Global Policy Forum

German President's Resignation is Telling

German President Horst Köhler resigned this week after coming under heavy criticism for suggesting that Germany maintains a military presence in Afghanistan to protect its economic interests. This Wall Street Journal opinion piece asserts that unlike other German politicians, Köhler offered an honest assessment of the motives driving Germany's Afghan mission. The author asserts that Germany needs to confront its shame over its past and claim its role as a "big-boy nation." While this article supports the spirit of Köhler's remarks, it highlights the need to examine NATO's involvement in Afghanistan from a critical perspective. Read GPF's analysis of this story on our blog.



This article was published with the title "Germany Needs to Grow Up."

Clayton M. McKleskey

June 3, 2010

With his sudden resignation Monday, German President Horst Köhler sent Germany a strong message: Grow up already.

The president stepped down after unleashing a firestorm last month in an interview after visiting German troops in Afghanistan. In wording only Germans could find incendiary, Mr. Köhler told a radio reporter: "A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example, when it comes to trade routes, for example, when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes."

Hardly a saber-rattling, bombs-away statement. But from the way the German press reacted, you'd think he said Germany should consider invading Poland to boost the stock market.

With his sober assessment that Germany has interests it needs to defend, Köhler signaled that Germany is a normal country-its history is no longer an excuse for this overly-pacifist nation to stand on the sidelines. That is the big inconvenient truth in Germany right now.

Disappointingly, amid the raging debate about why Köhler failed as president and who will succeed him, that message appears to be lost on the German chattering classes. Instead of addressing what Köhler said, in the wake of his resignation the German press has jumped on the how-could-he-do-this bandwagon.

"A German federal president doesn't resign because-within the scope of a normal process of democratic debate-he is criticized. That's an overreaction that doesn't befit the office," fumed Spiegel Online's Berlin bureau chief, Roland Nelles.

There's a degree of truth to that. But Mr. Köhler didn't leave office because a bunch of journalists wrote mean things about him. His departure was a response to the clear signal that Germany isn't ready to hear blunt statements about war, power and leadership. Mr. Köhler found himself isolated, a lonely leader attempting to push Germany to recognize the reality of its place in the world.

At the core of the hoopla surrounding Köhler's remarks is the larger issue of Germany's ongoing struggle to figure out its role in the 21st century. Germany is the largest nation in Europe and one of the leading economies in the world. It's a commercial and diplomatic powerhouse-a world power. But Germans have neither accepted that nor debated what it means.

After decades of its course being determined by its history and by pressure from other nations, a mature, unified Federal Republic of Germany now finds itself having to take on increased responsibility and show visible leadership on issues ranging from Greece to Afghanistan.

But Germans aren't really sure how to handle this new role. Sadly, few politicians have been willing to lead a nationwide discussion about a grown up Germany's place in the world. At least Horst Köhler tried.

This nation has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 but only in April did a German politician-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg-actually use the "w" word. Until now, Berlin has used all sorts of obtuse ways to make it seem like German troops in Afghanistan were on a Boy Scout adventure, rather than at war.

Germany has also failed to step up to the plate when it comes to Russia and a common European energy policy. Within Europe, on issues such as Ukraine, Germany prefers to demure and let others carry the ball; on Greece, Germany appeared reactive rather than proactive.

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.

Mr. McCleskey is a staff writer for the Dallas Morning News based in Germany, where he is a Fulbright journalism scholar.


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