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Is Germany shying away from global role?

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German soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo: DPA
12:20 CEST+02:00
Does Germany pull its weight in international affairs? The Local spoke with a military analyst to discuss what German soldiers are doing abroad and why the government is so reluctant to engage its troops in active combat.

German soldiers, sailors and pilots are currently participating in 15 operations in some of the world's most dangerous conflicts.

But most of their missions are confined to support and training missions, as well as peacekeeping operations that do not involve German soldiers in combat roles.

The recent Mali mission is a typical example. While French soldiers fight directly against insurgents, Germany is mainly concerned with training up Malian forces, providing paramedics and helping with air transport.

The German navy also patrols the Mediterranean and enforces an arms blockade around Lebanon, while a handful of German peacekeepers monitor tense conditions in war-torn regions like Darfur, South Sudan and Kosovo.

The prime exception to this general non-combat rule is the Afghan mission, where 2,490 German soldiers are still active in the northern part of the country, the capital Kabul and bases in neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Initially concerned with training and "peace-building," German troops were forced to adapt to changing conditions in the North, military analyst Eric Sangar of the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) explained.

"In Afghanistan, rather against its own will, the Bundeswehr was involved in heavy combat operations starting in 2007. So it had to become a fighting force," he said.

The only other mission where German soldiers are at least authorized to take offensive action is in anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa, but Sangar said this was a very rare occurrence.

Still, the Afghan experience has forced the German army to prepare itself for a “full spectrum of operations”. The reluctance to take a more active role comes more from the top of government, which "is still very hesitant to engage the Bundeswehr in operations that carry a greater risk of loss of life," Sangar told The Local.

Another factor is public opinion, which differs greatly from that in more bellicose countries like Britain and France. Germans are much more sceptical about what force can achieve in world politics.

"This is in part a result of the Second World War experience, but it also reflects a more general political culture in Germany that is more consensus oriented - that prefers negotiation to unilateral decision making," Sanger said.

This scepticism found a strong expression in German opposition to the Iraq war, where the German public did not see a direct threat to European interests and was not convinced that democracy could be imposed at gunpoint.

Recent statements by Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, President Joachim Gauck and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have given an impression that Germany may take on more international responsibilities, but Sangar is doubtful that this will translate into more robust military interventions.

"Maybe they'll send more troops to UN missions or to the Baltic States, but this doesn't mean there's a political will to use military force. There would still be more reluctance to send thousands of troops to a country that just exited a civil war," he said.

SEE ALSO: Germany hands Kunduz camp to Afghan security

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