The debate in Germany over Berlin's decision to abstain from the UN Security Council resolution 1973 for a no-fly zone in Libya is increasing in both intensity and acrimony.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have been put on the defensive by critique coming from both opposition voices in Berlin as well as those even within the coalition government. The accusations that Germany has isolated itself within Europe and the NATO alliance with the abstention are made by some in public but by many more in private.
But as the attacks against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's forces have increased over the past few days, both sides of this debate have strengthened their arguments.
Dissecting Berlin's case
The German government's case that support for the UN resolution would have required sending troops to Libya remains the core of its defence. How could we support the resolution and then not send troops, goes the logic. In addition, the emphasis on using more effective sanctions to contain Qaddafi's aggression was deemed the more effective course over engaging in military action. Then there is the argument that the rebels in Libya do not represent the same type of opposition seen in Tunisia or Egypt and that Libya is embroiled in civil war in which Germany cannot intervene. The Merkel-Westerwelle administration argues that Germany is not alone in Europe or the world, pointing to others in the UN Security Council – not only Russia and China but particularly India and Brazil – who also abstained in this month's vote.
While all these arguments appeal to a German public, which is already against Germany's presence in Afghanistan and generally favours the rejection of military force as a viable tool for such conflicts, the counter-arguments underscore a continuing struggle in Germany over its role on the international stage. The attempt to differentiate between the need to stop a dictator from mass-murdering his own people and the unwillingness to use force to achieve that goal is strained, to say the least. Arguing that Qaddafi can be stopped by strengthening sanctions when he is threatening to systematically kill the rebels fighting against him lacks credibility when one looks at the unfolding humanitarian crisis on the ground.
Furthermore, arguing that the UN resolution would have immediately required the engagement of German troops in the Libyan conflict is also jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, as every member of NATO can determine its resources available. The need for ground troops in Libya – particularly from Western nations – is questionable to begin with and is not part of the UN resolution. The struggle in Libya is finally a Libyan challenge to get rid of Qaddafi. The question is how to help that homegrown effort without undermining it, and the overwhelming presence of Western troops could certainly do just that.
Not alone but isolated
The UN resolution was designed to stop a calculating murderer from carrying out his goal. And the ability to assemble a unified political message to Tripoli is a measure of the strength of that resolution. The fact that China and Russia also abstained from the Security Council vote was expected, given their usual attitudes toward interventions. In that light, even the abstention was considered an accomplishment. India and Brazil do not see themselves centrally involved by the Libyan crisis but they also did not vote no.
But it was Germany's argument to abstain on principle which underlines its unique stance – and undermines its credibility when it comes to responding to this immediate crisis. "Germany must not engage everywhere," Westerwelle said. But then what are the criteria for when, where, and why to engage the German military? Several thousand German troops have been carrying out numerous jobs around the world, in Afghanistan and Africa among other theatres, and have done so for many years. The German emphasis on the need for a legitimate mandate from the UN has always been high on the priority list. The UN supplied one last week, but it was not enough for Germany this time.
So that raises a major question: At what point can Berlin's Western allies count on Germany when it comes to dealing with such cases of interventions as in Libya?
The fact is that there is going to be an increasingly urgent need for Europe – including Germany – to come to grips with this challenge. The United States is entering a phase where not only the old mantra of wanting a more effective and capable pillar in Europe will be heard but there will be a more need for it because America is already facing more constraints on its own capabilities and willingness to intercede. Libya is a current case in point; the squabbling over the NATO command structures, making national resources available for it, reduced defence budgets, and national egos reflect a state of indecisiveness in the alliance.
Germany's central role
Whatever mix of resources and policies Europe choose to apply to its challenges, Germany is going to play a central role. But Berlin is clearly struggling with how to define that role. When faced with an existential situation such as in Libya, its response to date has been to reject short-term military options, engage in mid- and longer-term measures like sanctions, and to argue that it is being consistent because engaging there would mean having to engage in many other troubled countries around the world. In principle that may be true; in practical terms, that cannot happen. And allowing that argument to get in the way of engaging in immediate crises would be irresponsible.
As the conflict unfolds in Libya, UN resolution 1973 can be seen as a benchmark for measuring the capacity of Europe and the alliance to speak with a firm and committed voice. During the past four decades, there have been many steps forward and backward. Today's challenge in Libya and indeed in the entire region is an opportunity to again speak and act with a common purpose, in both the short- and long-run. The changes in the Middle East have made the need for both quite evident. After all, it is Europe's – and by extension Germany's – own neighbourhood.
This essay has been published with the kind permission of American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and it first appeared in the AICGS Advisor.