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Misreading Berlin... in the Lead into the Iraq War     Print Email
Simon Serfaty

The unconditional German rejection of any idea of a war in Iraq came as a huge shock in Washington and London (and even in Paris). In fact, it should not have surprised anyone: the trend of post-cold war attitudes in Germany showed that opinion was coalescing around a reluctance to use military force. Limited German help with NATO missions in the Balkans in the 1990s was part of this emerging pattern. By 2003, Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder played his hand in the context of electoral pressures that were shaped by a new self-confidence in Germans about their role in promoting Western security and international stability. The roots of German behavior in this crisis is still too little understood – a situation that clouds the chances of restoring coherence among the key allies in tackling such challenges in future. In chronicling the miscalculations all around – among the Bush administration, the Blair government, Chirac’s administration and Schroeder’s team – prominent political historian Simon Serfaty offers insights into the national mentalities that prevailed in 2003 in the four allied countries. Some of these trends are changing, but the new leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin will need to understand this “new” recent history before they can hope to succeed in reinstating any real unity and sense of purpose to the West.

Renowned as a scholar on France, Serfaty is also a penetrating analyst and chronicler of its European neighbors and of the politics of the United States, where he is a prominent political historian. Following is an excerpt from his chapter on Germany. It is unsparing, not only for German opinion and complexes, but also for the miscalculations and often bungled diplomacy of the United States (and Britain) toward Germany. The postwar pattern had been, he writes, that “in any case, and just in case, with the United States estranged from France and not always in unison with Britain, the United States could always view Germany as its fallback position of choice – as an ally that could be tempted by a special partnership with the United States, the only country that fully embraces rather than disparages signs of a renewed Germany, united and strong.” However, it was Germany, under Schroeder, who triggered the open opposition to the Bush administration’s move toward war in Iraq – and helped bring France into opposition to Washington.

For Schroeder, it was, among other things, “a matter of personal dislike” (for President George W. Bush), especially after U.S. officials offended the now fiercely-held pride among Germans who feel that they have outlived their nation’s guilt about World War II and view reminders of this past as misplaced and insulting. This mood in Germany made the anti-war card popular there during the re-election campaign that Chancellor Schroeder won in an upset victory in summer 2002 as the Iraq issue came to a boil internationally. So this act of “political opportunism” only succeeded at this historical juncture, Serfaty indicates, because of Germany’s changed appreciation of force as a legitimate tool of action in the world. “For Germans of all persuasions, the events of September 11, 2001, were not those of a global war of such unprecedented nature as to demand a radical preemptive strategy of regime change… Bush neither understood nor welcomed Schroeder’s new Germany… now eager to show how to use and respect its power and its institutions within the limits set by its new [postwar] traditions and commitments. Chirac did,” Serfaty writes.

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Excerpts from Architects of Delusion: Europe, America, and the Iraq War

Arguably, Germany’s first unification, in 1871, produced too much German power for its European neighbors to balance. Conversely, Germany’s division in 1945 failed to leave enough German power for its dangerous neighbor in the East to fear – hence the early U.S. calls for rearmament, notwithstanding the apprehensions that were thus raised. In 1989, however, Germany’s second unification seemed to produce too much German weakness for its EU partners to compensate, including economic burdens of reconstructing the eastern territories, which left a unified, safe, and free German state obviously larger and more sovereign but paradoxically less powerful and less predictable than divided and at risk…Torn between the contradictory goals of alliance solidarity, on which Germany still counted for security; European unity, to which the new Germany still aspired for influence; and national values, which the Germans had embraced for (post-World War II) redemption, Schroeder could take his people into the world only as quickly and as far as they would allow: by agreeing to some modest military role for the Bundeswehr, a role that Kohl had resisted even during the first Gulf War but which the wars in the former Yugoslavia had seemed to demand; by endorsing the idea of European defense, but without additional defense spending, which would predictably be required but which he insisted on reducing; and by keeping the Germans as close to America as they might tolerate, which would probably always keep him short of U.S. expectations and even U.S. needs.

This does not mean that nothing changed when Schroeder became chancellor in September 1998. But it does mean that what changed is not the substance of German policies relative to Kohl’s years, or the perception of Germany’s potential for leadership within and outside Europe, but the internal conditions under which Germany might assume its role amidst internal political divisions and petty personal rivalries that had been absent during the Cold War years. “Who really runs Germany?” is a novel question for and in Europe – a question that has not come up since the Weimar Republic, and one that seems to place politics above policies. As a result, Germany’s new normalcy extends beyond its view of, and place in, the world; it also has to do with its internal transformation, away from its remarkable postwar political predictability into an increasingly multiparty system that began to emerge when Helmut Schmidt replaced Willy Brandt in 1976, and which was confirmed by the coalition government forced upon Angela Merkel…Indeed, since 1976, the combined percentage of votes received by Germany’s two main parties has declined steadily, from 87.4 percent in 1980 (nearly four percentage points below the peak it had reached four years earlier) to a low of 69.5 percent in 2005, while the turnout has declined steadily from a high of 88.6 percent in 1980 to a weak 77.7 percent in 2005.

After September 1998, Schroeder’s interest in better relations with Britain and the United States renewed France’s concern over the directions and goals of Germany’s policies. After a half-century, the French verdict on Germany’s history did make room for parole, but its freedom of movement was still expected to remain constrained by France and its European partners. As a result, Schroeder’s disquieting presumption of full equality, at least, and his belief in Germany’s right to full consultation and even veto on all issues involving Europe were disconcerting. Ironically, Schroeder’s populist anti-American campaign in the summer 2002 also caused concern in Paris because it confirmed a new German willingness to go it alone. At the very least, the campaign seemed to confirm Chirac’s worst fears of Schroeder’s disruptive heavy-handedness; worse yet, it clashed with Chirac’s attempt at the time to build a cohesive EU policy supportive of Bush’s policies and goals – as evidenced by the French contributions to ensuring unanimous approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 in November 2002.

Different expectations about Germany’s willingness to embrace the U.S. strategy in Iraq, whether as an alliance obligation or even as a moral obligation ignored the widely shared public constraints that had come to define Germany’s nonpartisan consciousness on foreign policy and security issues. Had it been otherwise, Schroeder’s use of the confrontational card at the expense of the United States would not have been as effective as it proved to be when the outgoing German chancellor unexpectedly won a second term in office in September 2002, in part (or mainly) on the basis of his objections to Bush and his post-September 11 policies. Indeed, three years later, in September 2005, Schroeder nearly won again an election he was sure to lose, thus confirming that his positions on the facts and efficacy of U.S. leadership in the world were deeply anchored into Germany’s post-Cold War, post-September 11 consensus. Thus, in June 2006, only 37 percent of the German public held a favorable opinion of the United States, a precipitous decline from where that public had stood in 2000 (78 percent) or even 2002 (68 percent) – with the hard core of such hostility found especially among younger Germans. That the Germans continued nonetheless to hold a favorable opinion of Americans as a people (66 percent, compared to 70 percent in 2000) suggests that such hostility might be attributable directly to President Bush, toward whom one-fourth of the public showed “a lot” or “some” confidence. But with more Germans (40 percent) finding the United States more dangerous to world peace than North Korea (23 percent) and nearly as dangerous as Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (51 percent), a tendency to reduce such public ambivalence to Bush alone would be dangerously complacent, as it would neglect an anger over failure that is no less significant than the anger over the decisions that led to those failures. Indeed, by early 2006, 80 percent of all Germans believed that the likelihood of terrorist attacks worldwide had increased since the start of the war in Iraq (as opposed to 76 percent in Britain and “only” 67 percent in France, with a still discreet 55 percent in the United States sharing the same conclusion).

Germany’s strains with the United States had been growing for many years prior to Bush and Iraq, and moving away from the former or thinking beyond the latter would hardly be enough to alleviate these tensions. After unification – which also means since the Cold War – the security agenda in and near Europe remained beyond Germany’s (or Europe’s) ability to address to the satisfaction of America’s expectations and absent prior and successful U.S. action: to prevent and end war in the Balkans, to engage and stabilize Russia, to widen and deepen the European Union to the east, and to endorse and enforce policies toward rogue regimes in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Admittedly, these tasks were not easy, and the U.S. role was not always benign, beginning with Bosnia, or consistent, as in the Persian Gulf. Still, early claims that with the Cold War over this would now be the “hour of Europe,” let alone Germany’s moment, hardly materialized – an indictment of Germany’s capabilities or will that need not be a condemnation of Germany’s goals or intent as well.

After Schroeder’s election, however, the rift with the United States deepened further as the bilateral agenda became more contentious, not only on such new security issues as global warming and the environment but also on traditional issues such as the sale of submarines to Taiwan, missile defense and the future of nuclear weapons, relations with Russia, cooperation with France for the development of a European security identity, defense spending, Turkey, and others. Move aside, France – here comes Germany? There could be no better measure of Germany’s disparagement than to describe its estrangement from the United States in terms traditionally reserved for France. A German challenge to U.S. leadership and for Europe’s leadership would be cause for concern: unlike the French, who remain quite difficult even when they are not serious, the Germans can be quite serious when they choose to become difficult. With the new German way seemingly taking the new Germany away from the United States, the events of September 11, 2001, exacerbated an unprecedented bilateral gap that Schroeder did not open even though he kept on widening it – and which his successor, Angela Merkel, has been able to contain but is unlikely to close.

At the heart of this bilateral drift is the Germans’ understanding of September 11 in the context of their rejection of force as a legitimate tool of action in the world. For Germans of all persuasions, September 11 was a crime whose perpetrators had to be punished, but it was not a war whose participants had to be eliminated through a preemptive strategy of regime change. As a result, Germans viewed the use of force in Iraq as a violation of the normative code adopted by their country after two suicidal wars had demonstrated the failure of such methods and had imposed an end to the global lawlessness that had characterized Europe and the rest of the world over time. Respect for such a code could not be made a matter of circumstances, as had been the case during the Cold War when Germany was exposed to a serious Soviet threat, and as was now said to be the case for post-September 11 America, now vulnerable to further terrorist attacks.

“Threat magnification” is, of course, something the Germans know well, but it is no longer something of which they can readily be convinced and for which they can be easily recruited. In 2005, only one German in three feared an act of terror for the coming decade, as opposed to more than one out of two in France and two out of three in the United States. Moreover, the debate over Iraq unfolded at a time when the Germans were finally reopening the darkest chapters of their difficult past and when; therefore, an attempt to manipulate their collective memory was likely to meet with strong objections and widespread indignation. That was the case when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld built a curious analogy between their country and Iraq. “Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today,” claimed Rumsfeld, “would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis.” Although at about that time a majority of Germans (55 percent) still opposed a withdrawal of the coalition forces until Iraq had been stabilized, the analogy was no more convincing to the Germans than Rumsfeld’s further argument that for the United States to leave Iraq “would be as great a disgrace as if we had asked the liberated nations of Eastern Europe to return to Soviet domination because it was too hard or too tough.” To Germans in particular, the use of such comparisons to postwar Germany in order to make the case for U.S. policies in Iraq ignored all that Germany’s people and governments did to overcome their country’s past. Comparing Hitler and Saddam Hussein, the air war with Britain and the war against the Iraqi insurgents, and pre- or postwar Germany and Iraq, was a deconstruction of Germany’s (and Europe’s) history – an invitation to redefine Germany and its people that was all the more offensive, as few Germans felt any affinity with the conditions and the people in Iraq to which Rumsfeld appeared to refer.

The Lesson from Iraq – not only for Germany but also in the related context of the choices made by France and Britain – is that past Germany’s prime, this cannot be Europe’s time pending some rethinking of how much more Germany will do in Europe, and how, so that Europe can do more with the United States, and where. In the meantime, two additional conclusions can be drawn from this episode in U.S.-German relations and the related interplay of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom within the European Union.

First, the rhetoric on U.S.-German cooperation is distorted by a U.S. tendency to set too high its expectations about Germany’s contributions to the Atlantic Alliance, contrasted with Germany’s tendency to keep its contributions to Europe too low.

“It’s the economy, stupid.” The theme that defined Clinton’s leadership for the first presidential election held in the United States after the Cold War has lost much of its significance in the global security environment unveiled since September 11, 2001. Now, emphasis is placed most visibly on culture, history, geography, as well as leadership. Americans and Germans, together with other Europeans, have never been closer culturally, historically, geographically, or otherwise, yet their own leaders have rarely shown less ability to understand and acknowledge what they have become, which is comparable if not similar, and why (out of necessity if not out of choice). This is especially significant in a post-Cold War, post-September 11 security environment in which the absence of a single, readily identifiable threat is conducive to debates over policies that involve judgments rooted in specific local or regional conditions, rather than goals or even values that can be shared even when they are not common.

Early in the twenty-first century, the Germans (and other Europeans) complain of an America that “never had its Verdun.” There is some truth to then-foreign minister Joschka Fischer’s observation, which suggested an exaggeration in the United States of the nature and significance of the events of September 11. Oddly, the United States is to Germans what Germany used to be to Americans early in the twentieth century, which is not to the better, as it suggests a tendency for the United States to rely on the brutal use of military force to achieve full security, preemptively if needed, and a quasi-messianic urge to expand its Kultur, coercively as needed. Yet, however much the misuse of American power in Iraq may have changed the world, as well as the world’s perception of the United States, it is the assaults of September 11 that initially changed America’s use of its power after those assaults had seemed to open a new chapter in the country’s never-ending quest for 100 percent security. Standing in the way, and even denying an understanding, of what each side has become is therefore a flawed perception of the other’s singularity. The more Germans themselves accept their country as a “normal state” – with all due regard for its history but also with a proactive recognition of its potential – the better Germany will be able to play a role commensurate with its power and its interests. The more Germany (and its European partners) accept the United States as a normal state – with all due regard for its failings but also with a respectful acknowledgment of its preponderant power and its legitimate security interests and concerns – the better the United States will be able to assume its leadership role to its allies’ satisfaction and to its own.

To be enforced, however, Germany’s new antimilitaristic tradition no longer needs a constitution, as was instituted in 1949 to protect the Germans from themselves, or an occupation army, as was the case during the Cold War to protect Europe from Germany and Germany in Europe. For that tradition no longer demands legal or military coercion to be embraced as a matter of belief in, and even as a source of pride, being a “global peace power.” After Kohl took the Germans as far as he could in Europe and within Germany, Schroeder took the Germans as far as he could in the world – much farther, arguably, than was deemed possible, from the first parliamentary authorization of postwar deployment of German troops outside national borders in 1995 to having approximately nine thousand German troops actively involved in worldwide NATO- (Afghanistan and Kosovo), EU- (Bosnia and Congo), and UN- (Lebanon) led missions ten years later. Admittedly, highly restrictive rules of engagement and a deep public skepticism about the relevance and usability of military power are legitimate causes for exasperation in the United States and among some of Germany’s allies. Yet realistically in terms of capabilities, and intangibly in terms of political will and public support, Germany will not be able to offer much more for the foreseeable future, and Schroeder therefore deserved more recognition for what he did and for which he finally paid the ultimate political price…In short, the U.S. perception that Germany consistently punches below its weight is no more meaningful than Germany’s perception that the United now punches below its heart. Neither country is willing or even able to afford being what it used to be. But while no country in the West wants Germany to return to its old ways either, many would want the United States to do just that and return to the “noble traditions” and “the standards it expects of itself “as a leading world power. Unless there is fuller acceptance of what Germany and America have become, the frustrations of overblown expectations are likely to lead to new rounds of disparagement, from Germany about a senior ally that does too much too poorly, and from the United States about an ally of choice that does too little too late.

Simon Serfaty. Architects of Delusion: Europe, America, and the Iraq War (UPP 2007) pp 98-107. Reprinted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. No portion of this material may be reproduced in form without the permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Simon Serfaty is a senior professor of U.S. foreign policy with the Graduate Programs in International Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at CSIS.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.