By Uwe Siemon-Netto
This column calls for an elucidation: I am German, and I am ashamed by the cowardly foreign policy of the government I had voted for. My country’s abstention in the United Nations Security Council’s vote to enforce a no-flight zone over Libya and her refusal to participate in NATO’s military operations are disgraceful. My only consolation is that I am not alone in this assessment. The adjectives “cowardly,” “shameful,” “disgraceful,” and “disgusting” abound in commentaries and readers’ blogs of conservative and liberal German publications.
The driving force behind this decision was foreign minister and vice chancellor Guido Westerwelle, leader of the small right of center “Free Democrat Party,” the junior partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the coalition government governing in Berlin. According to the liberal weekly, Die Zeit, it was clear that Germany’s breach of solidarity with its NATO partners was primarily driven by domestic considerations. Bitter memories of World War II and its aftermath have turned many Germans into an arguably irrational species of pacifists. While opinion polls show that most Germans support the establishment of a no-flight zone over Libya, an equally large majority opposes and participation of their armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in military operations against Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s tyranny or, for that matter, anywhere else. The participation of 5,350 German soldiers and policemen in the conflict in Afghanistan is hugely unpopular in their homeland.
When the German government abstained in the Security Council vote last week, it faced three crucial state elections at home. One of those ballots took place on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt. I derive some schadenfreude from its result. Westerwelle’s Free Democrats received only 3.8 percent of the vote and will therefore have no seats in the state assembly in Magdeburg. The victorious Christian Democrats will have to continue their coalition with the Social Democrats, the main opposition party on the federal level. So at least in this state Westerwelle’s gutless policy has not paid off.
But apart from this, a larger ethical issue should be pondered: Is it morally right to allot regional elections a priority over the duty to protect “a freedom-loving people against a crazed dictator,” as Margot Kässmann, the former Lutheran bishop of Hanover and leader of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), phrased it in a stunning reversal of her previous pacifist stance?
It is bad enough that Germany broke ranks with is closest allies, such as France, the United States and the United Kingdom and aligned herself with Russia and China instead, two nations with flawed systems of government; her friends will not forget this short-sighted act of political infidelity soon. Losing a regional election might be a temporary setback; giving up moral spine when faced with a murderous despot is reprehensible.
Germans should know from history the perils of their inclination to pursue a “Sonderweg,” or special path, in international affairs. With open borders to ten neighboring nations, they cannot afford to isolate themselves once again. The Danes, the Poles, the Czechs, the French and the Dutch participate in the military operations shielding the Libyan people, alongside the British, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians, the Italians, some Arab nations, and others.
It is sad to observe this display of a mindset marking the self-centered German “Spiessbürger,” or petit bourgeois, with his tendency to retreat into his miniscule universe when, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “hinten fern in der Türkei die Völker aufeinanderschlagen,” when far, far away in Turkey (or in this case Libya) peoples clobber each other.
In an international poll last month, Germany was rated as the world’s most respected nation. One might wonder just how much of this esteem remains after her relapse into her past flaws last week at the United Nations.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.