As World Cup hosts last summer, Germans displayed a healthy patriotism. After decades of reticence, they waved flags and sang their national anthem with gusto – just like everyone else. If only they could be more "normal" in their military affairs.
Slowly, political leaders from the major parties have been pushing their country toward greater responsibility in solving pressing security challenges far beyond their border. Last week, the German cabinet took a major step in this direction, agreeing to a Defense Ministry white paper that recommends reshaping the Army so that it's primarily an "expeditionary" force – one that deploys as part of a multinational "network."
The Army's main purpose is still to defend Germany from external threats, but the white paper defines those threats broadly. Terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction are the chief ones. Others are human rights problems and disruption of trade.
In theory, such definitions allow the Germans a wide field in which to operate with others. At the moment, about 9,000 German troops are deployed as part of UN or NATO operations in the Balkans, Africa, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. The white paper recommends increasing such peacekeeping forces to 14,000.
But the world saw just how difficult it is for Germans to reach military normalcy when a scandal over its soldiers erupted last week. A German newspaper published lewd and macabre photographs of soldiers posing with human skulls in Afghanistan. The country is rightly shocked by the pictures, and two of the soldiers have been suspended.
But it's unfortunate that, in the wake of the photographs, some senior politicians now say that Germany should reduce its military footprint abroad. The Defense minister himself is wondering aloud about this – in direct contrast to the white paper.
Just what will it take to get Germany to "fully accept its share" of security within the UN framework – as the white paper calls for? To deploy with the equipment and troop strength of Britain or France?
In 1994, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that German forces could deploy beyond the NATO area if the security of Germany or its allies' was at stake, and if the parliament approved. But German sensitivity to its militant Nazi history has held it back, with German forces taking mostly peripheral positions abroad. In Lebanon, Germany chose a naval mission so it could avoid possible confrontation with Israeli forces. A recent altercation between a German vessel and Israeli fighter jets has now set off we-told-you-so lawmakers who, along with the public, opposed the deployment.
Yet the Lebanese incident is the exception, not the rule. What's holding Germany back from a more robust role in the world is less its sensitive past than present concerns. Like other Europeans, Germans wonder why they have to be involved in far-flung conflicts. Canadians, losing soldiers in Afghanistan, question whether they really have a dog in that fight, and Germans do, too.
It's the job of Germany's political and military leadership to clearly explain why far-flung threats are relevant. The white paper did that, but it will take more than a strategy paper to drive home the message.