It began with a simple question. The American government asked the German government whether it would participate in another Anglo-Franco-American strike against the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, if he again used poison gas against men, women and children. Germany: in or out?
In Germany, nothing about this inquiry is simple. The background: For many years Germany’s allies have been complaining that Germany is a free rider. It enjoys the security promised by its alliances, while shirking most of the dirty work (the shooting, the killing, the dying). Germans reply that their Nazi past obliges them to show maximum military restraint. The allies retort that Germans are cynically outsourcing hard power and ought to stop being sanctimonious.
In recognition of this debate, then-president Joachim Gauck in 2014 called on Germany to shoulder more responsibility in world affairs. Others in the German elite echoed him (especially those who have spent time abroad). But the political extremes on left and right, and the German public, have so far turned a deaf ear.
There are two major traditions in international relations: Realism, which dates back to Thucydides; and Idealism, associated with the Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius. Realists stipulate that the world (unlike a country) brooks no institution with a monopoly on legitimate violence, and thus cannot have enforceable “law”. Order is instead established by states acting in their own interest and using power. Idealists counter that the people running states can nonetheless agree on norms (“international law”) to temper naked power with reason and ethics.
A pure German Realist would say No to bombing Assad: There is no immediate German interest involved in punishing him for using poison gas. This logic might prevail on the far right. A pure Idealist would also say No: For a strike to be “legal”, the United Nations would first have to pass a resolution. Since Russia, which is fighting with Assad, sits on the UN Security Council, that is out of the question. This logic is preferred by the left, which commissioned an opinion from the Bundestag’s research department to exactly that effect.
America, Britain and France, with their more mature traditions in strategy, have instead adopted the pragmatic stance of real-world diplomacy, which is invariably messy. They nod to morality (Idealism) by intuiting that some things, such as chemical weapons, are so barbarous that their use must incur consequences. They nod to power (Realism) by ignoring the UN Security Council, while also avoiding a direct hit against the Russians.
The dilemma now rests with the German government, but above all with the Bundestag, which must authorize the strike. The decision amounts to a litmus test for what sort of ally Germany intends to be. Escaping into highfalutin legalism will fool nobody. If Germany’s allies act against those who commit pure evil, where is Germany?
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