Why Germany abstained

A vote to move beyond trans-Atlantic unity

While NATO attacks on Libyan forces continue intermittently, another debate rages alongside. This one concerns why Germany abstained on Resolution 1973—which authorizes the use of all necessary measures “to protect civilians”—alongside China, Russia, India, and Brazil, instead of with its NATO partners who had moved the Resolution. The West, led by France, and United Kingdom with a more reluctant United States introduced the United Nations Resolution on March 17, 2011, began the bombing of Libya in just two days and passed the baton on to NATO which continues the military action.

The question of why Germany, a faithful member of NATO and an enthusiastic Europeanist, dealt what the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung says was a “a blow to trans-Atlantic and European unity and security cooperation,” preoccupies everyone. American analysts have virulently attacked Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, with Roger Cohen of the New York Times demanding a mea culpa for  having “shunned Germany’s core allies,” In an interview to Der Spiegel, the French author Bernard Henri-Levy, known for his pro-American views, said that “we lost a great deal of time because of the Germans, which is a disaster, mainly for the Libyans, but also for the Germans who will pay bitterly for abstaining.” The more respected Briton, Timothy Garton Ash accused the Germans of having given a “stab in the back” to its principal European partners, the US and the Arab League.

Photo: AustinHK

Some German analysts have been even more stringent in their criticism. Former German foreign minister and erstwhile Green, Joschka Fischer argued that Germany’s ambition to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council had possibly been “kicked into the can once and for all.” Der Speigel accused Germany of having read the future wrong and also of being on the “wrong side of history.” Many others blame the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle for having acted for domestic political reasons, keeping an eye on elections in Bad Wurttemberg (which Chancellor Merkel’s coalition lost anyway).

While Mr Westerwelle is “blamed” for Germany’s abstention, it is much more important is to understand whether this vote was a one-off or a trend. Since its unification in 1990, Germany has struggled to overcome its post-Second World War pacifism. A resolution was passed in 1991 after heated debate, under the stewardship of Mr Fischer, to interpret the Basic Law which governs Germany’s post war defence posture, so as to enable German forces to participate in UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, followed by the first invasion of Iraq in 1991 and incrementally in NATO out-of-area missions, including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the end of the Second World War, Germany and France have been the most enthusiastic participants of the European project to deepen and widen the European Union—Germany, to restrain itself following the deep shame of the Holocaust, and France to tie down Germany which it fears. Despite the deeply felt and expressed reservations of the German people over relinquishing the Deutsche Mark and the cost of German unification, Germany has prospered and become the largest manufacturing nation in Europe.

With each European economy that it has been forced to rescue from its own profligacy—Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and so forth—the German people and even the government, have become increasingly uneasy and begun to enunciate the unthinkable: To expel countries from the Euro zone or to take itself out.

Although the United States played a major role in the allied victory in First World War, it lapsed back into isolationism and did not make the intellectual transition of seeing itself as anything other than an appendage of Great Britain till after the Second World War. The Holocaust became the central motif of the Second World War and ended with the division of Germany and the loss of its colonies in Africa. Asia and Africa were entangled in the battles and politics of the world wars because of their colonial status.

However, more than 60 years have passed since the end of the Second World War and Germany has paid billions of dollars in blood money to Israel. Even more to its credit, it has acknowledged guilt and carried out a huge education campaign for decades. While it can never do enough for some countries and Israel’s supporters, subsequent generations of Germans now chafe at the continual accusations and attempts to, as Lord Hastings Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, put it as the purpose of NATO, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

Perhaps Germany has come of age. This time it may determine the history of Europe, separate from a relatively diminished United States, as it acts like a normal country, in pursuit of its own national interests. Meanwhile, former colonies like India, China and Brazil have grown up enough to chart their own histories and therefore, the history of the world. By abstaining from a doubtful military adventure, alongside the four BRIC countries, Germany may actually be ahead of the curve in its reading of future power balances and how its interests will best be served.

Whatever the real reasons for the German abstention, the very act opens new possibilities. Germany is already one of India’s most important economic partners with two way trade worth $20 billion. Like the BRIC countries, it is too large an economic entity—it comprises 20 percent of the 27-member EU’s GDP—to continue to be a political pygmy. India can take the lead, along with Germany, to build cooperation between the EU and the BRIC nations as they transform the post Second World War order by becoming stakeholders consonant with their economic weight.

It took two world wars in the twentieth century for Europe to address the question of a powerful, unified Germany. The twenty-first century may well see a solution to such issues by changing the world order itself to give Germany, Japan and the BRICS their legitimate place.