Doing things by halves or giving it your all?

17.02.2015 - Interview

Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth and the future Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels on the contribution of servicemen and women to peace policy. Published in the newspaper Die Welt on 17 February 2015.

Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth and the future Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels on the contribution of servicemen and women to peace policy. Published in the newspaper Die Welt on 17 February 2015.


When Federal President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Minister of Defence von der Leyen outlined their respective security policy views at the Munich Security Conference in February 2014 the German public reacted with surprise. According to the critical tone of the media response at the time, the speakers were advocating expanding Germany’s military engagement abroad.

The three speeches were interpreted as a renunciation of the culture of military restraint. But that is not what it was about. The speeches were much more aimed at providing impetus for a broad‑based public debate on Germany’s responsibility for peace and security in the world. It was by no means about a paradigm shift but about further developing our foreign policy.

Yet the debates had also led many people to nurse the fear that stronger foreign policy engagement would inevitably lead to a militarisation of Germany’s foreign policy.

However, the figures tell a different story: in fact only approximately 2500 of the Bundeswehr’s 180,000 servicemen and women are currently posted abroad – the lowest level in nearly 20 years.

At its peak the number stood at nearly 11,000. The distorted image of swaggering military interventionism which critics like to paint bears no resemblance to reality. Anyone who measures the quality of Germany’s foreign policy exclusively by the willingness to take military action is ignoring the fact that Germany works with the entire range of its foreign policy tools – from diplomatic mediation to civilian conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance and development cooperation.

This lopsided public debate can in part be traced back to the fact that the requisite German Bundestag decisions on military engagement attract a great deal of media attention whilst other civilian instruments are somewhat overshadowed by these military missions.

Regardless of whether four (EUFOR RCA, the Central African Republic) or 850 (Afghanistan) servicemen and women are to be deployed abroad – with good reason, the German Bundestag always has a say. Alongside these soldiers, however, hundreds of police officers and civilian experts are actively serving Germany in many places around the world.

Forward‑looking foreign policy with its civilian instruments is most successful when it does not dominate the headlines. When crises and conflicts do not even flare up or escalate then the preventative measures have had the desired effect.

Civilian crisis prevention means taking a precautionary approach and investing in peace and stability and, for instance by promoting the rule of law and good governance, training police and security forces or bolstering civil society.

2014 was a difficult year for crisis prevention. We were forced to be reactive in many trouble spots. Yet even in acute conflicts we remain committed to prioritising civilian engagement.

Indeed in the Ukraine crisis the German Government made it clear from the outset that there can be no military solution. Seldom has the Federal Government wrangled so hard to find a diplomatic solution to a conflict.

The primacy of civilian engagement does not, however, stand in contrast to useful military engagement. For instance, in 2001, the NATO mission to Macedonia was able to avert violent hostilities before they even broke out. The politicians involved showed courage, and troops ensured success.

And the KFOR stabilisation mission in Kosovo was already a success the day it’s heavily armed international troops marched through the country, making it clear to all that the killing had to stop.

In many cases, multinational and UN‑mandated military engagement specifically means not fighting, but rather the use of a strong presence or deterrence through strength to avoid having to resort to the use of force.

This form of conflict prevention must, therefore, be visible in order to have an effect, but we Germans tend to have a knee-jerk reaction of trepidation to this.

If we discuss mandates to engage abroad, we are nearly always excessively modest in the number of troops to be deployed – taking into account sceptical public opinion. Yet the equation – the fewer troops we deploy, the more peaceful our foreign policy is – does not add up.

Of course, some forms of crisis prevention, for example monitoring or training missions, can get by with fewer personnel. There are currently four German soldiers posted in Western Sahara, eight in Somalia, ten in Darfur and 16 in South Sudan. These smaller engagements are important, too, but we cannot continue under the illusion that we can limit ourselves to these mini‑missions in the long run.

Germany must, if need be, also take on bigger challenges. If, along with our partners in the EU, UN or NATO, we want to make a substantial contribution to safeguarding peace and security in the world then we need to be able to draw on the full spectrum of our foreign policy tools.

In the future we cannot always rule out missions with higher numbers of troops. Our society’s consensus on the primacy of civilian engagement is particularly strong.

This can make it all the more tempting to completely avoid the uncomfortable discussion about the contribution that troops could make to a responsible foreign policy. This temptation should be resisted in everyday politics – doing so would significantly add to the current debate.

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