By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At the recent German security forum “International Order in Transition – Germany’s global responsibility” (Montabaur / Hessen), organized by the German Federal Armed Forces Association (Deutscher Bundeswehrverband) and the educational foundation of the association, the Karl-Theodor-Molinari Foundation, a useful insight was given about the current debate which is taking place within the political and leading security circles of the Federal Republic of Germany. A panel discussion with various German think tank representatives made clear however that there is a gap between “ambitions and reality” when it comes to the role which Germany has in the new international order. None of the featured experts was capable to provide an in-depth analysis of the different geopolitical crises (Ukraine, Russia, China, Syria, USA) and show how Germany concretely could contribute to solve these new geopolitical challenges.
The security forum gave an insight into the quite heated and emotional debate which is taking place within the German Armed Forces. It was triggered after the arrest of an officer of the German Federal Armed Forces, Frank O. end of April at the Vienna airport. According to the findings so far, and as German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen underlined in her speech, the arrested officer had a double identity.
On the one hand, he made a career in the German Federal Armed Forces (which he had entered in 2008) and until recently he was stationed at the location of the French-German Brigade in Illkirch (Alsace/ France). In the year 2013 he was arousing attention with his Master thesis at the Elite military school Saint Cyr. The Master thesis was filled with nationalist and racist ideas. The same officer, in 2015 was registered by the German authorities for migration and refugees “as a Syrian Christian” fleeing from persecution in Syria. Right-wing extremist officer Frank O., together with other accomplices apparently had the intention (the Police had found in an apartment search 1000 ammunition), to carry out a terrorist attack on leading representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Minister on the defensive
The keynote was given by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Despite the attempt to clarify the latest “incidents” of abuse and right-wing extremism within the German Federal Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) in the last three years (this includes incidents in the barracks of Pfullendorf, Bavaria, Sondershausen in Lower Saxony, and the recent case of the arrested officer Frank O.), her keynote left the impression of being defensive.
Minister von der Leyen deeply regretted the statements which she had made at the end of April. At that time, shortly after the arrest of the Officer Frank O. she commented that the Armed Forces were undergoing a “crisis of leadership and a crisis of attitude”. She announced a series of measures to “dig deeper.” Having returned the same day from a meeting at the Centre “Internal Leadership of the Federal Armed Forces” (Zentrum Innere Führung) in Koblenz, the Minister stated that they had decided to take further steps in order to answer the question what led to those incidents. “We need vigilance and internal leadership”, von der Leyen said. “We begin to ask at the bottom. Tell us, what are the problems that prevent you from leading according to the accepted standards?” This then will be “mirrored” at the level of commanders. At the same time, the minister stressed, thousands of soldiers are serving in Afghanistan (Resolute Support), Mali (Stability Operation in Africa, also part of EU training mission), Operation Counter Daesh in Syria and Iraq, in the Mediterranean (UNIFIL) and Sea Guard against Traffickers of Migrants in the Aegean Sea, as well as operations at the Eastern frontier of NATO (Lithuania). These men and women “do a decent duty, they deserve our gratitude and appreciation”, she emphasized.
She only briefly addressed the actual subject of the security Forum “International Order in Transition – Germany’s global responsibility.” She made reference to the Munich Security Conference held in February 2014 and the keynote speeches given at that time by German President Gauck, Defense Minister von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Steinmeier. At that time, as she put it, there was a broad consensus that Germany, given its economic and political importance, had to “contribute” more globally. After the violent annexation of the Crimea by Russia “a hybrid war began, which continues to this day.”
Several months later, the IS had conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul. “At that time, we demanded the modernization of NATO, in order to fight against Daesh” (in Northern Iraq and Syria) and Germany participated in reconnaissance flights. Von der Leyen emphasized that in light of Germany’s history it is clear that Germany will never deploy its military forces “on its own” in the future. Everything takes place under the umbrella of the UN, NATO or EU. She also pointed to the close cooperation which exists between the 27 EU member states on European security and Defense issues. She therefore welcomed the establishment of a “European Command Centre for Foreign Operations”. Such a command centre would set standards and focus on connecting security policy with economy and diplomacy. It also involves joint European troops, such as the Franco-German brigade, a “European Medical Command”, and a European logistics hub within PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation among EU nations).
Chairman of the association of German Armed Forces: “We are talking about a few incidents”
The chairman of the German Bundeswehr Association, André Wüstner, presented a quite disturbing picture of the mood that currently prevails in large circles of the German Armed Forces. In reference to the recent statements by the German Defense Minister, Wüstner underlined that it was necessary to examine the latest misconducts in the Army. Among the 250,000 members of the German Federal Armed Forces, these are however only relatively a few cases. He pointed out that the Minister had acknowledged herself that her initial reaction to the most recent incidents had been wrong. Wüstner drew attention to wjat he considers the real problem of the Bundeswehr: “The warning belles have been ringing for 2-3 years. The ‘reorientation’ of the German Federal Armed Forces” is difficult, he said. He complained that there are too many “political reflexes” and hoped that there was less “actionism”. Until the year 1990, the main focus of the Bundeswehr had been primarily the Defense of the Territory. The geopolitical turbulences of the 1990ies (after the Fall of Berlin wall) led to substantial changes. “What was needed, more and more was international management”, “out-of-area deployments” in the Balkans and, since 2011, operations and deployments were ordered to take place in Africa.
In light of the savings policy which got introduced during the last legislative period in Germany and the “epochal change” which began in 2014 (Ukraine, Arab spring, Syria conflict, Brexit and US developments under President Trump) Wüstner stressed that “the security architecture is fragile.” Because of the austerity policy which was implemented during the last years – this includes personnel reductions, sales of real estate, motivating members of the Bundeswehr to go into early retirement -, Wüstner demanded a change in the “concept of leadership and basic strategy”. During the last years there was an increase in the deployment of the German Armed Forces (this includes the deployment in Northern Iraq and Mali) he stated and this represents a heavy burden for the staff and the families. If in such a situation it is declared that there are “problems of leadership and attitude” and if one reads in the White Paper of the government that everything is going to improve, then he can hardly believe that.
What are the future tasks of the German Federal Armed Forces?
One should look at Wüstner’s statements on the background of various press commentaries which were published recently: On May 17, the German Daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published a commentary by Reinhard Müller, who commented accurately on the mood of the rank and file of the Army: “Ursula von der Leyen, who has kept herself remarkably long in the hot seat as defense minister”, wrote Müller, “must realize that the more she complains about lack of internal leadership, the more this falls back upon her.” In another article “The Limits of Loyalty”, FAZ journalist Marco Seliger noted that there is a broken relationship between many soldiers and von der Leyen. “When Ursula von der Leyen took over the command of the armed forces in 2013, she began working hard. Three and a half years later, the results look quite sobering.” Unlike any of her predecessors, von der Leyen had managed to antagonize the troops in relative short time. Many soldiers interviewed by FAZ were frustrated by the changes that have taken place in the Bundeswehr over the recent years. According to the minister’s guidelines, the Armed Forces were to become one of the country’s most attractive employers. “She presented the Bundeswehr as a normal enterprise that needed change in the struggle for labour.” According to Seliger, the Bundeswehr was qualified as a profession like any other and the Ministry of Defense started advertising campaigns in which the armed struggle was not shown.
World disorder as a permanent state?
At a panel discussion “International order in transition?” – the speakers included Dr Josef Braml (German Society for Foreign Affairs DGAP ), Dr. Markus Kaim (Stiftung, Wissenschaft und Politik), Dr. Marwan Abou Taam (Terrorism expert, Berlin Institute for empirical research about integration and migration ) and Professor Dr. Carlo Masala (Professor for International Politics, University of Munich). The panelists discussed about the characteristics of the present “world order” or, rather, something which might be called “new world disorder”. Dr Kaim judged it as a “radical new development” – a “new epoch” and a new “division of power in the world”. In 25 years, people will speak about the multipolar world. What worries Kaim in respect to Europe, is the question: to what extent the “norms”, “values” and “premises” laid down in the UN Charta and the Paris Charta, actually still exist and are still serving as reference. According to Dr. Masala, we are witnessing the “beginning of a multipolar order”, which is largely perceived as a “post-Western order” and whose future will be shaped by “chaos” and “world disorder”. Masala foresees a mixture between a regional, bipolar and multipolar order and emphasized that so far there is no understanding on the “principles” of such a globalized order. “In the future, we are dealing with regional great powers, which are distant from this.” At the same time he noticed, “we have tried to westernize the world and we utterly failed.”
When asked about the “normative principles” upon which a future world order should be based, Dr Braml (DGAP) pointed to a discrepancy: America, he stated, would not be a “smart hegemon” but “increasingly follow its own narrow interests.” At the same time he underlined that the American democracy is on trial. The problem we have, is that the West is at odds with itself, as was demonstrated at President Trump’s inauguration. At the same time, he pointed to some paradox, the speech given by Chinese President Xi Li Ping at the World Economic Forum in Davos (January 2017), in which the Chinese President had defended the liberal economic order against the USA. According to Braml we live in a “world in disorder” and the US is not willing to be the “Global Guard of the Liberal Order”. Braml didn’t exclude the potential for a confrontation between the US and China in the future. He noted that with its “One Belt-One Road” policy concept, China wants to create the impression of a “good hegemon”, which is exemplified by the AIEB (Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank). While the US had built up massive pressure against this, the Germans were in favour of it.
The panel discussion revealed the lack of a deeper strategic debate in Germany, and didn’t adequately reflect the gap between ambitions and reality. What was striking, was that none of the panel participants responded to the geopolitical conflicts – the Ukraine conflict, Syria conflict, China, the US under Trump – nor did they make a substantial statement about Germany’s global responsibility. In a very generalising remark, Dr Masala emphasized that the 21st century would be a century of the “ad hoc coalition of the willing”, and that institutions such as the G-20, for example, would lose relevance. He pleaded for more realism, and complained that there was a lot of German “bigotry” in the handling of international relations: on the one side people are advocating values and moral standards, on the other hand they support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, because this corresponds to German interests…
Wiesbaden, May 2017