German President Horst Köhler suggested in a May 2010 interview that Germany maintains a military presence in Afghanistan to protect its economic interests. Köhler resigned just days later after his comments elicited an uproar from the German press.
At first glance, something seems not quite right. Köhler’s resignation was odd for a politician of his stature. Why would a major figure resign over a seemingly small slip of the tongue? Furthermore, why did none of his domestic political allies – Chancellor Angela Merkel included – defend him, much less comment on the scandal?
Köhler’s comments would not have sparked the same outrage in most other NATO countries, where leaders speak frankly about the military as a legitimate tool for the defense of “the national interest.” Germans, on the other hand, are keenly aware of their history and feel that their armed forces should only conduct operations that enjoy broad international support in toward the achievement of outward-oriented objectives. In this sense, it is perhaps possible to understand why the press disparaged Köhler for his remarks, but it remains unclear why he felt compelled to resign over the matter.
An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition seized upon the essence of what happened:
“Mr. Köhler's remarks offered Germans a chance for much-needed self-reflection: What are German interests in the 21st century? How can a peaceful Germany protect them? What is Germany's role in a globalized world?
Instead of that debate, Germany lashed out at its president.
But while President Köhler may go, the core of his message remains true: Germany is now a big-boy nation. With that comes adult responsibilities, and sometimes those are unpleasant. It can mean putting German lives in the line of fire, and standing up for what you believe in.
Horst Köhler understood that. It's time his country did, too.”
Of course, the essence of realpolitik is that states are expected to behave in these sorts of ways. States must compete as furiously as they can or watch their relative power decline in this anarchic world. So if you believe that such a world exists and that it will exist forever, then observers who concede that states like Germany are justified in militarily pursuing their economic interests will seem “realistic” and “pragmatic”.
But hold on a second. What if Köhler’s critics have it right? Shouldn’t we all be outraged that people die at the hands of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan and around the world in the name of “the national interest?” If we allow leaders to convince us that the only way to secure “our” interests is to go out and fight for them, then we have accepted two disturbing assumptions:
1. That keeping our country secure and our economy stable occasionally requires us to invade other countries
2. That keeping our country “secure” and our economy “stable” is in “the national interest”
Many Germans do not accept these assumptions. Horst Köhler resigned because he realized that the truth of his remarks ran counter to the lessons Germany learned at the fall of the Third Reich: the unimpeded pursuit of power can only lead to the unimpeded annihilation of the vulnerable. His political allies, realizing that the implications of what he said were essentially correct, allowed him to take the fall rather than initiate an open debate over the legitimate place of the military as it relates to German identity.
If anything, Köhler’s resignation signals a need to examine critically the basic tenets of the present international order. Germans have for years challenged the assumptions held by their NATO allies, yet they have placed too much faith in their government and military to act in a way that aligns with the way they see Germany’s place in the world. Germans should not pass up this opportunity to question whether the lessons history has imparted to them have been steadily forgotten, beginning at least with Gerhard Schroeder’s intervention in the Balkans.
Germany should take this opportunity to discover its interests beyond the prevention of terrorism, and beyond strong trade relations with other NATO powers. Rather than join the team of “big-boy nations”, Germany should consider playing a new game altogether. That’s a game that we should consider joining, as well.