hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Past is Another Country, Germany

Berlin, 8 April

The past is another country. Yesterday, I was in Berlin at the German Federal Chancellor’s Office discussing Libya and German security and defence policy, deep in the beautiful heart of a dazzling new city that is Berlin today. Indeed, I had the profound feeling that I was at the heart of something new – new city, new country, new Europe. The dark days of World War Two still spoke with tragic historical eloquence from the fading pot-marks and scars that can still be spied on many Berlin buildings.  However, today those scars are indeed fading. And yet, the heart which beats so proudly remains a heart with a deep hole in it. For some fifty years we the victorious allies told Germans they could do little because of World War Two. Today, Germans tell me how little they can do because of World War Two.

The simple, plain truth is that modern, scrupulously democratic Germany is using old Germany as an excuse to shift the burden of its security and defence onto its allies and it is not good enough. The consequence? Europe is itself slipping ever deeper into a strategic pretence which is turning rapidly into dogma.

The Berlin mantra is clear. Germany insists on being treated as a normal power but Germany can never be a normal power.  She is too powerful for that and Berlin reflects that power. With an economy almost twice the size of Britain and France Germany is rather a leading power. And yet, Germany only wants to lead when it suits Berlin. A senior official told me that Germany was indeed pulling its weight – cash bags instead of body bags. Berlin, she told me forthrightly, was leading efforts to save the Eurozone and with Portugal but the latest economy to falter it is indeed no mean challenge. However, she forgot to mention that the Eurozone had for many years being doing wonders for German exports.  The zone is in effect a customs union which by its very nature offsets the high cost of German productivity. Germany’s economy has benefitted accordingly. It is no act of German altruism to save the Eurozone – it is Germany’s duty.

And that is the point. Germany today sits on the cusp between present and past, between solidarity and selfishness and sadly it is the latter that is winning out. What also struck me as new was the ringing hollowness of much of the German talk of multilateral solidarity., be it inside the EU, OSCE, NATO or UN. For the past ten years Germany has become adept at excusing itself on contact with danger. This has left the Americans and British to bear an unfair burden for Germany’s security. Now, there’s an irony. Clearly, cash bags can and never be a substitute for body bags for partners in alliance.

The security meeting in the Chancellor’s Office wound its way through the usual apologia. Germany was doing its bit in Afghanistan, but would not do its bit in really dangerous Afghanistan; Germany had not joined the air campaign over Libya because it was led by a coalition and not NATO (it now is led by NATO and it is failing), it was an open-ended commitment and there was no exit strategy. No mention was made of the impending humanitarian disaster in Benghazi that had triggered Britain and France to act.

Perhaps the most telling comment was this; Germany was particularly concerned to preserve its position as the world’s third largest arms exporter. So, there you have it. It is alright for Germany to produce the weapons with which armed forces and others fight for that is money; but Germany has no wish to engage itself. A clearer definition of selfishness I have yet to hear.  There was a distinct whiff of hypocrisy in the air.

I respect Germany. Indeed, I like Germany and Germans. I do indeed have many German friends. I love Berlin. Moreover, part of the German challenge is the fault of Germany's allies having been imposed by the victorious World War Two allies. We drafted the post-war German constitution and designed it such as to prevent Bonn/Berlin ever again dominating as it did during the Wilhelmine and Hitlerian eras. But that was then and this is now.

As an Englishman I am comfortable with modern Germany and I want Germany to be a leader. But, I am tired of the back-seat driving, free-riding, self-excusing Germany all too keen to make money, but resistant, far too resistant, to stand up and properly fulfil its international security responsibilities.

The bottom-line is this; no Atlantic Alliance nor European Union can survive over time if one of the leading powers transfers risk continually onto partners. And here is the paradox: Germany is in danger of destroying the very multilateralism it claims as the quintessence of its security and defence policy. And, as for being treated as a normal power - modern, democratic but above all powerful Germany has frankly yet to earn that right. A cherished permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Berlin must realise that neither America, Britain nor France will ever support such ambitions whilst German solidarity is so selective. We all of us after all have publics opinion.

As L.P. Hartley famously remarked – the past is another country, they do things differently there.

Julian Lindley-French

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