Germany’s abstention on UNSCR 1973 does not signify a weakened commitment to multilateralism or NATO, nor was it a historical fluke. It is simply that, on matters involving military force, Germans need time to have a debate at home.

When Germany joined the United Nations Security Council in January 2011, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle presented a motto that would guide his country through its two-year tenure: ‘responsibility, reliability and commitment’. Less than three months after Germany took its seat, the Security Council confronted a crisis in Libya, where the government of Muammar Gadhafi was violently suppressing protests. Westerwelle’s motto was put to the test. The decision to abstain from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which on 17 March 2011 authorised intervention in Libya, was one of the most controversial German foreign-policy decisions of the last decade. With the exception of Franco-German opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Berlin’s allies had increasingly been able to count on German financial, political and, more recently, military support for interventions. In a harsh break from this tradition, Germany joined China, Russia, India and Brazil in a vote of abstention. Unlike the votes of veto-wielding Russia and China, Germany’s abstention was not a veiled ‘yes’ but a veiled ‘no’, and was widely interpreted as such by other countries.

The abstention caused considerable surprise and irritation among Germany’s allies and sparked a fierce debate in the country. Among respected analysts, it stirred deep-seated fears of a revival of the twentieth-century German Question. As Ian Bremmer and Mark Leonard wrote in the Washington Post, the abstention ‘provoked speculation that Germany wanted to shed its supporting role in the US-led Western alliance in favour of the more independent, non-aligned and mercantilist-driven positions taken by leading emerging powers’. Less alarmist observers saw the abstention as a confirmation that Germany’s ‘culture of restraint’ on military matters was alive and well. Instead of conjuring the spectre of a huge geostrategic shift, this group pointed to an important regional election in Germany to explain the puzzling decision to abstain. A third theory, put forward mostly by German journalists and academics, was that the abstention was merely a diplomatic accident resulting from the particular circumstances and time pressures of the Libya crisis. Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the research institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations, described the abstention as ‘quite simply a professional mistake’ because ‘nobody got around to explaining to the foreign minister how voting in the United Nations works.’

All of these explanations fail, however, to highlight the most important aspect of the vote for Berlin’s allies: when it comes to decisions on the use of military force, Germans need time to have a debate at home.

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Sarah Brockmeier is a Research Associate at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. This article is based on her dissertation for a master’s degree in philosophy at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. This essay was shortlisted for the 2013 Palliser Prize.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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