Scene 1: Room 1 at NATO headquarters—Friday, March 18, 2011
At a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Ambassador Martin Erdmann, Germany’s permanent representative, took the floor. On behalf of the federal government, he read out a statement referring to Germany’s decision to abstain in the previous night’s vote in the UN Security Council in New York on Resolution 1973 on Libya.
Erdmann explained that Germany would not obstruct efforts to reach consensus within NATO on coercive military measures to enforce the UN Security Council resolution. Nevertheless, Germany would not itself be participating in such military enforcement measures.
Scene 2: Meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters—Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Topic: The Readiness Action Plan to strengthen NATO’s defensive posture along its northeastern periphery
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen gave an overview of Germany’s participation in the alliance’s reassurance measures in the northeastern regions of NATO territory. She presented details of numerous measures in which the German Bundeswehr would be participating and even taking a leading role, with a view to meeting allied obligations toward NATO’s Eastern member countries in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis.
This included participation on a massive scale by Germany in NATO’s Response Force and Very High Readiness Joint Task Force—to which Germany was to send 4,000 service members—and other contributions to the reassurance measures.
Several weeks later, the German media reported on the finance minister’s plans to increase the national defense budget as of 2017. At nearly the same time, the defense minister announced that a reserve tank battalion that had previously existed only in planning documents was to be activated. The battalion would be based in Bergen in the Lüneburg Heath.
Germany’s two large coalition parties supported the decisions made at the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, including the massive participation required of the German armed forces. In the national media, no criticism was voiced regarding these decisions or their implementation.
What happened between these two episodes?
Hadn’t the German government, under the leadership of different coalitions, initially dragged its feet during the past twenty years when it came to decisionmaking on, and engagement in, NATO-led operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Hadn’t Germany earned the reputation of a naysayer when talk turned to out-of-area operations?
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Of course, in the end—with the exception of Libya—Germany had been a highly reliable ally for all NATO-led crisis management operations, and the country had made significant contributions. However, from the outset of all such engagement, Germany’s efforts had always been overshadowed by difficult domestic debates on the aims of such operations and the reasons for and against them.
German contributions had often gone hand in hand with so-called operational caveats, meaning limits that needed to be imposed to meet constitutional or political requirements. In one way or another, Germany—or the German public and parliament—had been reluctant to accept the new reality of post–Cold War operations, the aim of which was to stabilize trouble spots.
Then, it was as if the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s steering of separatist activities in eastern Ukraine flipped a switch on the way Germans thought about security and defense policy. Even though NATO neither has nor desires a direct role in the Ukraine crisis, the developments that have unfolded since March 2014 have refocused the alliance’s attention on its core task of defending NATO territory, as set out in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
And that is where Germany comes onto the scene. Beginning in 1955, the year Germany joined the North Atlantic alliance, and until 1990, the year that marked the end of the Cold War and of German partition, Germany has benefited from comprehensive—that is, conventional and nuclear—alliance solidarity.
For decades, a divided Germany could count on protection by its Western allies and knew that, should the worst come to the worst, they would defend it. For many years, NATO was the life insurance policy of the divided Germany.
West and East Germany were located right at the heart of the Cold War. Deterrence—both conventional and nuclear, and maintained by NATO’s then sixteen member countries—guaranteed the survival of people on both sides of the partition in Germany. The Fulda Gap, a corridor of lowlands running right through the formerly divided Germany, symbolized this need for territorial defense.
Now, even though the division ended decades ago, a trace of this mentality is apparently still engrained in Germany’s security and defense policy DNA. In essence, there is an innate realization that in a political and military alliance, the principle of solidarity is of the highest importance. Just as NATO territory was defended for many decades during the Cold War along a periphery that bisected Germany, so Germany today must be defended not at its national borders but at the periphery of the North Atlantic alliance.
In concrete terms, this refers to the member countries at the Eastern edge of NATO territory, namely the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. On the fringes of the February 2015 NATO defense ministerial meetings, von der Leyen summarized this by saying “It’s payback time!”—meaning that Germany was now demonstrating the same solidarity it had itself enjoyed for so many years. German defense begins not at Germany’s national borders, but rather at the boundary of the alliance.
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And that brings us full circle. When former German defense minister Peter Struck stated in 2002 that “Germany is being defended in the Hindu Kush, too,” this sparked intense public debate in Germany. The arguments for and against this statement were fought over for quite some time. Ultimately, however, Germans never truly identified with heavy operations such as the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan or similar engagements in the Hindu Kush, in the Horn of Africa, in the Indian Ocean, and off the coast of Somalia.
Today, the situation is different. German engagement in the alliance’s defensive measures, especially via the Bundeswehr, is highly valued by Germany’s allies and has strong domestic support. Recent developments have reconnected Germany with what lies at the core of its security and defense policy: although the country does not feel comfortable projecting military capabilities in far-flung regions of the world, Germany does firmly believe in and stand by the security and defense policy principles on which the Bundeswehr was established in 1955.
This evidently finds broad support in the German federal government, in the German parliament, and among the German population.
Martin Erdmann is the permanent representative of Germany on the North Atlantic Council at the rank of ambassador. All of the views expressed above reflect the author’s personal opinion.