It Is Time for Germans to Talk About Sicherheitspolitik
In September 2003, German political scientist Hanns Maull published an essay in which he postulated that Germany willfully neglected foreign and security policy. Germans, he wrote, cared more about “whether health insurance covers fake teeth” than about “the problems of the deployment of German soldiers in Kabul or Kongo.” Germany was in need of a “general public security-policy debate,” Maull argued.
Fast forward 15 years to January 2019: Nora Mueller, head of the international affairs department at the German Koerber Foundation, writes an article for a German weekly. Her assessment: “Despite the worsening of Germany’s security environment, Germans want their country to be a kind of big Switzerland — not a shaper of international politics.” Why? Because “Germany still lacks a genuine, public strategic debate.”
Has there really been no change? Is Germany condemned to a perpetual lack of strategic debate, a neglectful political class, and a public apathetic about foreign policy?
Not quite. Some things have changed in the last 15 years. In 2003, Maull deplored a general lack of any type of foreign policy debate and decried “pure political neglect” of international politics. But since then, the political class in Germany has become markedly more engaged. Admittedly, the country has not quite lived up to the so-called “Munich consensus” of 2014 when, in a coordinated effort at the Munich Security Conference, the German president, foreign minister and defense minister announced that Germany would challenge its policy of international restraint and take on more responsibility to safeguard the international order. But German politics is no longer as disconnected from foreign policy today, as it was when Maull wrote his article.
The German population, however, continues to look negatively upon an engaged German foreign policy, particularly an active security and defense policy. Some may take issue with the first part of this statement — after all, a recent poll done for the Munich Security Report suggests that today 70 percent of Germans support the statement “my country should pursue an active foreign policy and a significant role in solving international problems, crises, and conflicts.” But in the same poll, 59 percent of Germans say that “for the most part, my country should be internationally neutral,” which points to either a somewhat schizophrenic approach to world politics, a high level of indecisiveness and uncertainty about actual positions, or a rather naïve view about foreign policy. Most importantly, most Germans want to continue to limit any foreign policy engagement to non-military means and oppose military intervention in conflicts.
On this, the German public has been consistent. Foreign ministers regularly rank among the most popular German politicians. The defense minister post, on the other hand, has been decried as an ejection seat and career killer (although current Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has so far done a good job in holding on).
One can support the careful German approach to military interventions. In fact, Maull became famous because of his concept of “civilian power,” describing a foreign policy concept based on civilian rather than military power. But the sensible rejection of militarism should not lead to the rejection of any debate of military topics. It is this approach that leads to the “Swissification” and “self-dwarfization” of Germany, and ultimately to its weakening. Of course, military means should be among the last tools of foreign policy. Not intervening militarily is often the sensible foreign policy choice. But taking the capability off the table completely, as many Germans wish to do, not only limits choices, it also decreases the meaningfulness of many non-military foreign policy actions.
Germany needs and deserves a better debate on foreign and, in particular, security and defense policy, which includes the larger public. The German media landscape is good, with a solid publicly funded base, and without the kind of highly biased or partisan outlets found in the United Kingdom and the United States. But with regard to foreign security, and defense policy, media organizations and the public are stuck in a negative feedback loop, in which little interest from the public leads to less, and sometimes ill-informed, coverage, leading in turn to less public interest.
In order to help start the “general debate” that Maull asked for in 2003 and the “overdue, broad debate about interests and aims of German foreign policy” that Mueller wished for, we created “Sicherheitshalber,” the first German-language discussion podcast on security and defense topics. This term can be loosely translated as “to be on the safe side” or “as a precaution.” Our team is made up of a journalist, two academics, and a think tanker (me). We have received initial support from the European Council on Foreign Relations and the German blog Augengeradeaus.net. In the last episode, we specifically discussed the reported lack of German public interest in foreign policy and rejection of anything military. We also discussed the proposals to open the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, to recruits from other E.U. member states. The hope is to reach a wider audience than the “Berlin bubble.”
Why should policy-makers and experts care about public opinion on these matters, which, by definition (and more so than most political issues) are generally removed from peoples’ daily lives and ultimately decided by the political elite? Nora Mueller — the author of the aforementioned 2019 article — answers this elegantly by invoking Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “because it’s 2019!” An elitist approach to foreign and security policy has no place in the 21st century. While in a representative democracy, the willingness to take unpopular decisions remains important and sometimes necessary, the foreign policy establishment in Germany needs to become better at getting the public on board and informed. In the same way that in 2014 the German political leadership realized that it was time to question its automatic fall-back policy of international restraint, in 2019, the German public needs to realize that hiding behind a mix of deliberate ignorance and automatic rejection of anything military can no longer be an option. It is Sicherheitshalber’s aim to help inform the public and create a general debate on the basis of which a better, more strategic German foreign policy can take root.
Ulrike Franke is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Her areas of focus include German and European security and defense, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence. She co-hosts the Sicherheitshalber Podcast, a German-language podcast on security and defense.
Image: Reinhard Link