With the world remaining focused on NATO military intervention in Libya, a major shift has been quietly occurring in international relations. Germany, for long a staunch member of the Trans-Atlantic alliance, has upset its two most important security partners; the United States and France. Instead of band-wagoning onto their efforts to stop the advance of government forces to rebel-held Benghazi, it has remained true to its non-militaristic moorings and refrained from expeditionary warfare. In doing so, it has incurred the wrath of Washington, Paris and London. Ironically, these three power centers were instrumental in crafting a German foreign policy of pacifism in the decades immediately following World War II. Today, they might be reaping what they sowed.
By refusing to get pressured into supporting a campaign that many Germans are skeptical about, Berlin might be carving out a separate identity for German strategic interests in the international system. Such a move, if it is in fact the result of a conscious decision, has been a long time coming. For decades, German foreign policy was mortgaged to the whims of World War II’s victors. Germany (at that time, West Germany) was allowed to raise an army in 1955 only after it agreed to join the Western bloc, making it a junior partner of the United States. Nuclear weapons intended for use against the Soviet Union were located on German soil, placing millions of Germans at risk of either a calamitous accident or a comprehensive wipeout if the Cold War ever turned really nasty.
Countries such as India, which today narrate the story of their independence struggles as though they occurred in a geostrategic vacuum, actually owe their sovereignty to the contradiction that World War II exposed…
While post 1945 western Germany gained considerably from its membership of the Western bloc, receiving reconstruction aid under the Marshall Plan, it remained contained at the level of merely a European nation-state. The country was denied recognition as a great power, and had to struggle even to gain acceptability within the international system. Partly, this was because of the legacy of World War II, and partly because of the creation of a Soviet-controlled client state in the eastern portion of Germany. This partition, similar to the partition of India in 1947, took over four decades to reverse. Once that happened however, West and East Germany were both simultaneously able to reduce strategic dependence upon their respective superpower patrons. The stage was set for restoration of a united Germany’s historical importance in global affairs.
Today, this united country offers a new alternative to pro-Western states unconvinced of the wisdom of some American policies but fearful of being blackballed for saying so. It has reached this position by managing to remain closely allied with the US, without sacrificing its own interests in the process. Considering that India, like Germany, entered the post World War II era as an extremely weakened state, the recent rise of Germany is particularly inspiring. It suggests that India can afford to be aligned with the US-led West, but not allow itself to be pressured into self-defeating initiatives. With the Wikileaks revelations having disclosed that the US has gone to considerable lengths to shield Pakistan from punishment for its likely involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India needs to take a lesson from Germany and pursue its own security interests unilaterally, when required.
A Great Power, in the Making
Perhaps no country other than the United States and United Kingdom can claim to match the historical impact which Germany has had on the international system. Formed in 1871 as a modern, unified nation-state, it proceeded to challenge the biggest sovereign entity that world had seen – the British Empire. Over the course of two world wars, Germany bankrupted the empire and triggered a political revolution that led to its disintegration. Countries such as India, which today narrate the story of their independence struggles as though they occurred in a geostrategic vacuum, actually owe their sovereignty to the contradiction that World War II exposed in imperial British policy. If colonial subjects were obliged to support the freedom struggle of European peoples against Nazism, they should logically also be allowed to ask for their own freedom.
…Germany has signaled that it has domestic concerns and global interests of its own, and that its international prestige is obtained not just from its alliance with the US…
Following its catastrophic defeat in World War II, Germany adjusted to its diminished international stature by adopting a minimalistic defence policy, thus buying time for a domestic recovery. It introduced legislation banning the overseas deployment of troops, unless conducted under explicit approval of the United Nations. It mounted a sustained soft power effort advocating the peaceful resolution of international conflict. Having itself settled territorial disputes with its neighbours in October 1990, it could afford to take the moral high ground. Yet, importantly, its moralizing was not blighted with the same accusations of supporting a hidden agenda, as were similar initiatives by more traditionally interventionist Western powers such as the United States and United Kingdom. Germany came to be seen as an honest broker in international affairs.
The value of this position grew pronounced during the mid 1990s, as Islamist militancy replaced international communism as the new big threat to Western democracy. Countries such as Britain, France and the United States all found themselves on the wrong side of a jihadist narrative that had descended in part from anti-colonial struggles. Germany, having lost its overseas colonies in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles, was spared the taint of being a former or current imperialist power. Its opposition to the 2003 Iraq War gained it credibility with the non-Western world, even as the balance of international power gradually shifted eastwards. Suddenly, the opinion of many countries that had been regarded as little more than Cold War satellite states became crucial to legitimizing military intervention overseas. With its non-interventionist foreign policy outside Europe, Germany let Anglo-American respectability in the Arab world go down in flames while preserving its own.
Through its recent decision to avoid endorsing military action against Libya, Germany has pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke. It has stuck rigidly to the same principle of restraint which has long been lauded by its erstwhile enemies, such that they are now the ones looking aggressive and militaristic. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of NATO intervention in Libya, the fact remains that many non-Western societies are deeply suspicious of the professed motives that underlie this intervention. Russia, China, India and Brazil all sided with Germany in abstaining from the UN vote that led to intervention. In doing so, they were not signaling their support for the Libyan regime, but their awareness of their own strategic interests and national agendas, which are not necessarily convergent in all respects and at all times with those of London, Paris or Washington.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of NATO intervention in Libya, the fact remains that many non-Western societies are deeply suspicious of the professed motives that underlie this intervention.
Interestingly, while Western governments accepted the voting decisions of the above non-Western powers with as much good grace as could be mustered, heated criticism was thrown at Germany. To an uninvolved observer, this would indicate that membership of a military alliance led by the Anglo-Saxon countries comes with an implicit surrender of sovereignty and status. Germany could indeed, as its critics say, have voted in support of military action without providing any material support in the form of aircraft or refueling facilities. Its decision to break ranks is therefore bewildering for Western policy makers accustomed to looking towards Berlin for an accommodative posture. However, by abstaining from the vote altogether, Germany has signaled that it has domestic concerns and global interests of its own, and that its international prestige is obtained not just from its alliance with the US, but also in some cases, in spite of it.