Alliances and Autonomy: Lessons from Germany
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Issue Vol 26.2 Apr-Jun 2011 | Date : 06 Jun , 2011

Conquest without Bloodshed

Through cultural, economic and political engagement with its neighbours, Germany has quietly become the unopposed master of Europe. It is the European Union’s financial center, without whose goodwill Greece, Ireland and Portugal will be unable to recover from crippling debt caused by decades of extravagant public expenditure. France, that other traditional continental European power, has slowly weakened following the loss of its overseas empire in much the same fashion as the United Kingdom. Both these latter countries enjoy the privilege of being P-5 members of the UN Security Council.

However, neither their nuclear arsenals nor their activist foreign policies could prevent the weakening of their economies following the 2008 financial crisis, and the general erosion of their international influence post 1945. Being too close to a power system led by a single hegemon has its disadvantages, unless one is prepared to break cover and go it alone when necessary.

Like India, Germany is caught in a dilemma …it needs to devote the bulk of its military expenditure for catering to land-based operations, but its economic prosperity is conditional on the ability to control sea-borne trade.

That is precisely what Germany now seems to be doing: selectively going it alone, as any state with a desire to be more than a subservient actor must eventually. Germany has learnt the art of retaining powerful friends without becoming permanently obligated to them. It has achieved this balance by positioning itself as a crucial shaper of European decision-making, whose goodwill cannot be taken for granted even by superpowers. Given Germany’s economic importance, it can afford to get away with paying minimal subscription costs for its alliance with the United States, thus being freed from the need to constantly support American force projection efforts. This is in contrast to a lesser power such as the United Kingdom, whose present international stature is heavily derived from its so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the US and whose strategic freedom is commensurately lesser.

By not hankering after recognition of its great power status and instead concentrating on domestic political and regional economic consolidation, Germany has avoided the trap of imperial overreach which brought down British and French colonial empires, as well as the Soviet Union. It has avoided the burdens of global governance which the US has traditionally assumed and which Washington now seeks to foist onto regional partners such as New Delhi. Instead, Berlin persists with its conciliatory, principled rhetoric while taking care not to maneuver itself into a position where its strategic options are foreclosed by alliance commitments.

Not that Germany has been soft or hesitant on matters affecting its core interests; quite the contrary, it has demonstrated a commendable ability to identify just where its core interests lie. During the early Cold War, West Germany insisted that Soviet-controlled East Germany was an illegitimate state. Any nation wishing to have diplomatic relations with West Germany could not also have relations with East Germany. Although this doctrinaire position was later relaxed, it still served a larger psychological purpose: the East German regime was starved of international respectability at a crucial early stage of its existence. Had the leaders of independent India possessed the foresight to adopt a similar stance on Pakistan, many Western governments would today not have the temerity to lecture New Delhi about the need to maintain good relations with Islamabad.

Unlike the United States and United Kingdom, Germany has not sought to pressure India into compromising with Pakistan to avoid more Mumbai type terror attacks.

Even on other counts, Germany demonstrated an ability to protect its national assets. It built up a sophisticated indigenous research capability in science and technology, with both military and civilian functions. The German ship maker HDW today manufactures the most advanced non-nuclear submarines in the world; vessels which would greatly increase the country’s maritime strike power. Like India, Germany is caught in a dilemma – it needs to devote the bulk of its military expenditure for catering to land-based operations, but its economic prosperity is conditional on the ability to control sea-borne trade. A technology-intensive sea denial strategy using submarines is therefore, more suited to this situation than an asset-intensive sea dominance strategy, as has traditionally been favoured by powers such as the UK and US, which face no land-based threats.

Likewise, German military aviation is capturing a large share of the world market at the expense of American companies. Germany manufactures the Eurofighter Typhoon, an extremely advanced fourth generation fighter aircraft, in collaboration with British, Spanish and Italian firms. The Eurofighter is believed to be the most technologically advanced candidate in the Indian Air Force’s $10 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract. Although German laws prohibit the export of armaments to conflict zones, Berlin has gone to great lengths to accommodate Indian concerns over its reliability as a supplier, because it knows that business out-values ideology. In a rare gesture, it has even offered to forego end-use monitoring obligations, as a sign of friendship towards India, which is viewed as another rising power and economic giant.

The stance taken by Germany on international conflict is particularly interesting for India, given the endless pontification emanating from some Anglophone countries over the Kashmir issue. Like any responsible power, Germany advocates peaceful relations between India and Pakistan and an amicable settlement to Kashmir. However, it has shrewdly avoided linking the necessity of Pakistani action against terrorism to the status of talks over Kashmir. Unlike the United States and United Kingdom, Germany has not sought to pressure India into compromising with Pakistan to avoid more Mumbai type terror attacks. By refusing to conflate counterterrorism with conflict resolution, Berlin has won considerable goodwill within the Indian security and intelligence community. The same cannot be said for Washington and London, both of which have come to be distrusted over their apparent willingness to rationalize Pakistan-based terrorism.

Friendliness without Subservience

Even as it has forged an international identity for itself, Germany has managed to avoid a freeze in ties with its gigantic security partner, the United States. Many German strategic analysts still argue that Berlin’s interests converge with those of Washington and London. However, the 2008 economic crisis and the Iraq War quagmire have raised questions as to whether Germany should swim alone or sink with its allies, as and when their strategic agendas diverge. The continued rise of Germany alongside the perceived decline of many other Western powers poses a challenge as to how to prevent alliances from becoming liabilities. Berlin is at the moment, attempting to navigate through this extremely tricky terrain by boosting military support for the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, while standing firm on its position with regard to Libya. It is thus demonstrating that it will honour its existing commitments but not be bullied into making new ones.

…the US worked along with Britain, Australia and Canada to shield Pakistan from Indian wrath in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.2 This suggests that fundamental differences exist between Indian and Anglo-American threat perceptions…

Were it to continue balancing strategic decisions in this manner, Germany could well emerge as the leader of a ‘new’ Western order, distinct from the ‘old’ West of the Cold War. The latter had a power structure that was fundamentally shaped and preserved by the United States. As such, it was geared towards harmonizing the agendas of American allies with those of the hegemon. Sometimes this involved sacrifices in strategic autonomy on the part of the smaller partner. For example, as a price for American friendship, the United Kingdom had to allow the Central Intelligence Agency’s London station chief to sit in on weekly meetings of its Joint Intelligence Committee. This was a purely one-sided arrangement; no reciprocal courtesy was extended towards the MI6 man in Washington.

An April 2011 cover story in Outlook magazine has suggested that India might be veering down the same path as the UK, in its eagerness to curry favour with US decision-makers. Senior Indian officials are allegedly breaching security arrangements and speaking freely with their American counterparts, even going to the extent of giving out their personal mobile phone numbers. Such indiscretion would make sense if India regarded the US as a hostile state whose intelligence services should be flooded with disinformation and misleading electronic chatter, as part of an elaborate deception plan. This is not the case – Washington is seen as a genuine friend of India and a benevolent force in the international system. The only problem is, this benevolent force is sometimes inclined to take its closest allies for granted.

As the Wikileaks cables have revealed, the US worked along with Britain, Australia and Canada to shield Pakistan from Indian wrath in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.2 This suggests that fundamental differences exist between Indian and Anglo-American threat perceptions of terrorism in the South Asian region, and no amount of sweet talk about shared democratic values can override real divergences of opinion.

With the Mumbai attacks having reopened suspicions about Washington’s and London’s motives in supporting India-Pakistan dialogue, there is an urgent need to seek alternative partnerships with other great powers, such as Germany. Such partnerships need not replace Delhi-Washington or Delhi-London cooperation on security affairs. India still has strong reasons to maintain close cooperation with Anglophone countries of the old ‘West’, not least because of shared concerns over China. India and the United States have common interests in strengthening global governance against transnational threats like terrorism, marine piracy and drug trafficking. However, India can simultaneously start to borrow lessons from Germany’s rise and manage these long-standing security partnerships without losing sight of its own national interests.


  1. Randeep Ramesh, ‘India’s secret history: ‘A holocaust, one where millions disappeared...’’, The Guardian, 24 August 2007, accessed online at, on 12 April 2011.
  2. ‘WikiLeaks reveals how foreign diplomats charted response to 26/11’, Indian Express, 2 December 2010, accessed online at, on 12 April 2011.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Prem Mahadevan

is a strategic affairs analyst at a leading think-tank, based in Western Europe.

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