Finding Security in an Age of Uncertainty

June 4, 2010

On June 4, 2010, the American-German Institute (AGI) convened a seminar on “Finding Security in an Age of Uncertainty: German and American Counterterrorism Policies.” Part of AGI’s project on “Political, Cultural, and Economic Origins and Consequences of International Terrorism: American and European Answers,” this seminar was generously supported by a grant from the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.

Following up on their written analysis in AGI Policy Report 41, and in light of further terrorist attempts in the United States and the continuing debate over Germany’s participation in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Mr. Frank Gadinger of the NRW School of Governance and Dr. Dorle Hellmuth of American University’s School of International Service examined transatlantic counterterrorism policies today and discussed the challenges both countries are facing individually and collectively. Both scholars addressed past counterterrorism measures and analyzed their effectiveness. They also looked at the challenges ahead for the U.S. and German administrations.

Mr. Gadinger’s presentation, “In Search of a Serious Debate and a Clear Strategy: German Counterterrorism Responses after 9/11,” stressed that even though there is a debate about Afghanistan, it is difficult to discuss the mission in a serious matter in Germany. Mr. Gadinger presented his main thesis that there is a contradiction in Germany’s counterterrorism debate: On the one side there is a fundamental shift in counterterrorism toward more robust policies after 9/11; on the other side, there is scant political and public debate on counterterrorism. Germans seem to have ignored the changes and realities in counterterrorism for many years. Additionally, the common critique of President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” overshadowed any discussion of Germany’s own involvement in Afghanistan. Germans missed the shift toward a new centralized security concept until the Kunduz incident in 2009 served as a wake-up call, forcing Germany to realize that it has to accept that it is in a “war-like situation.” However, the debate about the mission remained a superficial debate: Strategy and the war’s justifications are still unclear and citizens do not know why German soldiers fight in Afghanistan. Mr. Gadinger stressed that German politicians are doing a poor job of explaining the mission in Afghanistan to the public. The latest example is former President Horst Köhler’s remarks during an interview and his subsequent resignation. The differences between Germany and the U.S. in counterterrorism approaches can be explained mainly by the dissimilar framing. While the U.S. fights a “war against terrorism,” Germany has never considered itself in a state of war.

The German domestic counterterrorism response includes a long list of reforms that follow the U.S. logic of prevention. Consequently, there is security-driven counterterrorism legislation and more centralized security architecture than before 9/11. On the international level, Germany focused on the war in Afghanistan and emphasized the civilian mandate of the ISAF mission. Mr. Gadinger explained the German approach with three main points: First, Germany’s political culture, which is influenced by its historical background and its special historical role, its preference for multilateral cooperation (checkbook diplomacy), and its culture of restraint (pacifist tradition). Second, Germany’s federal system with its checks and balances can be seen as a practical translation of its political culture, in order to avoid a further war. Although Germany’s strict separation of security authorities (Trennungsgebot) has been softened to some degree, it still influences Germany’s behavior. Another factor is the strong role of the Federal Court as political corrective. However, because checkbook diplomacy is not enough and NATO insists on more participation, Germany had to get more involved in Afghanistan, for example by sending more troops.

Mr. Gadinger also explained that there have been successes in transatlantic intelligence cooperation. Even though Germany and the U.S. have similar political conditions (federal systems) and similar problems, there are different understandings concerning main issues. Each country’s respective history makes them feel differently about data privacy and military objectives, for example. Germany is much more skeptical of reliance on the state and of military means to win a war. Mr. Gadinger suggested that, in the future, German politicians need to lead a substantial debate on the Afghanistan mission in order to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. This strategy must not be justified with moral or economic arguments but with national security interests. He also stressed that German politicians have to be cautious with the often-used thesis of the “German normalization” of foreign policy.

The second part of the seminar focused on the American perspective. Dr. Dorle Hellmuth focused on U.S. counterterrorism responses and gave a summary of the most recent developments in American terrorism policy. First, Dr. Hellmuth stressed that transatlantic relations regarding counterterrorism are alive and in good shape. One example is Obama’s success in convincing some allies to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Many of former President George W. Bush’s controversial strategies remain in place because they resulted from American political culture. However, a few major changes have been made. The most popular changes are President Obama’s executive order concerning the closure of Guantanamo and the new Afghanistan strategy. Within U.S. foreign policy, military means have always had the lead (primacy of military power). Dr. Hellmuth also mentioned the National Security Strategy (NSS) from 2002, which reserves the right of the use of unilateral and preemptive force. In comparison with the new NSS (2010) created by the Obama administration, only small shifts in U.S. foreign policy are discernible: Obama is not fighting the “war against terrorism” anymore; he is fighting a “war against al-Qaeda.”

After 9/11 the Bush administration created the new category of “unlawful enemy combatants.” Certain measures to fight them that were implemented under President Bush have been continued under President Obama. Following 9/11, the U.S. began implementing a domestic counterterrorism strategy that intended to identify and eliminate dangers before they reach the U.S. New institutions were created, such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Additionally, counterterrorism policy is influenced by the strategic culture in the U.S., with the goal of externalizing threats and keeping them as far away from the American homeland as possible. Dr. Hellmuth pointed out that even though there have been success stories as a result of this policy, some improvements are necessary to secure the U.S. A new debate about homegrown terrorism has begun and the list of suspicious people is growing and extremely worrisome.

The subsequent discussion touched on the strategic culture of both Germany and the U.S. and the possibility and efficiency of a common strategy in Afghanistan and in counterterrorism in general. The U.S. is unlikely to greatly alter its strategy during the next few years, but small changes can be already seen. Obama is more pragmatic than his predecessor, which may lead to a better inclusion of alliance partners. On the other side, Germany is realizing its leading role and getting more involved in peacekeeping operations around the world. Both countries recognized that the war cannot be won with only military means, and both are working on the creation of a common strategy to win in Afghanistan and to prevent further terrorist attacks on Europe and the United States.