Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.05.12

Is Germany Going Own Way?

In mid-March, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that established a no-fly zone for the purpose of preventing the Gaddafi government of Libya from killing civilians. This resolution is known as an approval for military action. Although no member of the Security Council voted against the resolution, China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Germany abstained. Abstention by China and Russia surprised no one, given their past positions and actions. By contrast, the abstention by Germany' drew attention because that country is usually very supportive of human rights and humanitarian measures. Why did Germany abstain?

With the surge of democratization movements throughout the Middle East, a number of countries are extending all manner of assistance to Libyans in order to end Gaddafi's dictatorship. Gaddafi has shown tenacity, in resisting his ouster, armed with oil money to deploy his own mercenaries. He has killed many civilians, and the anti-government forces have been beleaguered. Although the UN adjudged that it would be necessary to use strong measures against Gaddafi, now, just one month after adoption of the resolution, it remains unclear which group will emerge victorious.

France, together with Britain, has been at the forefront of the international community in condemning Gaddafi. Just one week before the UN Security Council resolution, France recognized the Transitional National Council, which has been at the center of the anti-government movement, as the official government of Libya. Considering the present situation in Libya, recognition at that point now looks almost premature.

France thinks Germany is being too passive. Although President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Juppe are careful in their wording, the press, including Der Spiegel and Le Monde, are quoting unnamed French senior officials to the effect of that "Germany is weakening the western alliance," "Chancellor Merkel may have won domestic approval but she will pay a dear price," "Serious damage to German-French relations." These anonymous quotes are probably a truer reflection of how France really views Germany.

This view stands in stark contrast from past, when these two countries together refrained from involvement in the multinational forces acting against Iraq. During the Iraq war, Gerhardt Schroeder of SPD (center left) was chancellor and he had asserted his position in opposition to military action against Iraq during the election campaigns for the Bundestag. The United States regarded Chancellor Schroeder as anti-American and his political leanings led to Germany not joining the multinational forces.

Now, Angela Merkel (CDU, center right) is chancellor and her political inclinations emphasize Germany's relations with the United States, just like President Sarkozy. Merkel has been very cautious about military action against Libya, however, and Germany abstained from voting on the UN resolution. She must have been perfectly aware that this would result in her being criticized for not being a team player in the western alliance.

After the Second World War, Germany has placed great emphasis on international cooperation. As a result, it has been careful about military actions, even if the United States or other European nations ask it to join them. Even when they try to convince Germany to participate in a joint action based on a UN resolution, Germany, on its own, must feel comfortable with the resolution. This was the case for Iraq as well.

In light of its bitter experiences from the War, Germany staunchly pursues pacifism. This is no different than Japan. It is said that the Germans themselves are afraid that once Germany starts asserting itself, it may no longer pay enough attention to iternational cooperation. Some have even believed that, as long as Germany remained divided, it will be unable to assert itself as one country and, therefore, that not being unified was not such a bad thing.

This viewpoint is different from that of Japan. The Japanese people continuously regret Japan's failure to assert itself in the international arena. Germany has been very affirmative about pursuing a unified Europe and has accepted the costs of doing so. One can understand why Germans are afraid of undermining efforts at international cooperation.

It is therefore rather ironic that, while its actions are founded on its strong belief in international cooperation, Germany is now being criticized for undermining the western alliance. When France's own stance with respect to Libya has not exactly been a model of international cooperation, one cannot help contemplating the difficulty of pursuing consistent positions in the complex arena of international politics.