The Monitor's View

Germany and its reflex aversion to a normal military

The resignation of German President Horst Köhler over remarks about the use of armed forces to defend German economic interests points again to the need for a more normal view of the military in that country.

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When Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, many remarked that the country had finally arrived at normalcy more than 60 years after the end of World War II. Celebrating something as innocent and unifying as sport allowed them, for instance, to sing their national anthem with gusto – just like citizens the world over do.

The new normal, unfortunately, hasn’t sunk in to postwar German attitudes about their military. Security-related remarks that would be completely acceptable elsewhere recently precipitated the resignation of President Horst Köhler.

He said in a radio interview recorded on a morale-boosting trip to German troops in Afghanistan that Germany would defend its economic interests, for example, trade routes.

Mr. Köhler later said he meant sending naval patrols to the Indian Ocean to protect against piracy. But the political left jumped on him for promoting “gunboat diplomacy,” and the right failed to defend him – even though trade is vital to this second-biggest exporter in the world.

Germany’s postwar Constitution forbids entering a war except for defensive purposes. On paper that provides quite a bit of latitude, but in their minds, Germans interpret it narrowly.

Officially, their troops in Afghanistan – the third-largest foreign force there – are in an “armed conflict” and their job is civil reconstruction. They get shot at. They shoot. And they get killed. But it’s not war.

Köhler had been trying to start a German debate about the Afghanistan war, and he dared to use the “w” word. Over the years, Germany has inched forward in its understanding of collective defense, moving beyond NATO borders to deploy in the Balkans, Africa, and Lebanon as United Nations or NATO peacekeepers.

But the public has not been able to accept military responsibility commensurate with Germany’s weight as Europe’s largest economy. It sees itself surrounded by friendly states, and terrorism as a police matter.

Germany has a unique attitude toward its military, but like other countries in Europe, such as Britain, it needs to cut government spending. The military is a popular candidate. One public opinion survey in Germany shows 76 percent favor defense cuts. The choice with the next highest support for reduced spending is labor subsidies – 36 percent favor those.

In a February speech, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned of the “demilitarization of Europe” where “large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it.”

He added: “Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.”

Indeed, just as America’s national security strategy calls for greater reliance on partners, its partners are likely to cut back, as Mr. Gates says America must also do.

Too bad Köhler didn’t stay on to move the military debate further – to a complex world of new threats that require strong national security.

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