The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The fall-out from Kohlergate

Following Frederik's post last week on the comments made by the now former German President Horst Kohler, I'd like to highlight this article from the Wall Street Journal, Germany needs to grow up.

Horst Kohler resigned on Monday following the controversy stirred up by his comment on Germany's engagement in Afghanistan:

"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."

That statement is a fairly succinct summary of the reason's for the international community's engagement in Afghanistan. Moreover, the same reason applies to the international community's counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa (under NATO, EU and national flags). Do we send ships to the Gulf of Aden to help the people of Somalia or because 7% of the world's oil passes through those straits alone?

I think the basic message of the WSJ article - that Kohler was merely stating an obvious truth and a failure to understand that is a failure to understand the world we live in - is basically right, although perhaps the tone is unnecessarily caustic and greater empathy for the context of German history would have been appropriate. Moreover, the article misses the point that Frederik made in his post, that Kohler's comment has considerable legal implications in Germany.

However, if I were to internationalise this debate then I would have to challenge the assertion, made both by Frederik and the WSJ, that such a comment would have passed unnoticed in most other countries. It may well be true that only Germans could find Kohler's words incendiary but many other Europeans (especially those with a poor grasp of history) would find them at least controversial.

For example, Gordon Brown regularly linked the war in Afghanistan to the fight against terrorism, stating that the vast majority of terrorist plots uncovered in Britain were conceived or planned or organised in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions.

Barack Obama directly links the war in Afghanistan to the fight against al-Qaida. Although it was not the Obama administration that made that link and although Obama himself is probably too smart to really believe that, the fact remains that the war continues to be sold to the American public on that basis.

My point here is not to claim that the international community is engaged in Afghanistan under false pretences. My point is that, for some reason, publics seem to need more stark reasons for military engagement abroad than mere protection of trade and national interests through prevention of regional instabilities.

If an American politician or decision-maker made the same statement as Horst Kohler, what kind of reaction would he/she receive? Probably in America this kind of statement would - indeed does - go largely unnoticed, simply because it is relatively commonplace.

The real question is if a European (other than German) politician or decision-maker made the same statement as Horst Kohler, what kind of reaction would he/she receive?

While the German context is a unique one for obvious historical reasons, I think that its not only the Germans who need to accept certain realities. I think the same applies to many Europeans, albeit to varying degrees depending on nationality, demography or even political allegiance.

The simple fact is that Kohler spoke the truth and a perfectly valid truth at that. The sooner Europe accepts this and bases foreign and security policy around it, the more effective Europe will be on the world stage.


  1. Patrick, I do wholeheartedly agree with you BUT as we all know the truth hurts (that we are greedy bastards that hate to lower our lifestyles)and and consequently pain does not sell (or gain public support).

    Fear does sell.

    So saying that we are threated by the 'forces of evil' is much easier then saying that we are greedy ;-)

    Sometime in the future "the truth will set you(and all of us) free" but we will have to be forced to do so...


  2. D,

    It is undeniably true that fear sells, perhaps better than anything.

    However, I don't equate protecting our interests to being greedy. I think its perfectly legitimate but, more importantly, I think if Europe protects its interests properly then we can also help the interests of people elsewhere.

    This is another - very involved - subject best kept for another day but for now suffice to say that I don't believe that Europe has to choose between altruism and pragmatism. We can align these in a way that others, such as the US, cannot.

  3. I hope you are right and that in the future Europe will grasp the chance it has to become stronger (and be more united in their position) internationally.

    I should have added a ;-) to us being greedy.
    Do we really need all that oil and gas?
    Theoretically no, practically yes.

    And if Europe ever wants to be more energy independent from Russia it will have to start dealing with Iran. Luckily we have that country surrounded already.