Special Reports / The most important elections in Europe

The reluctant leader

Judy Dempsey · 17 September 2013
Faced with the Euro crisis, it was Angela Merkel that has set the policy for Europe. It is still too early to say if the austerity policies she has insisted upon for highly indebted countries will work. But at least in this area, she has accepted a leadership role. However, leadership is sorely needed in foreign and security policy, too. Europe needs to think and act strategically in order to help stabilize and democratize its eastern and southern neighborhoods. The same goes for building a new…

Under Merkel, Germany has shied away from providing leadership in that area. Indeed, of all the more recent German chancellors, Merkel is probably the one with the least interest in defense and security policy. While she is known to devour files on just about any other political issue, she has always been happy to leave military matters to the experts. Perhaps this lack of commitment is due to her East German upbringing; or the fact that her father was a pastor; or her own education as a scientist. Whatever the cause – Merkel has, ever since taking office in 2005, kept a very low profile on defense or security policy.

Discouraging as the security strategy for Europe

One topic she has avoided in particular is the role of drones, whether for combat or surveillance purposes. Her refusal to address this issue became obvious this past summer, when the opposition Social Democrats seized on drones for their election campaign. The Social Democrats were exploiting the Eurohawk scandal. Earlier this summer, it turned out that successive German governments had spent over half a billion euros on developing an armed drone which neither had the license to fully use U.S. technology nor the certification required to fly over European airspace.

Thomas de Maiziere, the defense minister and Merkel’s most loyal lieutenant, finally stopped the development of Eurohawk but announced that a new armed drones program would be pursued. In contrast, the Social Democrats promised voters that they would neither develop nor purchase such machines. This was a highly populist decision. The German public is staunchly opposed to the use of armed drones. It is horrified by the way the Obama administration is employing these weapons to kill suspected terrorists from afar. And it is willfully ignorant of the fact that drones are part of a technological revolution in military affairs all over the world.

Both the government and the opposition carry responsibility for this state of affairs; neither used the controversy over the Eurohawk to engage in a real debate about Germany’s future military needs. Nor did they seize the moment to call on NATO and the European Union to work for an international legal framework on the use of drones. The discussion would have made it necessary to reflect about hard power and strategy, two elements notably absent from this country’s political debate. Despite being involved in many multinational military missions, German security is caught in a strategic vacuum, leaving its armed forces without any clear sense of direction.

This has repercussions for the rest of Europe, too. Having no security strategy of its own, Germany has discouraged the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton from drawing up to a new security strategy for Europe. This is despite the fact that the first and last time the EU attempted setting out a security strategy was in 2003! Attempts to bring it up to date in 2007 did not go very far.

This lack of a valid security doctrine doesn’t just make it difficult for Europe to react to the extraordinary changes that are sweeping across the Middle East, south-east Asia and of course, the United States. It also defeats any attempts within NATO or the EU to pool and share military resources in order to face an ever-growing financial pressure. As long as the European allies don’t agree on when the use of their armed forces would be justified, it is impossible for them to give up national ownership of central military resources. Such an agreement, however, remains elusive without a strategic debate. It will demand much more leadership from Germany to deal with these issues.

The German dilemma

But leadership is not something German officials like to talk about. This is not just because of Germany’s terrible history – World War Two, the Holocaust and the division of Europe into two ideological camps. Moreover, leadership carries responsibilities that German leaders are reluctant to assume. Images of Mrs Merkel portrayed as a Nazi during the demonstrations in Greece or in Cyprus, has proven that Germans are an easy target for the populist movements around Europe. This was a shock for Berlin. Not for the first time, Germany needs to struggle with a dilmma: if it exerts leadership, it is criticized for playing the role of a hegemon. If it does not, it is criticized for being inward- looking and egocentric. Can a third Merkel term (or for that matter, another leader) break out of that situation?

If Merkel was afraid of leadership, she would not be where she is now. During her first term in office (2005-2009), Merkel had a real sense of purpose. She mended relations with the United States and Eastern Europe.  She had idealism, too. She put human rights at the center of her foreign policy, especially with regard to Russia and China. She was also driven by the need to address climate change, never hesitating to lobby the Americans to embrace the cause as well. Against all the obstacles, Mrs Merkel has also systematically modernized her own conservative party- Christian Democratic Union (CDU). However, much of that enthusiasm has evaporated.

The longer Germany continues to duck the issue of leadership, especially in the fields of foreign policy and security, the longer Europe will remain a weak, global power, unable to protect even the security of its citizens, let alone its political and economic interests in the world. That surely must be one of the issues for the next Chancellor of Germany to deal with.

When President Barack Obama visited Berlin last June, he said that remembering history should not lead to a withdrawal from history. “I come here today, Berlin, to say complacency is not the character of great nations”.  He could not have given a clearer message to Merkel as she headed into the election campaign.