Between the deepening crisis in Ukraine, the seemingly endless violence in Syria, and the lingering disgruntlement among world leaders over the NSA spying scandal, it would have been easy to overlook an important theme of this weekend’s Munich Security Conference: Germany’s return to the big kids’ table in matters of foreign policy—rhetorically, at least.In his opening speech, German President Joachim Gauck implored his fellow countrymen to embrace greater responsibility in global conflicts:
In my opinion, Germany should make a more substantial contribution, and it should make it earlier and more decisively if it is to be a good partner. […]Sometimes it can even be necessary to send in the troops. […] Germany should not say “no” on principle. Nor should it say “yes” unthinkingly.
Gauck also addressed head-on the need for his country to overcome its historically induced reluctance to act beyond its borders:
I have to admit that while there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world. In the words of the historian Heinrich August Winkler, this is an attitude that grants Germany a questionable “right to look the other way.” […]It is precisely at times when the United States cannot keep on providing more and more that Germany and its European partners must themselves assume greater responsibility for their security.
All of this is music to the ears of Germany’s friends and allies, in Europe especially. With the United States increasingly focused on the geopolitics of other regions, there is a power vacuum in Europe that desperately needs filling. “Today, I am much less worried about German power than German passivity,” said the Polish Foreign Minister, of all people.Even so, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine just how Germany might go about implementing such an enlarged foreign policy vision given the constraints of public opinion. Are Germans really ready to overcome their moral squeamishness and march back into the fog of war? Are they willing to invest in a military that is fit for the 21st century, and to send sizable troop contingents into foreign lands on extended campaigns? A poll released just before the start of the conference showed 61 percent of Germans opposed to an expansion of their country’s military involvements abroad.Old habits die hard. It may simply take some time for Germany to grow into its new role. But before the country’s leaders can fight the good fight abroad, they must first win the war of public opinion at home.