms of the cultural side of human security, the book’s integration of thinkers from China and India is an invaluable addition, leaving only the further expansion of this idea to be desired. There is, for example, no contributor from Africa involved, and the Gulf of Guinea did not merit a regional chapter (the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean did, to be fair). Furthermore, Russia is — albeit very competently by Klaus Mommsen — only viewed from the “outside.”

Apart from perhaps being an indicator of a growing German maritime consciousness, the geopolitical, naval “hard-power” approach of Krause and Bruns’ book is decidedly incongruous with Germany’s post-war foreign policy record and self-perception as a “civilian power.” Strangely enough, in neglecting constabulary and humanitarian roles, the book gives low priority to exactly those types of commitments Germany is most willing to take upon herself. In this light, the attempt at rehabilitation of Mahan and his strategic thought might also be an academic show of defiance. After all, pacifist student assemblies in Kiel have been (so far unsuccessfully) agitating to close the ISPK precisely because of its connection with NATO. Indeed, Krause is one of the more prominent defenders of defense research in the on-and-off nation-wide German debate in university assemblies (similar protests have even targeted ex-minister of defense Thomas de Maizière and prevented him from giving a visiting lecture at Berlin’s renowned Humboldt University in 2013).

Finally, Germany today has not much love lost for geopolitical perspectives, as these are generally associated with her imperialist past, her pre-Great War naval build-up, and escalated conflict with the British Empire. However, the Germans and Europeans would do well to remember Mahan’s axiom that regions “important commercially … but politically insecure, compel the attention and excite the jealousies of more powerful nations” (as quoted by Holmes in his chapter). After all, outside the internal relationships within the European Union, power is still substantially defined in military — and naval — terms.

The Diversity of 21st Century Seapower Challenges

The authors’ treatment of their subject is broad, competent and international. There is a great deal of in-depth insight into the rich diversity of 21st-century seapower challenges, while regional knowledge is more often than not supplied by experts who bring personal experience of the topic to bear. However, in addition to the book’s weakness on constabulary and humanitarian roles of navies, its only casual glance on Africa is unjustified. After all, hard-power international navies will continue to patrol African waters, while having to engage with each other and African partners — as well as opponents for the foreseeable future.

Still, notwithstanding these limitations, Bruns and Krause’s edited volume offers a wealth of insight and inspiration. It is both a mark of the evolution of maritime thought in Germany and a very valuable addition to the international debate on the challenges and opportunities humanity faces at sea and beyond.


Moritz Brake is an officer in the German Navy, a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, auditeur of the French Institut des Hautes Études de Défense National (IHEDN) and member of the German Maritime Institute (DMI). He has edited a volume on maritime security and piracy, ‘Maritime Sicherheit – Moderne Piraterie’ (Peter Lang Verlag, 2015)’ and an illustrated history of the German Navy, ‘60 Jahre Deutsche Marine im Bild’ (with Heinrich Walle; Verlag Mittler & Sohn 2016).

Image: DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon, U.S. Navy.

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