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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Change of Paradigms – German Arms Sales Replacing Active Military Missions?

Arms sales are not a completely new trade; it is probably one of the oldest businesses of mankind. With Germany as one of the leading arms exporters in the world, the numbers of sold weapon systems keep continuously growing. Now, these sales seem to increase in the Middle East, with Qatar as a potentially new key market for German weapon producers.

Analysts interpret the increasing German arms sales as a change of contemporary German foreign and security policy, which is undergoing a thorough and profound evaluation and re-structuring process. The list of German arms customers is long, starting with more than 200 sold Leopard-2 tanks to Saudi Arabia last year, including 100 more tanks to Indonesia, and now with Qatar in the potential customer line.

This “new deal” is part of a complete change in German foreign policy, intending to reduce all running out of area military missions in Afghanistan and at the Horn of Africa to a lower level and replacing it with increasing arms sales instead. The reasons for this are obvious: arms sales are far more beneficial than direct military missions in crisis regions, eliminating any risks for own soldiers and civil servants deployed to the respective regions, and provide the chance for allies to defend themselves rather than deploying own troops to the region in question. This was the same strategy the Nixon-Administration has adopted after the failure in Vietnam.

Regarding the obviously failed nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, the on-going and deteriorating financial crisis in Europe, and the overall reform of the German armed forces, the Merkel-Administration finds itself in a delicate situation, struggling to reduce costs on security and defence on the one hand, and trying to maintain enough striking capabilities in all regions where Germany has deployed troops – above all in Afghanistan and at the naval “Operation Atalanta” at the Horn of Africa – on the other hand. Although the German contingent to Afghanistan is the third biggest of all ISAF contributing countries and the Germans suffered far less casualties than other nations (e.g. the US, the UK, or Canada), public support for the mission has plunged, and any out of area mission of the Germany army is being widely questioned.

So, the question is: does an increasing export of German weapons and increasing arms sales to partner nations contribute to global security in a same way and with the same amount of efficiency like the mere contribution of troops in a crisis region?

This question sounds redundant, because there are various flaws in this simplified assumption.
First – and obviously, just selling war material to a country does not imply that they are going to use them for crisis prevention, peace enforcement, or even peace keeping measures. A reasonable and responsible arms trade has to ensure that the sold weapon systems are supposed to be used for pure self-defence measures. However, the term “self-defence” is very vague in many cases, and the international monitoring instruments are rather faint, or they are not sufficiently and consequently implicated.

Secondly, looking at the payrolls of German arms sales, you find states which are known for not being the most democratic ones, especially Saudi Arabia. This case is an indication for a linkage of arms sales with significant and visible good governance principles, combined with an internationally confirmed statement by the international community that there is a necessary need for arms sales in terms of exclusive self-defence purposes.

Thirdly, if the policy that arms sales would be more useful than direct military action in the crisis region, then Germany will have to sell arms to Afghanistan. The reason why it is not the case is simple: Afghanistan is not able to pay for modern German weapons, nor even able to operate them without proper and professional instruction.

Germany will have to rethink its foreign and security policy strategy, especially regarding the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan within the next two years, the withdrawal from Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the on-going reform process of the armed forces. It is highly questionable if the Bundeswehr will still be able to fulfil its global security tasks by adopting this strategy. With the current foreign policy implementations, Germany will not be able to efficiently implement security enforcing measures. The plans to withdraw the nearly 5,000 soldiers out from Afghanistan not only provides a negative signal to the overall ISAF mission and all other countries based in Afghanistan, it also leaves the Afghan security forces – the ANA and the ANP – in a pure insecurity environment. Even arms sales will be totally insufficient in the Afghan case, or even in any other crisis region in the world.

The German army remained mainly inactive during the Cold War regarding out of area missions. Now, more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War and with several past and currently running mission around the world, it appears that Germany feels itself uncomfortable on this international arena. Avoidance, however, and outsourcing international commitments to arms sales, is the absolute wrong signal, with a severe risk of international credibility loss.

Germany has the choice: being a strong international security actor, or just an arms trader without further active military missions. Combining both would be an ideal option. But, is Germany ready for it? Unfortunately, it does not seem so.


  1. Let me ask you a question: Where do these 'security tasks' come from? How does a (largely failed) mission of democracy promotion at the Hindu Kush contribute to Germany being a 'strong international security actor', whatever that is?

  2. That's the point: it doesn't. Germany intervened in Afghanistan through the ISAF Mission in the expectation to be accepted as a international security actor through "soft policy" tasks and instruments. The former German government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who approved to launch a German military commitment to Afghanistan after 9/11 did it because they wanted to combine both military and civilian security tasks, with the civilian branch to prevail over the military one. The armed forces' main task where simply to protect the civilian reconstruction efforts, and to leave the armed forces out of any combat activity. However, with the democracy and nation building promotion crumbling, and the casualities rising, public support has been going nose-dive for years now - not only for the military mandate, but for its combination with Provinvial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) as well. And since every German army mandate for Afghanistan has to be renewed by the German parliament, it is questionable that it will be prolonged for any longer. Poor strategic planning and a self-imposed international activity limitation (due to the long-term lessons after WW2) crtainly did not contribute to a "strong international security actor". In the end, personally I doubt that Germany actually wants to be regarded as a security actor by mere military means.

  3. But what is a 'strong international security actor' anyway? Atalanta is furthering German interests by securing vital trade routes, and arms sales not only bring money, but also a cetain influence in buyer countries, plus being, in the case of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, a balancing factor against Iran. But is it an desirable goal to intervene in countries such as Afghanistan where Germany had no interests in the first place?

  4. The term "strong international security actor" is a vague one, it does indeed mean that Germany ensures safe trade routes through Operation Atalanta through its naval presence. If it does have any impact in countries like Qatar or Saudia Arabie through arms sales, I would doubt it, because the true political influence to these countries is limited, and arms sales in this context have to be regarded as a simple trade of goods between two countries. In the end, arms are trading goods. If it might serve as a "balancing" factor against Iran, that's probably a bit over the top. If it was a balancing act, then Germany should increase its arms sales rather to Israel. But this would be too conspicuous, so they choose other states in the Middle East. In terms of Afghanistan, maybe it did not serve any "desirable goal", assuming that humanitarian assistance and aid are not being regarded as "derirable goal". Surely, there weren't an geostrategic reasons. I consider the German commitment to Afghanistan as a pure humanitarian operation, with strong military back-up.

  5. So would I be correct in assuming that you see purely humanitarian commitments, such as the one in Afghanistan, as a crucial part of German foreign policy (and, in extension, that humanitarian intervention is a keystone for every 'strong international security actor')?

    PS: Well, and I found out how not to be anonymous anymore.

  6. Exactly. That is also a key stone of European Foreign and Security Policy, by implementing so called "soft policy tools" through humanitarian action. As a result, the term "strong international security actorship" includes humanitarian assistance, and criris prevention through humanitarian aid.