Culture of Restraint or Structural Pacifism: German Security Policy & NATO

In contrast to Trump’s overt embrace of zero-sum power politics, Germany is often characterized, both internally and externally, as a “Culture of Restraint” regarding security policy. Yet such a culture implies the ability to project power and a reluctance to use it. But what if the perceived culture of reluctance is in fact structural pacifism, which internally inhibits Germany’s use of military force as a political instrument? And what does this mean for German security policy in the context of the NATO alliance?

The “culture of restraint” is best articulated in Hanns Maull’s Zivilimacht thesis. Key components of the Zivilmacht thesis include the preference for multilateral solutions, a willingness to transfer sovereignty in security matters to international institutions such as the UN, EU or NATO, as well as an inclination to promote a security policy based on norms rather than interests. The culture of restraint is best described by preference for multilateral solutions, dialogue and a rejection of military force as an ultima ratio or last resort. Good examples of this during and immediately after reunification include Kohl’s embedding of Germany into the EU, support for the expansion of NATO and Genscherism, which included a willingness to communicate with all parties, including adversaries.

Post-unification, the “culture of restraint” has a more chequered history. European diplomacy failed to produce results in the first Bosnian conflict, resulting in the necessity of American, military-backed intervention to produce a peaceful solution. “Restraint” was also abandoned in Kosovo, the only German military mission to support a combat role for the Bundeswehr. The mixture of restraint and military willingness also resulted in the German involvement in Afghanistan, albeit as a peace mission with no combat role. A culture of restraint fails to explain German participation in Afghanistan (without a UN mandate) and non-participation in Libya (UNSC Resolution 1973) which was followed by an emphatic expression of political support by Chancellor Merkel before German troops were then withdrawn from the NATO AWACS mission. Restraint also fails to explain the mounting reports of materiel and morale deficits in the Bundeswehr, as well as the inability for Germany to raise its defense budget after committing to the now infamous 2% goal at the 2014 Wales Summit.

The contradictions of German security policy cannot be explained by a culture of restraint. Moreover, restraint implies the ability to do something and the reluctance to do it. But it would be both insane and insulting to accuse a man in a wheelchair of being reluctant to walk. Similarly, it is wrong to either condemn or praise Germany for its reluctance when it is demonstrating a lack of capability.

The reasons for Germany’s lack of capability in security policy are found in what can be called structural pacifism. It is characterized by a system of relationships between society, political elites and the German military, which hinder the use of military power as an instrument of foreign policy. The foundations of structural pacifism are found in a set of often contradictory narratives of cultural trauma which form the basis of Germany’s national identity, as well as in the legal structures and military guidelines which served the Bundesrepublik so well during the Cold War. Before the Berlin Wall fell, narratives which addressed German cultural trauma helped a nation ravaged by two world wars, reform into a healthy democracy and western partner. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and removal of Germany’s main enemy, this system took on a new dynamic which slowly transformed Germany’s military instrument from a force for territorial defense into an integrative social project. This has been reinforced by the structures of Germany’s political system, thus political elites who seek reform in the defense sector must overcome several challenges. This includes the polycratic nature of German ministries, nearly always controlled by opposing parties. This is made more difficult by the necessity of parliamentary consensus on foreign missions, which forces political elites to overcome domestic political rivalries for missions of high uncertainty. On top of this, a declining defense expertise is exacerbated by a lack of prestige in defense, extending from party youth organizations, all the way to top ministerial posts.

So, what does this mean for Germany’s allies? It means the necessity of managing expectation on the side of Germany’s allies and simultaneous increase of pressure on the Federal Republic. The situation may be less dramatic than it initially appears. Demands from allies, specifically American demands of Germany, are nothing new. As early as the Bosnian War, Americans were pressuring Germany, successfully, to increase its participation in military operations of NATO. Since then, every president American president, regardless of political party, has placed similar demands on Germany. The language and party affiliation may have differed, but not the content. Americans have often been aware of German reluctance to do more for defense but they rarely realized that the internal dynamics of Germany were leading to declining capability.

Furthermore, American pressure on Germany under Trump has produced results. Recently, Germany has succeeded in forming a political consensus on the increase of the defense budget to 1.5 percent of GDP. Even the SPD supports this target. Of course, it is short of the 2% goal demanded, but with continued American pressure, Germany may actually reach its military spending target. Moreover, American pressure is helpful for German elites to avoid an Alleingang in defense, which would be unacceptable under the current rhetorical framework of structural pacifism. At the same time, the American approach to Germany cannot be entirely made up of sticks, no matter how effective. It is necessary to include some carrots. Among them could be active political and financial support of German initiatives to increase defense capabilities. Another would be to redirect the efforts of the myriad transatlantic organizations, currently wallowing in uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic alliance, to increase exchange on strategy and encourage dialog on a significantly more assertive German defense policy. Only with sustained external pressure can structural pacifism be transformed into a true, clear and decisive, culture of restraint.


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