All Hands on Deck!

Germans are discussing whether the military should be used to protect trade routes overseas. The Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière and Social Democratic chairman Sigmar Gabriel have joined the debate. We have moved beyond the times when German defense policy hid behind the idea of a pacifist state. Good!

We must guard and defend our trade routes. Yes, my friends on the pacifistic front: There are products and goods that are shipped to us from distant shores and that will eventually encounter trouble, like pirates at the Horn of Africa. We also export goods around the world – goods that might be preyed upon by others. But the discussion is not only about protecting tangible products because of their monetary value. It is also about stabilizing the world economy and the associated global mechanisms of trade. Economic instability leads to social instability. In destabilized societies, unrest and violent dispute can break out more easily.We need to prevent those conditions from becoming manifest.

The German relationship to military action has grown cold in the latter half of the twentieth century – for good reasons. Yet the German pacifism now goes beyond what is needed and required. Germans don’t even want their military to be seen outside the nation’s borders – and end up inhibiting necessary discussions about the use of force in the 21st century. The repression of discourse functions as more than a rhetorical device: What is not being talked about, does not exist.

A Litmus Test of Transatlantic Relations

However, that discourse must be happen and reality must be acknowledged: Yes, there are trade routes. Yes, they are at risk. Yes, the military has to contribute to the protection of these trade routes. The clarification of this question leads to a greater issue: How we – and by ‘we’ I don’t only mean the Germans, but Europeans altogether – want to make use of the military in the future. Our position in the geostrategic fabric of the 21st century will depend on it. The transatlantic relationship will depend on it.

We share a lot values with the Americans. Surveys repeatedly show this impressively. As a hemisphere and a historical entity, the West is bound together by a set of values. Yet there is only one big trench, and that is the question of the “Use of Force”, the usage of military action.

Military? Oh No!

In the survey “Transatlantic Trends 2010”, 49 percent of Americans agreed with the following statement: “Under certain circumstances war is necessary to justice”. Only five percent of the Germans think likewise, in France three percent, in Italy six percent. 50 percent of Germans disagree strongly, as do 61 percent of the French and 57 percent of the Italian population. In the US, only 11 percent object to the phrase.

When the former German President Horst Köhler defended the use of military force for economic reasons in 2010, public outrage ensued and precipitated his eventual resignation. Yet that episode has to be read against the backdrop of deep-seeded pacifism in Germany. In an interview with the Deutschland-Radio on May 22, 2010 Köhler said: “I come to the conclusion that in total, we are on our way to understand, as a society, that a country of our size, with such a focus on foreign trade and thus also a high dependency on foreign trade might require military action to protect our interests in an emergency situation. For instance, ensuring free trade routes, averting regional instabilities that would certainly backfire negatively on our trade, jobs and incomes. All that should be discussed and I believe we are on a fairly good way.”

A Loose Cannon?

Köhler was vigorously attacked in public for making that statement. Above all a senior politician of the Green party, Jürgen Trittin, shot ahead in a talk show on July 2, 2010: “We don’t need either gunboat politics or a loose rhetorical deck cannon heading the ship of state”. The president eventually resigned.

Much has changed since 2010. In a speech at the University of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party said in July 2011 that a European patriotism needs to “serve especially the improvement of the living conditions in Europe”. What exactly he meant by that, he left open. Living conditions relates directly to the economic situation. Any common European security policy would have to be oriented towards that goal.

We Need a European Army

The German Minister of Defense now publicly embraces Köhler’s statement. In a speech in May he said: “Our interests and our place in the world are predominantly determined by our role as an export nation and a high-tech country in the center of Europe. As a consequence, we have a national interest in access to land, water and air.”

What holdstrue for Germany is true for the entire European Union. We currently debate the integration of European economic and fiscal policy. We might just as well begin a discussion on the idea of a European army and the role it would play in the world during the coming decades.


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