European Affairs

Dieter Dettke’s “Germany Says No: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy”     Print Email
Reviewed by Will Fleeson

Germany’s refusal in 2002 to participate in the Iraq war was a traumatic shock for U.S.-German relations at the time – and perhaps the start of a more permanent new paradigm of “power politics” in Berlin. Historically, it was the deepest-ever division between the White House and any post-cold-war German chancellor – pitting Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder against the conservative George W. Bush. These two men were never reconciled, but once Schroeder was succeeded in office by Angela Merkel, links between Berlin and Washington were repaired, at least formally. But the shock waves from that clash ran far deeper than any of the cold war-era policy disputes between Bonn and Washington.

The German “no” to the U.S. about Iraq – a public opposition that did not subside even during the conflict – stunned American public opinion. Breaking a pattern when the two capitals could “agree to disagree,” Germany’s leadership and public opinion were fueling opposition to the U.S. war in some European countries. For example, Dettke contends, the German stand changed the position of Paris earlier and more decisively, much sooner than most historians have recognized. Long before French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin made his high-profile speech at the UN Security Council, an anti-Iraq war coalition had been sealed in an August 2002 pact between Schroeder and then-French president Jacques Chirac. The little-noticed “Declaration of Schwerin” (named for a small German town where they had a working dinner) committed France and Germany to the proposition that they “had to oppose the war for strategic reasons and that they had to do it in public and as forcefully as possible.” This pact marked the real moment when the Franco-German front was set on course against the U.S. and Britain over war in Iraq.

The episode is still read in Washington and some EU capitals as evidence that reunited Germany remains a country that is still evolving as regards its sense of how and when military force can be used legitimately. As a full-fledged democracy, Berlin retains a strong current of pacifist tendencies: rooted in postwar German history, these tendencies may be starting to fit into a larger pattern of German policies designed to reassure Moscow. Now that Germans no longer need to fear a Soviet invasion, they have less need for NATO solidarity to protect them – and more need to conciliate Moscow for economic reasons, including energy dependence.

Schroeder himself was never forgiven in Washington. Instead, U.S. policymakers focused on Germany and the long term – a policy posture encapsulated by the State Department quip: “Punish France, Ignore Germany, Forgive Russia.” This view seemed vindicated when Schroeder was succeeded by Merkel. But it has gradually evolved, toward a cooler appraisal in Washington: as Russia has proved more challenging to U.S. diplomacy, Merkel has often seemed too inclined, in the U.S. view, to balance Germany’s ties between Russia and the U.S.

In that sense, the episode was a watershed and Dieter Dettke has written an insightful, detailed account, showing how Washington misread the warning signs of the German electorate’s anti-war mood and how Schroeder failed in his attempt – if that was really his purpose – to reposition Germany at the head of a European movement of “loyal opposition” to the U.S. Dettke’s account will not soon be bettered: His book has the richness of detail required to help non-Germans grasp the texture of this episode. Robert E. Hunter of the RAND Corporation and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO credits Dettke with having “written what should be the definitive account of German-American relations during the imbroglio over the Iraq war. Putting this particular crisis in historical perspective, he shows how it relates to the adjustment of the overall relationship between these two key powers in the NATO alliance, and provides a clear – and compelling – picture of Germany’s evolution as a ‘normal’ power, taking its full place in the Alliance and international politics.”

What is less clear is how closely German-American working relations will ever resume and how Germans will work out their own views on the question of military force. Long comfortable with the justification of joining NATO or the UN on military ventures, Berlin has now settled, for the moment, on a new theoretical justification: the responsibility to protect civilians when they are threatened with war-crime violence. Undoubtedly, events will play a key role in shaping the outcome to both questions.

At the time, Schroeder enraged the Washington of President Bush. The U.S. leader famously refused to shake hands with Schroeder at a NATO summit in Prague in late 2002. On the other hand, his stance on Iraq helped Schroeder forge close bonds with France’s President Jacques Chirac and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Politically, Schroeder drew these advantages from a situation in which German opinion was feeling regret about the outcome of its military forays into the Balkans in the 1990s and then into Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks and had made an anti-war stance a political imperative for Berlin. Instead of emboldening the Germany electorate as a stalwart military contributor to international stability, these first post-reunification ventures revived German anti-militaristic reflexes. Rather than try to change these attitudes, Schroeder exploited them and sought to channel them into a new position for Germany. But alongside these successes, Schroeder failed to recruit Britain under Prime Minister Tony Blair into a European triumvirate to stand up to the U.S. Of course, this entire “European” dimension was largely lost on Washington where leaders were plunged into their own crusade. The view took hold there that the German “no” on Iraq had been a cynical election ploy. In this U.S. analysis, Schroeder’s rebuff appealed to German anti-American leftists and also, more broadly, to those Germans who no longer felt threatened by Moscow and therefore could indulge in their own distaste for warfare – especially for expeditionary wars that the German military was not equipped to undertake.

Dettke acknowledges these circumstantial factors, but also sees much deeper, more durable changes at work in Germany – where new political values and priorities are emerging – and in the American mindset, i.e., that Germany has become a weak, wavering military ally. Just a worried power that will act once it is reassured by the U.S. Indeed, the episode did work some electoral magic for Schroeder: facing elections in 2002 as an underdog, he pulled off an upset victory and gained a new mandate as Chancellor, largely on the strength of the anti-war vote. Sensing the opposition among German voters in 2002, even before the issue ignited in other countries, Schroeder took an unequalled hard-line stand: Germany, he declared, would not join a military campaign in Iraq, not even if it was mandated by the UN Security Council.

This was radical stuff for a Germany that had for so long found comfort in the notion that it had abandoned part of its sovereignty to the UN and to NATO. Schroeder’s stance isolated Germany from Washington (but not from Moscow!) and in the longer run also Britain and may even have been seen as an act of political desperation that backfired against the new Chancellor. But in the longer run, Germany and its allies may have to contend with the legacy of a doctrine forged by Schroeder to anchor his policy: a commitment to embrace the “responsibility to protect” civilian populations from oppressive governments. This doctrine remains a tentative new policy of the international community. (It was never invoked as a rationale for the invasion of Iraq despite the public record showing Saddam’s record as tyrant, including his use of poison gas against his own population, notably the Kurds.) But Dettke’s account suggests that a version of this idea could become a key element in some new paradigm for German security policy. Since this doctrine includes a provision for military intervention in extreme cases, it could provide a variant on the old credo of civilian tools only for crisis management. But it would be extremely complicated to pursue in practice.

This new theoretical territory emerges alongside Schroeder’s shaping role in the 2002 crisis as key themes in Dettke’s new book, Germany Says No: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy. He is well placed to narrate the Germany story. A long-time party colleague of Schroeder in the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Dettke went back and forth between Germany and the United States for more than a decade as the representative in the U.S. of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a foreign-policy foundation affiliated with the SDP. (Dettke is still based in Washington, where he is a professor at Georgetown University.)

Much of Dettke’s book focuses on the career and character of Schroeder, providing a political (not very personal) biography a powerful, very controversial and perhaps pivotal German leader who has been little studied outside his own country. Dettke extols him as “one of the most gifted and natural political talents in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.” (Of course, by the time Schroeder became Chancellor, “West Germany” had been subsumed in “Germany.”)

While critics of Schroeder contend that he was all too willing to switch Berlin’s allegiance away from Washington and towards Russia, it is universally acknowledged is that he is both a self-made man and a complex character. Dettke traces the roots of his character to his upbringing in a poor family headed by a single mother. Determined to surmount early obstacles, Schroeder developed a strong personality, with an exceptional capacity for independent decision-making. Starting life as a shopkeeper’s apprentice, he eventually managed to complete studies in law. As a labor leader, he rose to a seat on the “co-determination board” of Volkswagen, a position that introduced him to the world of international business and also boosted his political career in SDP ranks. In this career, he developed his signature assets of political savvy and openness to risk-taking. Always, Dettke insists, Schroeder was “his own man” – starting with domestic issues such as labor policy and then in the torturous process of negotiating NATO’s intervention in Kosovo despite the absence of a UN mandate. All these traits were at work in the crisis over Iraq. Indeed, the description, “his own man,” may suggest a comparison with President Bill Clinton, a similarly skillful tactician who worked with Schroeder over Kosovo.

Dettke’s core thesis is that Schroeder’s concept for German security resembled his self-image. Dettke underscores the leader’s egalitarian insistence that Germany should be able “to interact on the same eye level” as other countries, regardless of imbalances on issues such as the security and military capacity between his country and the United States in particular. Equality among nations is something which Schroeder firmly believes means that a state “does not feel superior but also not inferior to anyone.” He acted on this stance in summer 2002 when he announced that “Germany will not go to war” in Iraq. In saying that then, Schroeder became the first EU leader to break openly with Washington.

In taking this stance, Schroeder was partly motivated by his dislike of Bush. He had headed his country for two years by the time the American reached the White House. The two men detested each other, perhaps partly because they shared strong impulses of ambition, self-confidence and willfulness that fed their mutual antagonism. Ironically, Schroeder shared these traits with Putin, with whom he got along famously. The two had similarly aggressive personalities, and Putin spoke perfect German from his years as a spy when he was head of KGB operations in Dresden in what was then East Germany. In fact, as one of his last acts as chancellor, Schroeder gave the German go-ahead to Nord Stream, a Baltic Sea pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to Germany which by-passed Ukraine and Poland. And immediately after leaving office, he was rewarded with a senior executive position in the Russian company running the pipeline – which just this month received a full go-ahead for construction.

Schroeder, the first chancellor to be too young to remember World War II – also became the first German leader to be invited to attend D-Day commemorations in France. Chirac invited him a year in advance, in 2003, at the height of the bitter antagonism between the Franco-German team and Washington.

His legacy is equally mixed. Dettke contends that he used the Iraq crisis to crystallize a new attitude among Germans on the use of German troops in combat. One result can be seen in the current reluctance of Berlin, even under a conservative Chancellor, to send troops to Afghanistan: outside a few hundred combat forces, the rest of the German contingent are only trainers. Another result is the liability caused by military weakness on any Germany ambitions to attain a leadership position in EU foreign policy. And even bigger questions remain about whether he succeeded in finally distancing Germany from its cold-war subservience to the U.S. Certainly Germany can no longer be taken for granted as “an appendage” of Washington. But Dettke seems to feel there are questions for Germans. Can they be responsible contributors to international security without a real military? “Every democracy and every constitution and the rule of law have to be backed up by a real army,” is a sentiment that Dettke seems to feel his fellow-countrymen need to understand better and accept more fully.

Dettke retraces the current state of German thinking about their own military power in the 1990s as the Balkans broke up in genocidal bloodshed and other war crimes. Out of the turmoil and new feelings of guilt and responsibility for tragedy around Germany, Dettke argues, Germans began to adopt a new view that expatiation of wartime guilt implies a readiness to use force to prevent oppression. This view led Germany to support U.S. military policy in the decade after German reunification. This more forthcoming posture, starting in the Balkans, was initially led by Schroeder’s Social Democrats and his coalition partner, the Greens, including their leader Joschka Fischer, foreign minister in Schroeder’s coalition government. His leadership helped finally get German troops to don U.N. “blue helmets” in tense peace-keeping situations that might require combat. From that small step, Germany seemed to be moving to a new national attitude toward the use of force.

That momentum halted at the brink of a German commitment to war in Iraq when Schroeder opposed any intervention with a firm veto as far as German forces were concerned, even if the operation gained a Security Council mandate. (Presumably, if Berlin had a permanent seat on the Security Council, it would have vetoed any mandate for war.) That decision, which was an electoral imperative for Schroeder, also left Germany needing to flesh out its national security doctrine. In place of the old authority of the UN and NATO, the main German rationale for military intervention (as distinct from NATO self-defense) now seems to have become the idea of an international “responsibility to protect” people living in countries unwilling or unable to protect themselves – starting in the Balkans and perhaps one day moving beyond Europe to operations in places as far afield as Afghanistan or Sudan. This doctrine could legitimize international military interventions, but it has never been acted upon in practice, so it remains a vague guide to action. Equally uncertain is the question of how this “responsibility” (which implies the use of military force in extremis) can be reconciled in practice with another strong structural element in German thinking, “the paradigm of civilian power.”

The aftermath of the Iraq war saw both Paris and Berlin turn sharply to the right and toward the U.S. under Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. But Dettke argues that the Schroeder era was a phase in an on-going process of change in Germany. Schroeder balked at Iraq, but he was also the first post-war chancellor to commit German troops to combat both in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Like Fischer, his foreign minister in the SPD-Green coalition, who converted from pacifism to the belief that Germany should intervene in crises as a way of compensating for its Nazi history, he believed and demonstrated that the civilian power paradigm “was no longer an iron law of German defense policy.” Likewise, Merkel, who was then leading the Christian Democrat opposition, shifted toward an acceptance of the use of military forces in some circumstances: she told a high-level international security conference in early 2003 in Munich that “Europe must be prepared to take part in military operations as a last resort.” Such assertions of German willingness to go beyond “defense” of NATO territory showed a readiness to participate in global intervention.
This reasoning leads Dettke to a now-familiar conclusion – essentially that Berlin is focused on developing its special relationship with Moscow, especially for stability on Germany’s eastern flank. More broadly, Dettke argues (along lines that are familiar in many discussions of current U.S. foreign policy), Germany (like the U.S.) needs to adapt to the new “World without the West” that consists of many countries becoming densely interconnected by globalization. Germany’s future depends on economic and political openness to non-Western states, Dettke concludes, especially through what he calls its “special bilateral relationships” with Russia, obviously, but also with China and India. This could open new avenues for teamwork with the U.S. around the globe. But there are some new transatlantic risks. For example, Germany’s stress on economic ties could mean that Berlin finds its hands tied when faced with security demands in crises – perhaps in Iran. What would happen if Washington demands forceful action from Berlin?

Will Fleeson is a communications intern at the European Institute.