In The Beginning Was The Word: The Importance Of Discourse For German Security Policy

A review of The Politics of Military Force: Antimilitarism, Ideational Change, and Post-Cold War German Security Discourse. Dr. Frank Stengel, University of Michigan Press, Date of Release: 09. December 2020.

Recent calls from German policymakers and think-tankers for a public security policy debate indicate the importance of discourse for security policy. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Discourse – or how we talk about things – exerts significant power over security policy decision-making; setting the framework for how we define good and evil, identify threats, and which policy options are legitimate (or even thinkable) means of confronting them.  Just how powerful discourse can be is demonstrated by Dr. Frank Stengel’s latest analysis on ideational change in German security policy. The concise, well-structured work introduces a novel analytical approach, combining post-structuralist, feminist and post-colonial discourse theory, providing much needed insights into Germany’s often contradictory relationship with the use of military force.

In The Politics of Military Force, Stengel explores the effects of discourse on the transformation of the German Bundeswehr, from a Cold War deterrent military which “could fight so it didn’t have to” to an operational force, whose international deployment appears to be a forgone conclusion. In so doing, Stengel issues a major challenge to constructivist consensus that Germany is a “Civilian power” guided by norms with a “Culture of Restraint” in security policy. Using post-structuralist discourse analysis, he demonstrates how these norms were used both as an argument against as well as a justification for foreign military deployments.  Thus, Stengel’s greatest contribution is the demonstration that security policy discourse has had both an enabling as well as a limiting effect on Germany’s use of force, leading to Germany’s regular participation in foreign military missions, but with restrictions that often seem incomprehensible to Germany’s allies. This insight has implications for the importance of language and ideational creation, not only in the local German environment but also within the broader of context of transatlantic security as well.

Up until now, the dominant scholarly understanding of German security policy resides in the constructivist concept of the “Civilian Power.” According to this theory, Germany adheres to a normative foreign policy based on liberal-progressive western values, abdicates national autonomy for multilateral cooperation and prioritizes “civilian” or non-military approaches to international conflicts. This last point is often referred to as the “Culture of Restraint” which is heavily influenced by Germany’s loss in WWII. However, as Stengel aptly points out, the German constructivists fail to apply their own ideas of social construction rigorously enough. In the “Civilian Power” concept, norms and analysis are mixed. The result is the expectation of a gradual civilizing of international relations. Messy interventions, unilateral actions and an apoplectic populist American President with a penchant Twitter and disdain for diplomacy find no explanation in a Civilian Power world. Likewise, German inconsistencies, such as multilateral military intervention in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but a rejection of the same in Iraq and Libya are equally puzzling. Post-structuralists are quick to point out that norms are not fixed concepts but myths or narratives which break quickly upon the cliffs of “undecidable terrain.” Also known as Aporia and originally conceived by French Philosopher Jacques Derrida, this concept refers to the situation in which normative principles no longer apply since none of the options satisfies all principles simultaneously e.g. in the decision to intervene militarily to stop civilian deaths, both military intervention or non-intervention will lead ultimately to additional deaths. Complicating matters further, undecidable terrain is ubiquitous to politics. In such an environment even the most sophisticated constructivist analysis is reduced to something like the script of the West Wing – in which good people try to do good things and prevail in a hard world. This may make for good cinema, but it does not reflect reality.

Where constructivism falls short of adequately explaining change and inconsistency, Stengel employs hegemony, a concept of post-structural discourse analysis, to fill the gap. Hegemony describes how discourses are created and how they change. It generally includes three processes, which are at work simultaneously: i. The articulation of equivalent demands i.e. demands go hand in hand, ii. The construction of an antagonistic frontier between the Self and the radical Other, and iii. Hegemonic representation – one demand stands in for all other demands. Key to hegemonic discourse formation is the role of the Radical Other. The Radical Other is presented as pure negativity and a pure threat, as a blocking the Self’s identity. The threat that the Radical Other poses, is therefore existential. So long it exists, the Self remains incomplete. Thus, overcoming the Radical Other leads both to victory and self-realization. However, as Stengel points out, the moment of self-realization immediately destabilizes the Self, and the hegemonic discourse begins to break down and change.

Germany’s, and here specifically the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or “West Germany’s” identity during the Cold War was constituted by a radical discontinuity with its past. Whereas Nazi Germany and the German Empire were bellicose, authoritarian, internationally-isolated – on a “Special Path” or Sonderweg – the FRG was peaceful, liberal and committed to the western community of democracies. During the Cold War, the Radical Other wasn’t just temporal, it was also physically manifested by the Soviet-controlled regime of the neighboring German Democratic Republic (GDR). The West German Bundeswehr was ultimately created, not to fight, but to deter this threat. FRG politicians hoped much more for internal change of the GDR and Soviet Union, Wandel durch Annährung. In short, the FRG was the ideal “Civilian Power” during the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War dissolved the external enemy and destabilized the hegemonic discourse of the “Civilian Power.” This led to ideational change and the development of new hegemonic projects. The first of these, what Stengel calls the “Germany’s international responsibility,” initiated a discursive shift that would change the role of the Bundeswehr from a deterrent force to an intervention force. The turning point centered on the continued role played by Germany’s past as the Radical Other and its projection on to uncertainty about the future. Commitment to the West no longer could be achieved through reluctance to use force, but to ensure, through the participation in multilateral intervention, that authoritarianism could never rise again. This narrative reached an apex in German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s famous “Never Again Auschwitz” speech and in the full participation in the invasion of Afghanistan.

According to Stengel, a second shift takes place, around the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, from “Germany’s international responsibility,” to “comprehensive” and finally “networked security.” This new hegemonic project included all of the uncertainties facing German foreign policy, including terrorism, instability, migration, hunger, climate change, thus calling for coordinated civilian-military approach. The breadth of these threats, which are often not traditionally in the domain of military operations, results in what Stengel calls “discursive hedging,” where a military solution only becomes possible by stressing its limited a utility and moral undesirability. Discursive hedging has had operational consequences, from national caveats in the Bundeswehr parliamentary mandates, to budgeting and procurement decisions as well as an outright refusal to consider Bundeswehr operations to be war. The nonlinearity of discursive change is therefore – with certainty – the most important contribution of the piece. It demonstrates that while discursive change transformed the Bundeswehr into an operational interventional force, it has also drastically limited what it can do.

It is exactly this point – discursive limitations on German security policy – that calls for further investigation. What influence does discursive change have on readiness, on the strategic planning of the armed forces? In particular, the new hegemonic project of “Networked Security” is not very instructive, although it hints at some interesting possibilities, such as the possible “civilizing” of the military, even within an expanded remit. This is supported by recent debates over the role of the Bundeswehr as a “fighting force” or as “social workers in camouflage.” Likewise, it is debatable if new threats ever displaced Germany’s past as the Radical Other. Looking at the Federal President’s most recent speech on German reunification, it would appear that Germany’s past plays an even greater role than before.

All of this has implications not only for German security policy, but for transatlantic security overall. First of all, American security discourse is not completely transferrable to Germany. As Stengel demonstrates with the case of Iraq, an equivalence between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussain was not convincing to the German audience and had to be rearticulated. Overall, German anti-terrorism discourse remained distinct form its American counterpart. Secondly, the physical embodiment of Germany’s past (authoritarian, aggressive and isolationist) has been often projected onto the United States. This is particularly the case under President Donald Trump who has even played this up to a certain degree. At the end of last year, a Yougov survey showed that Germans ranked Trump (41%) as a greater threat to world peace than Kim Jong Un (17%), Vladimir Putin (8%) and (7%) for Xi Xinping. Even with the more conciliatory tone of a President Joe Biden, a German desire to see what they dislike in themselves in the USA will likely persist. And it is likely to create challenges for US-led initiatives, most profoundly on transatlantic cooperation toward China and Russia. Finally, US officials will probably continue to scratch their heads at Germany’s policy toward the use of force, which will continue to evolve according to an internal discourse which only sometimes aligns with the US perception of reality.


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