A few weeks ago the cover of the Spiegel showed Chancellor Angela Merkel in combat fatigues with the headline: “German weapons for the world”. The story (available in English online) was about the so-called Merkel doctrine – an implicit policy of staying out of difficult and unpopular Western interventions such as the one in Libya last year while selling arms to other countries, in particular in the Middle East, to enable them take greater “responsibility” for security. The Federal Republic has traditionally had a comparatively restrictive arms-export policy and in particular rejected the sale of arms by German companies to undemocratic governments or countries in “conflict regions”. But under Merkel, according to the Spiegel story, the German defence industry – which employs 80,000 people – is booming as the government increasingly approves the sale of weapons to undemocratic regimes in areas of actual or potential conflict.
Last summer, shortly after Germany broke with its allies and partners and abstained in a vote in the United Nations Security Council on military intervention in Libya, it agreed the sale of up to 270 Leopard II tanks to Saudi Arabia, which had helped suppress pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. Now Saudi Arabia now also wants to buy hundreds of Boxer armoured vehicles – which are even more suited for suppressing protests than Leopard II tanks. Germany has approved the sale of about €1.2 billion in arms to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar is also interested in buying Leopard IIs. There has also been a big increase in the sale of arms – including frigates and Fuchs armoured personnel carriers – to Algeria. The sale of nuclear-capable Dolphin submarines to Israel was the subject of another Spiegel cover story in the summer; according to the latest Spiegel story, Israel now wants to buy German launchers for rocket-propelled grenades too – and opposes another sale of Type 209 submarines to Egypt.
Decisions about German arms sales are taken in secret by the Bundessicherheitsrat, or Federal Security Council, which consists of the chancellor, her chief of staff and seven other ministers. According to the latest arms report published by the German economics ministry, German arms export permits reached €10 billion in 2011 for the first time. There has been a significant increase in the proportion of weapons sold to countries outside NATO (and NATO-equivalent states such as Australia and Japan) and the EU. In 2010, just 29 percent of sales were to such so-called third-party states; it is now 42 percent. It is undemocratic states such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that account for much of that increase. Some such as former former chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher have publicly criticized Merkel’s approach. Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück has promised a more restrictive arms export policy if he is elected chancellor next September.
Of course, Germany is not the only country that exports weapons around the world. The British and French governments are, if anything, even more open about promoting their defence industries (though, according to the latest SIPRI statistics on arms transfers, Germany now sells more than either of them). In my view, selling arms is also not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it could be a legitimate way for Europeans to support democracies in Asia. But what makes the German case so striking, and problematic, is that Germany is often thought of as a “civilian power” – in other words, one that, unlike a great power, avoids the use of military force and tries to “civilise” international relations. However, although Germany is reluctant to deploy force itself (as the abstention on Libya illustrated), it is apparently not so reluctant to sell weapons to others to use (as the Saudi tank deal illustrates). Germany’s arms exports are a kind of blind spot in its “civilian power” identity. In fact, the loosening of German arms exports restrictions supports the idea that Germany is now becoming a “geo-economic power”.
In this context, the contrast between Germany and Japan – the other country that is sometimes thought of as a “civilian power” – is also interesting. Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, passed in 1947, declares that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” But, importantly, this renunciation of war includes arms exports: since 1967, the Japanese government has in effect imposed on itself a ban on the sale of weapons. Admittedly, against the background of the rise of China, Japan is now beginning to relax the ban. But, even before reunification, the Federal Republic never had such a ban. It is often said that Germany has made more of a break with its militaristic past than Japan (see for example Ian Buruma’s book The Wages of Guilt). However, in terms of arms-exports policy, it seems to me that Japan has actually been more consistent and thoroughgoing in its rejection of military force than Germany has.