Reaching a New Normalcy? Germany’s “New Responsibility” in Security Affairs

Tobias Hecht

Bundeswehr Center for Public Affairs

Dr. Tobias Hecht was a DAAD/AICGS Fellow from August to October 2012 when he conducted research for his dissertation on “The U.S. Position on NATO Enlargement. Strategy, Pragmatism, and World Order after the East-West Antagonism” (published January 2015). Tobias Hecht studied North American Studies, Political Science, and International Law at the Universities of Bonn and Southern Mississippi. He worked for the German Atlantic Association, the University of Bonn, and Transparency International Germany. Since September 2015, Tobias Hecht has been research fellow at the Bundeswehr Center for Public Affairs. His research interests include foreign and security policy and transatlantic relations.

 In 1920, U.S. presidential candidate Warren G. Harding coined the word “normalcy” in reference to the end of the U.S.’ first major foreign military engagement and a return to concentration on domestic politics—negatively put, isolationism in an increasingly entangled world. Today, no nation has the luxury of looking only inward and closing its eyes to the challenges that impact our way of life and values.  These challenges come from regions both near and far, as underscored by terrorist attacks in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels, and by the situations in Syria, the Sahel region in Africa, and Ukraine. Germany, said to be especially reluctant to use military means to confront crises, has started to slowly change its posture in recent years. The external shocks mentioned above have prompted a discussion that was almost unthinkable four years ago: more money for security, more troops, more missions, more capacity, and new ways to deploy military capabilities. In other words, this new German responsibility marks a turn to twenty-first century normalcy for a nation the size of the Federal Republic.

Roots and Signs of Germany’s Proclaimed “New Responsibility”

At the end of March 2016, the Wall Street Journal wrote that “[s]ome Europeans—the Germans in particular—think they can manage threats such as Russia and terrorism in different, nonmilitary ways.”[1] While the use of military means to solve these crises is debatable, this quote cuts to the core of German self-perception as a civilian power. Two World Wars have rendered Germany wary of militarism. In the postwar era, its central pillars of foreign and security policy have been embedded in multilateral institutions and emphasized preventive (or diplomatic) action and encompassing approaches, where the emphasis is on the civilian side.

After the end of Cold War, Germany started to cut back its military considerably—but it never engaged in isolationism. Still, there was considerable domestic uneasiness when the Bundeswehr was deployed outside of Germany in the 1990s to intervene in the Balkan wars. The German Constitutional Court ultimately had to decide on the legality of “out of area” engagements, ruling that Germany’s membership within institutions of collective security allows it to contribute to missions undertaken by those organizations. Those institutions had to be “collective security” at least in part, as NATO was also explicitly mentioned. That Germany can join such organizations is anchored in Article 24 of the German constitution, the Basic Law. The Court, however, required the Bundestag to formulate a law that would regulate the process of mandating missions for combat units abroad.

The German engagement in the Balkans over the years showed an adaptation that reached its climax in 1999 with the first German participation in a combat mission since the end of World War II, when German Tornado jets contributed to the bombing campaigns in Kosovo without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. The Kosovo mission is one of the most substantial ones undertaken by the German Bundeswehr to date.

The next step on Germany’s path toward normalcy followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with the implementation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. A strong UN mandate, NATO leadership, and a sense of solidarity with the United States made this mission initially fairly popular in Germany. However, whereas in 2002 only 30 percent of the German populace called for a withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, by 2010 public opinion had turned upside down to 70 percent calling for the Bundeswehr’s withdrawal.[2] At its highest point, 5,350 German troops were in Afghanistan, stationed predominantly in the north. In line with the German emphasis on comprehensive approaches, Germany has remained engaged in the NATO follow-on mission to ISAF, Resolute Support, and even partially extended its engagement due to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

Early 2014 marked another watershed. Shortly after the Grand Coalition took office, federal president Joachim Gauck, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and defense minister Ursula von der Leyen all called for a more active German foreign and security policy, proclaiming a new responsibility.[3] The Coalition seemed to have realized that since Steinmeier’s first term as foreign minister (2005-2009), the Federal Republic had lost much of its standing in international relations, reaching its highest (or lowest) point among traditional partner nations by rather spontaneously calling for a nuclear weapons free Germany[4] and by abstaining from the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Other events—the change in Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and the “West,” the rise of ISIS—showed that defense suddenly mattered again. These changes have meant that Germany has been both compelled and much more willing to engage in the international security political realm—and to say so publicly.

Not Just A Rhetorical Exercise or A Numbers Game

The German government has embarked on a number of reviews to assess the state of its diplomatic and military tools in light of the challenges emerging today. A 2014 review process resulted in the restructuring of parts of the Foreign Ministry to be more capable in the field of stabilization and early crisis warning.[5] The Defense Ministry launched the process of a new White Book on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr in early 2015 that also managed to stimulate a fairly transparent debate in a broader community of interested actors. Also in the defense realm, much-needed procurement reform, recruiting personnel, and the creation of a “cyber command” are ongoing major projects. While these are all long overdue, they are worth mentioning as they are seemingly implemented with new vigor. Nevertheless, the most relevant indicators for a change are still the numbers for “budget” and “personnel.”

The budget plan for the next five years includes an additional €10.2 billion due to “the myriad and changing tasks of the Bundeswehr within international missions as well as in alliance and territorial defense”[6] when compared to last year’s forecast by the Ministry of Finance. Yearly budgets will increase from €33.9 billion in 2015 to €39.2 billion in 2020. The Ministry of Defense has, however, already requested a €130 billion package to be paid over the next fifteen years. Both the SPD and the Green Party stress that the current budget forecast will still not be enough to implement the defense minister’s plans in terms of the €130 billion that was presented as essential.

The Ministry is also considering adding 7,000 soldiers plus 3,000 civilian personnel. However, the 2011 Bundeswehr reform, which led to the end or “freezing” of conscription, has made recruiting personnel more difficult. Of the currently planned 185,000 military positions, only 177,000 are actually filled. The conservative wing of the SPD has called for a “surge” to at least 200,000 soldiers and adding the needed civilian personnel. The CSU and the SPD factions in parliament called to at least adapt the rigid personnel limits or get rid of them all together, respectively. The reactions to the plans of the CDU-led ministries of defense and finance underscore that a change in the fields of personnel and budget is so badly needed that even more “reluctant players” emphasize the weaknesses.

Because the “new responsibility” has indeed led to an increase to sixteen missions, more capacities are needed. Currently, the biggest missions (in mandated sizes) are: Kosovo (1,850), Syria (1,200), Mali (two missions totaling 1,000), Afghanistan (980), and Naval Operations in the Mediterranean and at the Horn of Africa (each 950). Actually deployed are close to 3,400 soldiers. Including the rotation in and out of missions (three times mission size) and logistical support (at least four times mission size), this already accounts for a considerable percentage of Bundeswehr soldiers. Add to that the frequent NATO exercises within Europe (for 2016, 5,500 German troops are designated for that purpose), contributions to EU battle groups (750 soldiers in 2016) and NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (after 2015, Germany will again be Framework Nation in 2019), and the maximum is easily reached—and certainly overreached in terms of equipment. In spite of this situation, leaders are already discussing a possible training mission in Tunisia for Libyan military.

The numbers are only one side of the coin. The most relevant qualitative change—the legal basis for missions abroad—has not yet been thoroughly debated in Germany. This is astonishing as it touches the legal basis of military engagement in surroundings such as Iraq and Syria. Observers of Germany’s security policy wonder about the little attention this issue raises domestically.


Since early 2015, the Bundeswehr has been conducting a training mission in the north of Iraq at the request of the Kurdish regional and Iraqi federal governments, as justified by Article 51 of the UN Charter.  This, however, contradicts the earlier ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court, whereby the use of German armed forces is only allowed for defensive purposes unless otherwise stated in the Basic Law (Art. 87a). Article 24 allows Germany to contribute to missions undertaken by organizations of collective security in which it is a member. In the case of ISIS, there has not been a UN Security Council or NATO mandate authorizing an international coalition, nor has there been a mission under a system of collective security (which means, according to the ruling, that there is a permanent organizational structure and an internationally-binding contract of more than two states).  Thus, the government’s argument for the mission is not solid when compared to the Court ruling. [7]  This does not mean that there is no legal basis for this military endeavor—defensive purposes can be interpreted more broadly—but it is a precedent in the German case post-1994.

Moreover, for the first time, Germany decided to arm a party to a conflict.[8] Arms exports have always been a hot topic in German security policy. That this policy continues and in fact was stepped up (this latest trend can also be seen in Mali) is thus remarkable. Of course, there is some validity to the defense minister’s argument that training with guns made out of wood might not be ends-oriented.


While Germany has abstained from arming opposition parties in Syria or enabling them otherwise (as the U.S. has tried to do), the novelty concerning the legal grounds is comparable.[9] Four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, France called for aid and assistance by other European Union member states according to Article 42(7) of the Treaty on the European Union.[10] There were quite a few officials that had to look up that article before realizing that this was comparable to NATO’s Article 5 guarantee, except that there is no need for a formal vote and it “obliges” aid and assistance. The EU thus proclaimed for the first time its “common defense” commitment, and France then called upon Great Britain and Germany especially to make tangible their solidarity claims. On 4 December 2015, Germany mandated its involvement in the mission Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, called Counter Daesh. Hence, parliamentary approval was given within just a few days after the French request, despite the procedure, often described as cumbersome, required by law (see below).

The German mission consists of air refueling, protection of a French navy force, and sea and air surveillance. The latter task is fulfilled by six Tornado reconnaissance jets. The official justification is: “The German government sees the legal basis for this mission and the process of mandating in France’s right to self-defense, under the provisions of the UN Charter (Article 51), in conjunction with the call of the United Nations Security Council on all nations to take all necessary measures to fight the so-called IS in Syria (Resolution 2249 dated 20 November). The mission will take place within the framework of the mutual defense clause (Article 42(7)) of the Treaty on the European Union.”[11] While the EU might nowadays qualify as a system of collective security, the EU assistance did not initiate an EU operation.

Again, this of course does not mean that there might not be a sufficient argument in favor of legitimizing this mission. But the argument is new and, at least in the case of Syria, sounds constructed. Two academic papers of the parliamentary research service on the operations in Iraq and Syria argue that as a legal basis a broader interpretation of Article 87a of the German Basic Law in conjunction with Article 51/invitation of governments in Iraq and with Article 51/EU mandate for Syria suffices. Nevertheless, either there is an evolving consensus on this new broader and “customary interpretation” or there is a need to get clarification from the Constitutional Court (leaving aside the territorial issues in the region for the time being). So far few politicians have raised the issue[12] and the relatively small opposition’s hands are tied.[13]

On these issues, the public has been surprisingly silent. The only conclusion from this can be that there is indeed a “new normalcy” or a latent acceptance of military capabilities to increase security. That Germany is changing its security policy in a more active yet still profoundly multilateral way is moreover shown by the attempts to revise the Parliamentary Participation Act and Germany’s more pragmatic approaches on EU defense cooperation.

A More Pragmatic Multilateralism

While the diverse external threats and challenges are shared by all European Union members and the need for concerted action is as high as ever, the current refugee crisis has split the EU. Nevertheless, an EU Army is still a long-term goal of the two biggest German parties, as stated in the latest coalition agreement.[14] That this project is more vision than reality in the current state of the institution is clear, but hope is not lost. The EU will present its “Global Security Strategy” in June 2016 and the Christian Democrats have already called for a follow-on EU White Book.

The German government seems to be more pragmatic in this time of defense-integration stagnation. Instead of aiming for an all-encompassing approach, it has chosen to proceed with bilateral and smaller multilateral projects that may lead—in the end—to a more entwined and thus holistic “European” approach. Pooling and sharing, rather than the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PSC) which was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in order to make European security policy more strategic, is the policy of choice: “The discussions on the shape of the PSC have been factually overtaken by the concept of pooling and sharing.”[15]

Multilateralism for Germany is as much choice as it is necessity. Credibility and reliability of the German and European security policies/capacities, however, cut both ways. The realization that there is a need to work even more closely on defense projects with partners in smaller and bigger contexts also led to the aimed revision of the Parliamentary Participation Act. This law was introduced in 2004-2005 and was a consequence of the decision delivered by the Constitutional Court in 1994. It clearly states what the government has to present to parliament in order to get approval for sending armed military personnel on a mission: the task, mission area, legal grounds, maximum troop number, deployed capabilities, duration of mandate (usually a year), costs, and financing. In the past, but especially with the goal of ever more connected forces and the myriad missions that are being conducted under multinational command, the government felt compelled to commission a review of the law. Under the auspices of former defense minister Volker Rühe, recommendations on how to revise the law were presented in June 2015.[16] The objective was to adapt the law so that parliamentary rights are safeguarded, on the one hand, while in light of the myriad “multilateral military joined capacities,” a certain degree of reliability and trust vis-à-vis partner nations is ensured on the other. For this, certain mission types were defined that do not need prior consent of parliament. As a trade-off, more transparent reporting requirements on multilateral projects and missions are to be introduced according to other amendments. The revision of the law was introduced in January 2016 and after some debate in parliament transferred to the relevant committees in April 2016. Criticism by the opposition, not surprisingly, concentrated on the definition of the missions not in need of parliamentary consent. The media and the public have been markedly silent. This is once again astonishing as it could indeed be debatable who will define “training missions in secure environments”—a format that has gotten increasingly popular in German foreign policy.

Building trust and reliability—“leading from the middle” as von der Leyen once characterized the German approach—will require more than changing the law. It also hinges very much on the capacities that a nation is willing and able to provide. In this context the “2 percent debate” is a regular issue in the fora of security-political Berlin. But this requirement, which was formally set at NATO’s Wales Summit, is debated in Germany mostly in the sense that more has to be spent on defense. The actual mark of spending 2 percent of a nation’s GDP on defense is not achievable in Germany, nor does it make sense to a lot of observers to aspire to this number, as this does not say anything about the efficiency of spending or the linkage to economic fluctuations.

Finding Coherence

There is an increasing consensus not just within the ruling Grand Coalition of Christian and Social Democrats, but among an increasing number of Greens as well, to engage in a number of environments that are said to be volatile, to increase the defense budget, and to build up troop numbers. Germany as the “indispensable middle power” in Europe has taken on more leadership than in the past, and has chosen a rather pragmatic approach. This may constitute a new normalcy in German security policy. Germany’s proclaimed new responsibility needs to be understood as a holistic governance approach to foreign and security policy, which has given momentum to a range of projects and developments that were contested in the past. Whether this is led by a coherent strategy that links aspirations and means with consistency remains to be seen. The events of this June and July—German White Book, European Global Strategy, NATO Summit—may provide some answers.


Dr. Tobias Hecht is a Research Fellow at the Bundeswehr’s Center for Public Affairs in Berlin/Strausberg, Germany and is a Non-Resident Fellow at AGI.  Oliver Schmidt is a Research Fellow at the Bundeswehr’s Center for Public Affairs in Berlin/Strausberg, Germany.  This article reflects the personal opinion of the authors.


[1]Trumping NATO,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 March 2016.

[2] ARD Deutschland Trend, May 2016; Wilfried von Bredow, Sicherheit, Sicherheitspolitik und Militär. Deutschland seit der Vereinigung (Wiesbaden, 2015): 274.

[3] See the speeches from the 2014 Munich Security Conference.

[4] Tobias Hecht, “Germany and Its American Nukes,” AGI Notizen Blog, 12 September 2012,

[5]Conclusions from Review 2014,” German Federal Foreign Office, 26 February 2015,

[6] Personal translation from a presentation by the Federal Ministry of Finance on the Budget for 2017 and beyond.

[7] See “Einsatz im Auftrag des Parlamentes,” German Federal Ministry of Defense, 15 April 2014; “Rechtsgrundlagen zur Internationalen Ausbildungs- und Unterstützungsmission im Nordirak,” German Federal Ministry of Defense, 4 February 2016.

[8]Germany debates role of Bundestag in approving arms shipments to Iraq,”, 22 August 2014,

[9]Rechtsgrundlagen zum Einsatz der Bundeswehr bei der Unterstützung des Kampfes gegen den ‘IS’,” Bundeswehr, 14 January 2016.

[10] EUT 42 (7): “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.
Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

[11]In the Wake of Attacks in Paris: Support in the Fight Against Terrorism,” German Federal Government, 27 November 2015.

[12] “Gesetzentwurf zu Oppositionsrechten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 28 April 2016, p. 4.

[13] “Tornados in Syrien, Bundestag beschließt Einsatz,” Das Parlament, No. 50-51 (7 December 2015), p. 1, 3.

[14] Coalition Contract of CDU/CSU and SPD for Legislature 2013-2017, p. 123.

[15] Reply of the German government to a parliamentary question of the Green Party (29 January 2015).

[16] The opposition parties did not join this endeavor.

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