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The 50th Munich Security Conference and the Shift in German Foreign Policy

by David Innerhuber – Junior Fellow

8th March 2014. Security and Defence, Issue 1, No. 3.  

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Over the past five decades the Munich Security Conference (MSC) has become the most important independent forum for the exchange of views by international security policy decision-makers. Each year it brings together about 350 senior figures from more than 70 countries around the world to engage in an intensive debate on current and future security challenges.

The list of attendees includes heads of States, governments and international organizations, ministers, members of parliament, high-ranking representatives of the armed forces, scientists, representatives of the media as well as representatives of the civil society.

The intention of the conference is to address the topical main security issues and to debate and analyze the main security challenges in the presence and the future in line with the concept of networked security. A focal point of the conference is the discussion and the exchange of views on the development of the transatlantic relations as well as European and global security in the 21st century.

Since the conference is not officially hosted by the German government but by a private foundation, no binding international agreements can be concluded and there is no final communique. Thus, the practical value of the conference for day-to-day politics is usually quite limited. With regard to Germany, however, this cannot be said of this year’s conference that took place from 31 January to 2 February.

The Shift in German Foreign Police

Even now, after one month, the events that unfolded at this year’s conference appear sensational. In a concerted action, three unlikely allies set out to change the course of Germany’s foreign policy: Joachim Gauck, Germany’s federal president and a former civil rights activist in East Germany; Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister who returned to this office after spending the last legislative period in the opposition with his social-democrat party; and Ursula von der Leyen, the new defence minister who, in the last government, was minister for family affairs. All three are determined to give Germany a more active role in international politics, not only in diplomatic, financial and development matters, but also when it comes to military operations. They are less afraid of Germany taking a leading role in international affairs, than of the allegation of shirking and passivity.

In his commemorative speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the MSC, Joachim Gauck indeed made the dictum on German foreign- and security policy. Without directly penetrating this field, which according to the German constitution is confined to the government alone, he developed what could be a code of conduct for the latter when it comes to Germany’s role in the world. The following sentence, taken from his speech, clearly illustrates that: “Since Germany – an entire lifetime after the end of the Second World War and a quarter of a century after reunification – has regained self-confidence as a successful democracy, it should also be more confident in its international relations.”

It is a proof of his courage that in his speech he effectively de-constructed the out-dated term of Germany’s alleged ‘culture of (military) restraint’ which, in recent years, had become a pretence for inaction. The word ‘restraint’ is only mentioned in relation to other terms such as ‘self-privilege’ or the ‘right to look away’. Inaction is not a way of evading responsibility. Of course, this is not a plea for political or even military actionism, as Gauck himself made clear: Military deployments should only be undertaken after a thorough calculation of risks, if possible with a UN mandate and always in cooperation with others – responsibility should be shared. Germany cannot escape international conflicts and therefore has to act sooner, more decisively and more substantially, even if public opinion is against it. A state like Germany that is so well integrated in the international community and that benefits so strongly from its international economic ties cannot stand idly by or follow its own paths.

About David Innerhuber

David Innerhuber is a PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He holds a BA in social sciences from the University of Graz (Austria) and an MA (with distinction) in history and international relations from Brunel University London. From 2005 to 2006 he served in the Austrian Army and, during that time, participated in the NATO-led peace-keeping mission to Kosovo (KFOR).