Another German zigzag? Foreign and Security Policy: the example of Somalia

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After the public relation disaster of Germany’s role in the Libya conflict, another multilateral issue glooms and shows a German conception of foreign policy that highly relies on “muddling through”. This time the Social Democratic Party (SPD) failed to fulfill its responsibility and domestic factors seemed to play a larger role than solidarity with the European partners and international obligations.[i] This debate on counter piracy shows greater problems in German foreign and security policy thinking which has repercussions on any European attempt to foster cooperation in these fields.

The German parliament finally voted on the extension of the European “Operation Atalanta” on May 10th 2012, whose new mandate includes the possibility to fight pirates not only on the open water but also target them and their facilities on land by aerial means within two kilometers from the coast, i.e. better penetrating their structures and bases.[ii] Since 2008, the EU led mission focuses on delivering aid to the war torn country and at the same time protecting international oversea trade from Somali pirates. The pirate activity never completely ceased, with around 230 attacks last year and it remains a multimillion dollar “business”.

Debating the risks

Foreign Minister Westerwelle laid out the official stand of the government and his colleague the Defense Minister de Maiziere, on enlarging the mandate, as “pirates are still a threat to freedom of navigation and impede the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, which is vital to the survival of millions of starving people. Criminals are still earning millions by capturing ships and taking hostages.”[iii]  Hence, Germany pursues in close cooperation with its Allies a comprehensive policy that notes the domestic roots of the piracy problem and the international responsibilities and interests Germany has. The new mandate puts the International Community in a better position to help the Somali people, is better combating piracy and protecting international rights and trade. However, by expanding the mandate to Somali territory, these two spheres’s become mixed and clear fault lines may blur from time to time or friction during missions will do its part.

Indeed, the main critique points were the possible risk of civilians becoming “collateral damage”, as the pirates will most likely camouflage their bases, move them backwards or mix them with civilian installations.[iv] Consequently, the opposition parties saw unisono the danger of an escalation process and a militarization of the effort in Somalia, which might lead to another call for extension of the operational area in some weeks. The tricky issue of rescue missions was addressed by Westerwelle in stating that they “will be allowed as a matter of course,” and will remain an “axiom of self-defence”.[v]

Former Foreign Minister Steinmeier tried to rally support within the SPD, however the defense expert Rainer Arnold saw the “firm soil” addition as risky and not bringing solutions where introducing dangers and stressed the British role in enlarging the scope to increase the pressure, also psychologically, which he sees as doomed to fail.[vi] He asked to combat the root of the problem and track down the money flows generated by the pirate activities. This of course is not a new wisdom, neither is the notion that these pirate activities developed into transnational crime networks that need to be combated and that fighting the heads of the organization would lead even deeper inside the territory (think of cover op’s “policing”).

Rainer Stinner called for an approach that has to include regional partners, such as Kenya, in an effort that entangles police missions, anti-corruption measures and strengthening state building in general terms.[vii] Following this pattern, since 2008, the EU has spent 400 million Euros on aid projects for Somalia to create a stable state and strengthen the rule of law or creating any kind of order first.

Hence, calling for a desirable end-state means thinking through a cost and benefit analysis. It remains highly unlikely that any nation or coalition is willing to do a full state building effort in Somalia after the experience of 1993 and the Iraq-Afghanistan decade. Thus the mandate does not eliminate the roots of the problem and track down international money flows but the two tier strategy is a low footprint approach to assisting the legitimate government, in lack of any other feasible alternative. It is an acceptable additional risk with new benefits.

The Green Party criticized that nothing new or a radical change had happened. Thus, it sees the “small addition” (de Maiziere) as a fundamental change and high danger for German soldiers and the civilians alike. The growing influence in the region by al Shabaab could threaten the work of NGO’s and might destabilize the region further by higher involvement of the civilian population. Yet, Sabine Hartert argued that in these coastal regions “it is there where they have their networks of support, their economic structures and often also their families”[viii] which are essential to sustain their efforts, more so under increased pressure by coalition forces.

The opposition, in turn, was highly criticized by the governing coalition partners for not supporting their European partners and zigzagging in the foreign and security policy course. Right before the election in Germany’s most populous state the vote was blamed to be a domestic political move to the “use-of-force-averted” German voter. Indeed, this was at the expense of loyalty to Germany’s partners and for the first time not giving the Bundeswehr [Federal Defence Forces] a broad consensus vote, which is traditionally backing the German missions abroad. Now, the approval of the second largest party in the parliament is lacking as in total out of 507 votes, 305 were in favor, with 206 opposing and 59 abstentions (mainly the Green party).

Beyond Somalia

The whole debate shows how difficult it is for Germany and its parties to pursue a coherent course in foreign and security policy. The use of force remains a hot and debated topic in German politics and the public sphere. The new Somali mandate spurred reciprocal non-solidarity accusations by the different political parties referring back to other cases such as Libya and Lebanon where other parties were zigzagging and not supporting international coalitions, not to speak of Iraq.

Germany has gone a long way to “demilitarize” its military since 1945 and find a new role as a unified state since 1990. A unified German “powerhouse” in an enlarging EU pushed Berlin to greater responsibility. From the violence in Bosnia, to Kosovo over Afghanistan and Iraq, German leaders and the public faced the challenges of new security threats and overcoming the Cold War “self-restraint” mentality. [ix] To the notion of “never again (war), a never again genocide” was added and consequently the intervention in Kosovo 1999 was justified along this line.[x]  In Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr was confronted with its first military operation since its foundation. Modern peacekeeping and nation building efforts became part of its mission and the picture of the German military being nothing more than “robust development workers”, building schools and infrastructure, was necessary and harmful at the same time. A change took place when the Kunduz airstrike in September 2009 spurred a debate about German aircraft killing innocent civilians and the Good Friday battle the following year, led to a greater awareness that German soldiers are fighting and dying in a real war. Additionally, the constant call of her NATO Allies for more engagement led to a forced rethinking of its strategy and the role of the military in German society and the “culture of restraint”.[xi]

Consequently, Somalia has to be put in greater context of Germany looking for normalization in its foreign policy and use of force, beyond every day party politics. The question of solidarity with its partners while avoiding friction “at home” is a difficult act of balance, where short term interests and possible benefits in regional elections should never dominate allegiance to the European and NATO partners, but sadly sometimes do (think Libya). This lack of “supra nationalism” is especially harmful when an EU led mission could prove the efficiency of a European Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Cooperation on sea is made easier by the smaller number of participating states and the less manpower intensive character. Hence, Europe can show that it is not only a “super civilian state” (Sheehan)[xii] but can pool its capabilities to field a successful counter piracy mission while sending aid to Somalia to help establishing a stable government and rule of law without a fully fledged nation building effort.


[i] http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2012-05/atalanta-piraterie-bundeswehr-spd/komplettansicht

[ii] This was done for the first time on May 14th, 2012 under the new mandate and with the knowledge and support of the Somali government

[iii]http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Aussenpolitik/Friedenspolitik/BW-Eins%C3%A4tze/120510-BM-Atalanta-Rede-BT.html

[iv]http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/eu-agrees-to-expand-anti-piracy-mission-to-include-air-strikes-a-824030.html

[v]http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Aussenpolitik/Friedenspolitik/BW-Eins%C3%A4tze/120510-BM-Atalanta-Rede-BT.html

[vi]http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15939314,00.html, generally Great Britain, France and the Netherlands have worked on a new mandate whereas Spain and Germany remained skeptical for a long time

[vii]https://zeitschrift-ip.dgap.org/de/ip-die-zeitschrift/archiv/jahrgang-2012/mai-juni/piratennetzwerke-besser-bek%C3%A4mpfen

[viii] http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15939314,00.html

[ix] Katzenstein, P. J. (1997). Tamed power : Germany in Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.

[x] The then-Secretary of State Fischer equated it with „Never again Auschwitz“

[xi] Noetzel & Schreer, All the way? The  evolution of German military power. International Affairs 84: 2, 2008

[xii] Sheehan, J. J. (2008). Where have all the soldiers gone? : the transformation of modern Europe. Boston, Houghton Mifflin. 221

About Author

Matteo Scianna

Matteo Scianna is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Matteo is a MA candidate for the Dual Degree in International and World History at Columbia University and London School of Economics. He focuses on the development of Military and Strategic thought in Europe since the 1700s, on the period of the World Wars and order, civilians and irregularity in warfare. Besides his historical studies, he is also working on the European Common Security and Defense Policy, the future of NATO and the changing role and structure of the Bundeswehr. Matteo is German and Italian mother tongue. He speaks also English, French and reading skills in Dutch and he is currently learning Russian.

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