Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Struck's Inconvenient Truth

Let me start my part of this blog with a small but significant piece of good news for German foreign policy. Peter Struck, former defence minister and currently the still influential head of the Social Democrat's parliamentary group in the Bundestag, said in an interview for Berliner Zeitung today, that Germany's military engagement in Afghanistan could well last for another decade. While this is not ground-breaking news per se, the mere fact that he is saying this is important for several reasons.

First of all, the statement comes from a leading Social Democrat. It is thus one of the rare public reminders coming from this widely pacifistic party of German geopolitical interests and the price that needs to be paid to pursue them. Struck served as defence minister when Germany entered the Afghanistan theatre, and it was him who coined the now proverbial sentence that it is Germany's security that is at stake at the Hindu Kush. Struck has been harschly criticized for this smart and true sentence ever since, but in today's interview, Struck re-affirms its continuous relevance. All this might sound small and trivial, but within the German context it is very welcome support for all those who argue for a more strategic debate in this country and for a more pro-active German foreign policy. Especially when it's coming from the left of the political spectrum.

Secondly, the statement means that Struck's party, the SPD, won't be able to repeat its very successful 2002 and 2005 election strategies. In 2002, then chancellor Schröder, in the context of the Iraq debate, skilfully triggered the widely-held pacifist feelings of Germans by trouncing George Bush and portraying Merkel's CDU as Bush-friendly war-mongers, thereby securing a last-minute election victory. In 2005, SPD party strategists used the same strategy, only in a subtler form, to undermine Merkel's foreign policy credentials, again with some success. While it was never fair, it was certainly legitimate during an election at the time. But most importantly, it did not serve the German foreign policy debate well. Populist scare-politics prevailed over sober strategic analysis. Struck's remark today makes it all but impossible for the SPD to pull the same trick again - even if the security situation in Afghanistan turns bad before September 27th.

Finally, Struck's statement comes at a crucial time. Not only did he speak at the beginning of a federal election campaign. His words also come at a time when Germany is visibly concerned about its role in Afghanistan (with plans for increased post-election contributions being hedged at the chancellery), and at a time when in Brussels, experts are working on a first draft for NATO's new strategic concept. Both Germany's military contribution in Afghanistan and its intellectual contribution to the new strategic concept will have a major impact on the future of Germany foreign policy and thus its standing in the world. Struck's statement serves as a reminder that in both cases, Germany must prove that its current inward-looking approach to the world is neither realistic nor intellectually credible.

It is doubtful whether Struck's contribution will usher in a more realistic German security and foreign policy debate. Germany still needs to cover substantial ground to reach that point. But given the circumstances and the timing, his are remarkable words. To be fair, it was surely easier for him to say these thing now that his political career is drawing to a close. Struck won't return to the Bundestag after the elections and won't hold any significant office within the SPD after September. Unfortunately, one is tempted to say.

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