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December 10, 2012 |  3 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Germany: The Abstention Champion

Oliver Krumme: Germany’s present foreign policy has been marked by not taking positions in crucial votes during its two-year membership of the UN Security Council. Whenever there was a decision to make, it was almost certain for Germany to abstain. Germany is the undisputed abstention champion.

The UN General Assembly has recently approved a motion to grant a non-member observing state status to Palestine. Exactly 138 states have approved this motion, 9 rejected, 41 abstained. As predicted, Germany was one of these abstaining countries, again.

The expiring membership of the UN Security Council by the end of this year provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate German foreign policy after this two year period - also regarding next year's elections. If you summarize this period, the pure absence of foreign policy positioning cannot be ignored. In fact, there was no German foreign policy.

Hitherto, German foreign and security policy was marked either by a close transatlantic cooperation, or by a counter balance towards a stronger European position. In the past four years, German foreign policy was lost in crisis management, completely dominated by the Euro Crisis resulting in a priority shift towards monetary crisis remedies, leaving foreign policy fields on the side-line. Particularly, security policy was marked by self-limiting abstention in the UN Security Council during the 2011 Libyan War. The Syrian Civil War caused a direct follow-up to these developments; a reluctance to provide Patriot Missiles for Turkey for border protection is another dead-give-away for Germany's confusing foreign and security policy strategy.

Summing up recent developments in German foreign and security policy, it is a constant downsizing procedure: the suspension of compulsory military service, a dramatic cut of military personnel, plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the overall reluctance to be directly involved in military operations. This causes a severe lack of global self-confidence and creates an anti-military strategy.

In the meantime, Germany increases arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel, causing a strategy shift towards indirect agenda and contribution setting though. Chancellor Angela Merkel defends this strategy as an "equal security policy tool". However, this ignores the fact that mere arms sales do not replace a direct security policy intervention with troop deployment and mandate implementations.

Every German government coalition has entitled the foreign policy department to the smaller coalition partner. In case of a conservative government, it was the liberal party to provide the foreign minister, which succeeded to place Germany as a respected and reliable international partner, specifically in terms of transatlantic relations and soft policy agenda setting.

The Red-Green coalition, unlike its conservative-liberal predecessors, has boosted Germany's international self-confidence by rejecting obvious security policy mishaps of the Bush-Administration in the 2003 Iraq crisis. Despite the critics that this policy has led into international isolation, the opposite was the fact. Germany's foreign policy under Schröder/Fischer has prevented Germany from catastrophic consequences of a foreign and security policy adventure as it happened in Iraq. This brief transatlantic "hick-up" provided the opportunity to mature in international affairs and diplomacy and to enhance international self-confidence.

The current CDU/CSU-FDP coalition does not continue its predecessors' heritage. Instead of burden sharing and cooperation between the two coalition partners, Merkel has completely taken charge of all foreign policy agenda setting and decision making, specifically the ones directly related to the Euro Crisis, declaring them as a matter of personal top priority. A dramatic result, the German foreign ministry has lost nearly all foreign policy making competencies, it has been degenerated to a mere administrative tool of the chancellery, foreign minister Guido Westerwelle became Merkel's executive clerk.

The gradual demotion of the foreign ministry and its changed priorities strategies caused a lack of clear and understandable international positioning. Germany's abstention in the Libyan war in 2011 and its very recent abstention regarding Palestine create an apprehension that Germany is not able - or not even willing - to take any foreign policy position at all.

If Germany wants to be treated as a respected international actor and if it wants to implement consistent foreign policy actions, it has to be brave and take clear positions. Bad foreign policy is not just marked by bad decisions or bad strategies, but above all by the pure absence of any foreign policy. As a result, Germany's overall foreign policy remains vague and blurred, losing reputation, reliability, respect and above all sustainable predictability.

Germany cannot afford this on-going abstention strategy, it has to take courageous steps and have the confidence to implement even unusual positions. In the case of Palestine, Germany is stuck between its traditionally close relationship to Israel and the unclear position towards the Palestine question per se. It is out of the question that any long-term unclear position will have disastrous effects.

Oliver Krumme holds a MA in Advanced International Studies from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and is a Freelance Language Instructor and Blogger.

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Josh  Lipowsky

December 14, 2012

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While I agree that Germany should have taken a firm stand during the vote, although I believe it should have voted no, I understand Germany's reasons for its abstention. Great Britain also abstained, although it was otherwise leaning toward voting yes. Britain hinged its yes vote, however, on a Palestinian guarantee that to immediately resume negotiations with Israel, which PA President Mahmoud Abbas called "unlikely." The vote itself is a hollow victory as Israel demonstrated a few days later by announcing new construction in east Jerusalem. As Israel and its allies repeated prior to the vote, only negotiations will lead to actual changes on the ground and the Palestinian Authority has refused to enter negotiations for years. To vote statehood for the Palestinian Authority would thus be a reward for refusing diplomacy.
Additionally, the Palestinian Authority, which spearheaded the campaign for the status upgrade, represents only the West Bank, while Hamas controls Gaza. By recognizing a divided state, the UN is ignoring the need for a centralized government as a requirement for statehood. Additionally, recognition of Palestine implies recognition of borders, which goes against the spirit of UNSC Resolution 242, which calls for a peace treaty with the understanding that Israel does not need to withdraw from all of the territories it captured in the war.
Based on this, Germany could not vote yes, although many of Israel's other allies did. However, by not casting a no vote, Germany is able to temper any diplomatic damage with the Palestinian Authority that not voting yes would cause.
Abstention might appear to have been remaining on the fence, and the argument certainly can be made, as you point out, that Germany needs to make firm decisions in its role as a leader within the European Union. However, in this case, abstention was the correct choice.
 
Oliver  Daum

December 18, 2012

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Thanks to the author for the precise overview given in this contribution.

The author calls Germany's readiness to deploy patriot-rockets in Turkey an example of Germany's 'confusing foreign and security policy strategy'. Here, I have to disagree. In my opinion Germany's prompt answer to participate in a NATO military mission of defensive purposes could not have been expressed more clearly. The reason why it took some time to actually decide to send rockets and soldiers to Turkey was due to the compulsory constitutional procedure, i.e. participation of the parliament.

In addition, I cannot agree with the argument that the German government in fact 'increased' arms sales to Saudi Arabia or Israel with the intention to 'replace a direct security policy intervention with troop deployment and mandate implementations.'

First, the author may want to provide reliable information to back up his statement that Germany's arms sales have rised. The current official report of the Bundessicherheitsrat though, which lists all German arms sales refers back to 2011. Did arm sales really increase, or rather declined or remained equal?
Second, and more crucial, I doubt that Germany (unexpectedly) offers Israel and Saudi Arabia his military products in order to carry out its foreign security policy. For instance, I cannot image Germany going to the Middle East offering its tanks to avoid a prolongation of its military mission in Afghanistan instead. If it comes to arm sales, it follows usually the old way: Israel or Saudi Arabia are demanding, the German private sector, after official affirmation, supplies.
 
Christian  von Campe

January 9, 2013

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At a time when Germany is moving up the ranks of the global arms producers and sellers, its foreign policy has become fairly unpredictable. The former SPD/Green coalition government was very clear on its foreign policy aims and that Germany, despite its history, has to play a role in ensuring security globally. Whether it was wrong or right to not offer support to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 should not blind us from the fact that at all times, Germany positiioned itself very clearly among those who did not favour military intervention.
What we have seen in recent years is a return to a policy of what one may actually call "abstinence". Be it Libya in 2011 or Syria and the Palestinian question at the moment, Germany refuses to take a stand.
At the same time, the government authorises weapons deals with authoritarian regimes, contrary to its own policies.
This current state of indecision and hiding from responsibility may for now be smirked at by the international community. After all, it's "the Germans", they always had their own ways with their historical duties and responsibilities. But I fear there may come a time when Germany's partners will ask serious questions about the country's commitment to the international community, the UN and possibly NATO, too.
 

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