The “Culture of Restraint” Is No More

A pretty, elegant blond with sharp features and an even sharper mind could become the face of Germany’s new role in the world.

Just weeks ago, she had no idea this would happen to her—and then Chancellor Angela Merkel convinced her to take the position. Now, Ursula von der Leyen is the first female German Minister of Defense, and she wasted no time in making clear that the times of restraint are over.

She did that publicly even before German President Joachim Gauck presented this new direction of German foreign policy in his remarkable speech before the 50th Munich Security Conference (MSC). It was the defining moment of this anniversary:

“The Federal Republic [of Germany] has to be ready to do more for this security which for decades was provided by others for her,” Gauck said. “To believe Germany could just continue like before—this does not convince me.” Germany can no longer hide behind its past.

It may become an historic event in a time full of remarkable anniversaries. For Germans, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, and will lead up to the 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War II in 2015. Even if Germans would rather not, this is a perfect time to take stock and debate where Europe’s largest country is heading.

Earlier, Germany’s former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, fended off the pressure coming from Washington and other capitals to contribute more German soldiers to missions abroad by saying, “First, the world criticized us for getting into our combat boots too fast, now they criticize us for not getting into those combat boots fast enough,” echoing a strong sentiment among the German public. When Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait shortly after German reunification, Kohl got by writing a fat check as Germany’s contribution to the Gulf War—a strategy the country had repeatedly used to please its allies. But even Kohl could not use financial support to completely keep the country out of military adventures. When the former Yugoslavia broke apart, followed by bloody atrocities, Kohl caved and sent troops to the Balkans.

Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schröder, ordered the first participation in a real war since 1945, with German air force bombers being used in 1999, after the conflict escalated. A taboo had been broken by Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and Germans quickly found themselves in an unthinkable mission, at least by their standards. After 9/11, Schröder promised the United States “unlimited solidarity.” And he delivered, deploying German troops in Afghanistan, where they are still active. But when George W. Bush tried to coerce him to follow up in Iraq with even more soldiers, Schröder refused, creating a rift that took a long time to heal.

Angela Merkel was also not eager to actively involve Germany in the troubles of this world. Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, made it a hallmark of his four years in the foreign office to promote a “culture of restraint,” producing considerable frustration among allies in Europe and the United States, when he kept German troops out of the Libya intervention—confirming the image of “Germany, the reluctant hegemon,” as the Economist put it.

But this reluctance seems to have come to an end. With the new Grand Coalition and an 80 percent majority in parliament, Merkel and her new team are sending out strong signals that Germany is ready to do more. As a first step, the Bundeswehr will send more soldiers to Africa, supporting France in its effort to stabilize the fragile situation in Mali and the Central African Republic. Again, there will be no combat troops, but these missions are no doubt an attempt to clearly tell the world that the “culture of restraint” is fading away. “It is expected from us, and rightly so, that we get involved,” foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, said in a recent interview. “Germany,” he argues, “is too big to just comment on world affairs.” Ursula von der Leyen added, “Indifference is no option for a country like Germany, neither from a point of view of security, nor from a humanitarian view.”

In other words, the comfort of remaining on the sidelines is over. By choosing to become involved in two missions in former French colonies, the new German government is also demonstrating a renewed effort to enhance its strained relations with France.

Defense minister von der Leyen will have to provide the troops, and that will not be easy. In fact, the world should not expect too much of Germany. The Bundeswehr is shrinking as never before, and although the new official German willingness to do more was met with much applause in Munich, the German public—still pacifistic in its heart of hearts—is not enthralled with the idea of military adventures in faraway parts of the world. In a recent poll, 62 percent of Germans expressed strong resistance to increased military involvement abroad. Most German troops will come home from Afghanistan this year, but a majority of their fellow countrymen never supported their mission and would prefer that they stay at home.

Angela Merkel and her government, as well as the legislators in the Grand Coalition, are facing a major challenge. They will have to convince the skeptical Germans that German interests must be defended with military means in Africa. But a sea change is in the works and, when push comes to shove, Ursula von der Leyen will have to deliver. How well she does will also be a test for a much larger future role for her. She is the leading candidate to follow Angela Merkel as chancellor, if and when Merkel ever steps down. In Berlin, everyone will be closely watching her performance in the event that allies demand Germany make good on the spectacular announcements made in Munich.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.