Germany’s New Foreign Policy in the Making: Initial Reactions to the Iraq Crisis in Review

Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp receive help from International Rescue Committee
Teaser Image Caption
Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp receive help from International Rescue Committee

The Middle East is burning and, as usual, all eyes rest on Washington. Given the troublesome track record of the US invasion in Iraq, the US bears a considerable share of responsibility for the current crisis. But neither Schadenfreude nor a “we told you so”- approach are a viable foreign policy strategy, especially in the wake of the breathtaking costs in human lives we are bearing witness to. Whether we like it or not: the current outburst of violence in the Middle East and the sweeping territorial gains of the Islamic State (IS) are now Europe’s problem as well. What, then, is Germany willing and capable to contribute to the crisis management in Iraq? Judging by the initial reactions of Germany’s political frontrunners, the answer not only depends on whom you ask but also on which day of the week it is. That said, the public debate currently unfolding in Germany marks a tentative but significant paradigm shift.

Over the past months, much has been written about the orchestrated initiative by Germany’s leading political figures heralding a paradigm shift in the country’s foreign policy. Many commentators have since rightly pointed out that the debate around the aspired foreign policy pivot has too often been wrongly reduced to the question of military engagement. Indeed, the initiators of the campaign- Foreign Minister Steinmeier, Defense Minister von der Leyen and President Gauck- never argued that Germany should suddenly give up its hesitant approach towards military interventions. Instead, they laid out a much more holistic approach to increase the share of responsibility Germany bears in the management of international crises and conflicts. In some ways, this review process resembles the debate in war-weary Washington about a new balance to be struck between Diplomacy, Development and Defense. Needless to say, such processes takes time, especially given Germany’s deep-rooted popular skepticism towards a more proactive and potentially more adversarial foreign policy. Still, the current debate on Germany’s response to the Iraq crisis begs the question whether Steinmeier and von der Leyen will live up to their own challenge and stir the country’s foreign policy away from its traditional pitfalls.

The diffuse reactions by German politicians across the political spectrum to the crisis in Iraq serve as a case in point for a tentative process of political reorientation currently under way. Of course, it is appropriate for a controversial debate to take place when a government considers its response to a complex security crisis like the one currently under way in Iraq. In fact, with regard to Germany’s response to the war in Syria, a more vocal and dynamic public debate has long been overdue. But the cacophony of statements and subsequent changes of heart voiced by German politicians in the past week with regard to the Iraq crisis shows how much the national foreign policy community still struggles to define a clear and decisive response to violent conflicts.

Initial Reflex: No German Weapon Exports to Conflict Zones

In the government’s initial response to the plight of the Iraqi Yazidis having fled to the top of Mt. Sinjar, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) pledged quick humanitarian assistance while otherwise referring to a guideline the former coalition government made up of the SPD and the Greens (Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen) had enacted 14 years ago. The export-restricting guideline states that “no approval shall be given for the export of weapons and other lethal military equipment to countries that are involved in armed conflict, where an outbreak of armed conflict is imminent, or where existing tensions and conflicts caused by such exports would perpetuate or exacerbate.” On Monday, August 11th, Government Spokesman Steffen Seibert confirmed that “principally, no weapon transfers [are granted] to crises- and conflict regions. This is a principle to which this government obviously continues to feel committed.

This position was backed by several politicians from the governing parties, such as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Norbert Röttgen (CDU), who said in an interview with Welt am Sonntag that delivering weapons to the Peshmerga would “in no way contribute to the solution of the crisis.” Similarly, SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi stated on Monday that the party would continue to rely on “dialogue and diplomacy”. Delivering weapons, she said, was “not an option.” By putting weapon exports and a political solution in contradiction to each other, rather than framing them as potentially constituting two sides of the same coin, Röttgen and Fahimi mirrored the mainstream debate on the war in Syria- and sided with the majority of German public opinion.

Other members of the governing parties, however, openly disagreed. CDU Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Karl-Georg Wellman, e.g., said on German public radio „We must support the Kurds who are desperately fighting against a newly established terror state, and deliver the things they need in order to prevail.“ Harshly criticizing the response of the German government as “embarrassing”, he suggested that while the US are conducting air strikes, and in Europe only the British and French offer support, ”we say we will deliver a few tents, donate a million, and accept a few refugees that have managed to escape the killing squads.”

Reverse Party Politics

Public descent from within one party is, of course, neither unusual nor reprehensible. To the surprise of many, however, even Gregor Gysi, Chairman of the parliamentary group of The Left (Die Linke), demanded a more decisive response from the German government: „I am normally strictly against German weapon exports. But since Germany is an important weapon exporter, in this exceptional case exporting weapons could be legitimate if other countries are unable to do so.” Not at all surprising, in contrast, was his simultaneous condemnation of US air strikes on IS fighters.

It did not take long for Gysi to be attacked from his party colleagues, most prominently by Sahra Wagenknecht, First Vice Chair of the parliamentary group The Left, who stated on twitter that weapon transfers to the Peshmerga would be “irresponsible”. Vice Party Chairman and Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Jan van Aken went even further by stating that the whole existence of the party was threatened by Gysi’s approach. Without an absolute stance against any weapon exports, he said, “the Left will cease to exist.

Also the Greens, the second opposition party in the German parliament, struggled to find a common position while surprising many with the bold remarks voiced by some of their foreign policy experts. Party Chairman Cem Özdemir stuck out his neck by welcoming US air strikes and weapon transfers to the Peshmerga in a radio interview: The Kurds do not fight the Islamists „with Yoga mats under their arms-- they fight them with weapons.” Whoever criticizes the US for supplying the Kurdish militias with ammunition, he demanded, has to come up with an alternative proposal for how to stop IS’ territorial gains and their persecution of minorities.

Other members of the Green fraction, such as Jürgen Trittin, in contrast, outright rejected weapon exports to the region. According to their line of argumentation, the risk of these weapons falling into “the wrong hands” are simply too high. Also Green Party Spokesman for Foreign Affairs Omid Nouripour raised doubts with regard to German weapon transfers to the region in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE: “in my view the answer cannot be ‘we will send weapons and hope that the problem will get solved by itself’.” Instead, he proposed, “the government should evaluate in coordination with the international community how it can best assist (…).” Pressed to specify his proposal, he suggested that the German Air Force could support its US equivalent in targeting IS from the air. Reversing traditional party politics, Nouripour seemed to go further than his colleagues from the center-right by suggesting a potential role for the German Air Force in battling IS in northern Iraq.  

Weapon Exports to the KRG? No! Yes! Maybe.

On Tuesday, Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen then announced that Germany will support Iraq's army in its efforts to fight the IS terror group by delivering nonlethal military aid, such as armored vehicles, helmets, night-vision equipment and booby-trap detectors. Simultaneously, von der Leyen continued to reject weapon transfer to Iraq. Seemingly struggling to justify her government’s line of argumentation, she stated that the guideline against German weapon exports to conflict zones exists “for a good reason”. At the same time, she explicitly supported US military engagement in Iraq: “The US are assuming responsibility. They should be credited for this.”

As the week progressed, a growing number of parliamentarians spoke out in favor of German weapon exports to the Peshmerga under the condition that Germany’s allies as well as the KRG requested such support. Eventually, Foreign Minister Steinmeier then said on Wednesday that Germany was in principle prepared to bend its restrictive policies on weapon exports and arm Kurdish fighters confronting IS in northern Iraq. The comments to German public broadcaster ZDF were the most far-reaching yet by a senior government official.

While the government slowly started to shift its stance towards a more decisive response, some cabinet members continued to openly disagree. Minister for Economic Development Gerd Müller (CSU, the Bavarian wing of the ruling CDU), e.g., said in an interview on Thursday that he stood by his opposition to German weapon exports to Iraq: „I am for delivery of medicine, military hospitals, ambulances and many other things, but not weapons.“

A long Road ahead

At the end of a week defined by political zick-zack across the party spectrum, Defense Minister von der Leyen added to the general confusion when telling the Bild Zeitung that “if a genocide can only be prevented with German weapons, then we must help.” This scenario, of course, is very unlikely to occur and fails to reflect the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect, which Ms von der Leyen has repeatedly embraced. Arguing that Germany should only step in if no other country is capable to do so fails to address its allies’ long-standing concerns regarding Germany’s approach to burden-sharing in responding to international conflicts.

Despite the fact that the initial German response to the Iraq crisis was largely marked by the traditional “without us”- attitude, the public discussion echoed a tentative paradigm shift in Germany’s foreign policy discourse. Still, many debates remain to be stirred until Germany will cast off its unease to take on a leadership role- together with its European and transatlantic partners- in response to international crises. To be clear, stepping up Germany’s international responsibilities does not mean to replace diplomacy or crisis prevention by sending German troops around the globe. And the decision on whether to use military means as a measure of last resort, and as part of a wider framework, can only be made on a case-to-case basis. These discussions will be controversial and sometimes messy but undoubtedly necessary in order not to loose the German public. After all, calling for a paradigm shift in Germany’s foreign policy approach is much easier than actually delivering concrete results when tested against reality. Until we get there, the Yazidis of the world better do not rely on us coming to their rescue.