Read most of the major news articles of the day—from Afghanistan to the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict to Iran’s nuclear ambitions—and there will probably be a reference to Germany, which is playing an increasingly vital and complex role in international affairs.
This newfound political, military and economic prominence has to a degree catapulted Germany back onto the world stage—particularly since the election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel—helping it shed the remnants of its post-World War II legacy that relegated the country and its atrophied military largely to the sidelines of many global debates. In January, Germany will again be thrust into the limelight when it assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, in addition to heading up the Group of Eight (G8) for 2007.
But the country is also getting a hard lesson on the pitfalls of being a major global player—as witnessed by the recent scandal of German soldiers in Afghanistan callously playing around with human skulls, which shocked not only Germany, but the rest of the world as well.
It also shocked Klaus Scharioth, Germany’s ambassador in Washington, who does not mince words about the fate of those who might be found guilty of desecrating the human remains—one of whom was shown standing next to a human head with his genitals exposed.
“I find these photographs repulsive and I’m shocked that this is happening,” the ambassador told The Washington Diplomat. “We will have to wait on what will come out of this investigation, but I can already tell you that this will not be done with much mercy. This is unacceptable and inexcusable.” (That investigation is still pending for 11 of the soldiers—charges were dropped against two for lack of evidence—and as of press time, a report was expected to be released in late December.)
Still, Scharioth does not want the controversy, which dates back to 2003, to overshadow the larger successes of German peacekeeping operations. “Of course it should not keep us from seeing that the vast, vast majority of the German soldiers abroad is doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances.”
And indeed, German soldiers are fanned out at major hotspots around the world—a contingent of some 9,700 peacekeeping troops in all, making Germany the single largest European Union and NATO-mandated troop contributor. This heavy military commitment—Germany had no soldiers serving abroad prior to 1994—is reflective of the Merkel administration’s broader mission to extend Germany’s influence in the foreign policy arena.
Germany will get a chance to wield some of that influence when it takes over the EU presidency in January. Scharioth says Germany will use the opportunity to address the stalled EU Constitution and the cumbersome process of enlargement, although he cautioned that progress on the thorny issue of Turkey’s membership is many years—if not decades—away (see December 2006 cover of The Washington Diplomat).
Enhancing transatlantic ties will also be a top priority, and the ambassador stresses that strengthening both sides of the U.S.-EU partnership is “not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing,” noting that the world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved without transatlantic cooperation.
A big problem facing both the United States and Europe that is sure to dominate Germany’s presidency is energy security, and specifically Europe’s precarious reliance on Russia. The topic was given an added sense of urgency when much of Western Europe plunged into darkness on Nov. 5 after an overload on a German network triggered a massive blackout that affected millions.
“Energy will be one of the key subjects,” Scharioth says. “I think we have to take a look at energy from an overall perspective—not only the perspective of energy security, which of course is very, very important, but also conservation, also alternative energy sources, also the question of climate change, all these things come into play.”
Concerns over Russia’s energy monopoly are also certain to come into play. Although Scharioth acknowledges that Germany is distressed by what many perceive as a backsliding of democracy in Russia, he cautions, “This should not lead us in the wrong direction. Russia is a very, very important partner. It is very difficult to imagine a solution to problems—you name it, take Iran, take North Korea, take Kosovo, whatever—[without Russia]. I think all these problems we need to solve together, and I think we have made huge strides in that direction.”
Optimistic yet candid and straightforward, Scharioth assumed his posting in March 2006 after having previously served as state secretary of the Federal Foreign Office (2002-06) and political director and head of the Political Directorate-General (1999-2002).
His arrival in Washington came a few months after the hotly contested national elections in September 2005, in which Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party narrowly eked out a victory over former Chancellor’s Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). But neither party won enough seats to govern outright, and Merkel was forced to form a “grand coalition” power-sharing agreement with the SPD.
Although that tenuous arrangement has led to some bitter infighting, even within her own party, Merkel—the country’s first female head of state and the first former citizen of East Germany to lead the reunified nation—has remained steadfast in her ambitious foreign policy and domestic reform agenda.
Similarly, the ambassador remains steadfast in his conviction that although sending troops into war zones is never an easy choice, it’s a necessary one at times nonetheless.
“We are now in a position to take international responsibility, but of course, this is a process. You need to convince the people that this is necessary—that you fight, that you defend our freedom and liberties in Afghanistan and also in the Mideast. I would not say that these missions are really popular. These are just things that the government has needed to convince the public of,” he explains. “It’s not fun, it’s difficult, and it could also be dangerous, but it’s a necessary part of the responsibility, and therefore now the majority of the population agrees to this.”
Also difficult was getting the German public to warm to the idea of dispatching troops to help maintain the fragile Israeli-Hezbollah ceasefire in Lebanon. The eight German warships situated off the Lebanese coast are working to prevent arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah and mark the biggest naval operation Germany has undertaken since World War II.
But the issue is a sensitive one for the German Parliament and the public, both of which had serious misgivings about involving German troops in an Israeli conflict given the specter of the country’s Nazi past and the Holocaust. As a result, no combat troops will be dispatched on the ground to ensure that German soldiers avoid direct confrontation with Israeli forces.
Despite a minor clash between two Israeli warplanes and a German naval vessel in late October, Scharioth says the historical operation has so far gone relatively smoothly. “Of course there are risks, but there are also chances,” he says. “It is a difficult mission. It’s not easy to stop these shipments of arms … but we believe there is a chance that the quartet [Europe, Russia, the United Nations and the United States] now could change the picture, that we could get the peace process going, and therefore we believe that it’s absolutely necessary to contribute there.”
Other lesser-known areas where German peacekeepers have been deployed include Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Congo. But the bulk of the soldiers—approximately 2,800—remain in Afghanistan, where the skull incident has raised serious questions about whether Germany has overextended itself militarily, but Scharioth denies this is the case.
“I don’t really think that people have the feeling that we are overextended. Of course these things are never popular. No one likes to send soldiers abroad,” he says. “But I don’t really think that this is in jeopardy.”
And so far, there have been few calls for Germany to curb its participation in global peacekeeping missions. In fact, in a reversal of that sentiment, many critics have argued that Germany is not doing enough in Afghanistan, lying low in the relative calm of Kabul while the Taliban continues to mount a fierce offensive in the south of the country. At the NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia, Germany—along with France, Italy and Spain—resisted calls to bolster their troop presence in the violence-wracked south, despite pressure from President Bush and other leaders.
But the ambassador defends his country’s decision not to extend its mandate in Afghanistan. “First of all, it’s not quite true. We have troops in the south. We have, for instance, some single battalions in the south, so it’s not true that we are only in the north,” he explains.
“We have taken over responsibility now for the whole north, and actually the situation there is not as calm as some people say. We actually had a number of incidents,” he adds. “It’s not quiet at all, and second … if we would pull soldiers there, we would have immediately a worse situation in the north. So I don’t think it would be very wise.”
The country is hardly shirking away from its overall military commitment though—in fact, Germany is stepping up its ability to deploy overseas and modernizing its armed forces. In a major transformation of security policy, the Germany Defense Ministry recently released a “white paper” that pledged to create a 35,000-strong rapid reaction force ready to deploy into hot zones, as well as another 70,000-strong stabilization force for peacekeeping duties—so that the army can be more “commensurate with [the country’s] economic, diplomatic and cultural heft,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
But military intervention is not a substitute for old-fashioned diplomacy, the challenges of which Scharioth says he relishes. “You see diplomacy is sometimes very frustrating. I’ve been in this job for 20 [years] or something like it, so I know that sometimes it is very tough,” the ambassador says. “But I think there is no substitute for it, because if you do succeed in getting the key players of the international community together, I think diplomacy can be extremely successful, and so I wouldn’t underestimate diplomacy.”
That diplomatic confidence has certainly been tested by Iran, the other seemingly intractable global conflict that is dominating Germany’s foreign policy docket. As a member of the so-called P5+1—Germany plus the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: Britain, the United States, China, Russia and France—Germany has been engaged in the tedious negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which have stalled since the introduction of an incentives package earlier this past summer.
“I’m deeply disappointed by the response of the Iranian government that they refused our—I believe—highly attractive package that we put together in June. I really think it is highly attractive, and I don’t really understand [why] this has been so far rejected,” Scharioth says.
“We have always said from the very beginning that Iran has a choice,” he continues. “They have a choice between either accepting what I would call a very attractive package, or there’s the choice that the matter goes back to the Security Council, and then of course you will get sanctions.”
And despite the reluctance of China and Russia to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, the ambassador is hopeful that the international community can bridge the deep divide over Iran. “I do believe that we probably have to begin with the sanctions, and that they come sooner rather than later. But I repeat that the door remains open for Iran and if they decide to walk through it, they could do it anytime.”
Although the talks with Iran remain mired at the United Nations, Scharioth believes the U.N. Security Council’s swift and definitive response to North Korea’s nuclear test could set an example to Iran. “I’m very satisfied with the resolution of the Security Council to the North Korean threat. I’m very satisfied—it’s really different to what has happened in the past. And I think that Iran should take a close look at that resolution … and I think it shows how serious and how committed the international community is.”
Islamic radicalism is a key issue for Germany on the domestic front as well. Although not instantly recognizable as a terrorist target compared to, say, Britain or the United States, Germany has nevertheless drawn the ire of Islamic radicals for its support of U.S. policies.
Earlier in the summer, German authorities foiled an attempted train bombing, calling the plot the biggest terrorist threat the country has encountered since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which originated from a cell of al-Qaeda operatives based out of the German city of Hamburg. And in late November, six people came under investigation in Germany for an alleged plot to blow up an Israeli airliner.
Scharioth concedes that Islamic radicalism has changed the security landscape of his country. “I think we are all high up on the list. I don’t think that any country in the West can feel safe,” he says. “[9/11] was not an attack against the United States—it was an attack against an open society, that society that is the product of enlightenment.”
Likewise, Germany must contend with the friction that has surfaced against its growing Muslim immigration population. According to the ambassador, “Four percent of Germany’s population is Muslim—roughly 3.3 million of the 82 million in Germany. The vast majority of them are of Turkish origin. And now a large number of them are opting for German citizenship,” he explains. “I would say, in general, relations between those who live in Germany and the rest of the country are pretty good. The vast majority, I think, is quite happy.
“What we are not 100 percent content with is the pace of integration,” he adds, citing a lack of German language skills that contributes to greater isolation among immigrant enclaves and poorer job and education outcomes.
Those cultural schisms have become more apparent in everyday life. “In Berlin, there are whole quarters which are predominately occupied by people of Turkish origin. And so what we would like to see is do more general German language skills,” Scharioth says. “We have found out that language skills and success in school are extremely closely related and therefore we need to work on that.”
Something the government has successfully worked on is the economy. Although it is the third-largest economy in Europe, Germany’s economic outlook has been notoriously sluggish—marred by high unemployment, susceptible to external shocks, and burdened by generous social services protections. And although unemployment remains high—hovering around 10 percent—the German economy is still considered among the strongest competitive markets in the world, and finally seems to be gaining some steam.
“We will for the first time in four years be clear of the 3 percent deficit—I mean our deficit will only be 2.6 percent of [gross national product], which is very good,” Scharioth says. “We also have the lowest inflation rate in the last half decade—it is now 1.0 percent—and we have a relatively good growth rate, which is over 2 percent…. I would say that the German economy in the last few years has really been underestimated. It is stronger than most people outside the country believed, and I must say that the signs are quite good.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor for The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.