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Germany Evaluates Its Global Military Role


Germany has been a pacifist nation ever since the catastrophe of World War II. Any call to deploy German troops would trigger mass protests. Those attitudes are changing. Nobody protested last month when the parliament voted to extend the country's military mission in Afghanistan.

Still, German politicians are reluctant to talk about their country's role in securing the world. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere wants his countrymen to talk about the evolving role of the German military. The minister tells NPR that in Europe, Germany is second only to Britain in troop deployments, but that few here like to think about that.

THOMAS DE MAIZIERE: (Through translator) In Germany, the military's operational concept was not to go on missions. Things have changed since reunification, but many Germans like to live in the past and haven't internalized their country's importance.

NELSON: He has repeatedly called for public talks in schools, universities and churches to acknowledge the new reality. His stance carries some risk. Former German President Horst Koehler resigned in 2010 following a public backlash to his comments that deployments were necessary to protect German interests, including trade routes.

Olaf Boehnke heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He says a recent graduation he attended shows just how entrenched the anti-military attitude in Germany is.

OLAF BOEHNKE: One of the students in his speech was criticizing the German government for the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and also the German engagement in military actions, and there was a broad applause in the audience. Of course these were students of political science in Germany, so this gives you an indication, of course, that this is a very hard fight to fight, but I think we have to do it.

NELSON: He and other German analysts say that the government is under growing international pressure to get involved militarily in foreign conflicts, especially as America cuts back on its role as the world's policeman. They say being a political powerhouse in the European Union and serving as paymaster in the euro-crisis is no longer enough.

But few here expect any national dialogue this year like the defense minister is calling for. German political preoccupation is with national elections this September and the military is not a topic likely to garner votes.

Some here accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel's government of selling arms rather than sending in German troops to address security concerns. A December cover story in Der Spiegel magazine outlined a Merkel doctrine, in which key countries in unstable areas were being sold high-tech German weapons so they could maintain security on their own.

That worries Edelgard Bulmahn, an opposition lawmaker with the Social Democrats, who serves on the Bundestag foreign affairs committee.

EDELGARD BULMAHN: We always realized that military approach doesn't really solve the conflict. But nevertheless, arms exports can't be a substitute for a role of our country.

NELSON: She objects to Germany selling tanks and weapons to countries with questionable human rights records like Saudi Arabia, where they may be used to oppress minorities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German)

NELSON: Bulmahn and other lawmakers took part in a contentious Bundestag debate in late January about the lack of transparency in arms exports. Germany is the third biggest exporter of arms worldwide, although it trails far behind the U.S. and Russia.

Olaf Simonsen, a retired vice president of the German Office of Economics and Exports, says secret deals are only part of the problem. He charges that changes to European trade laws are giving the German government greater freedom to sell arms to more Third World countries, even if it doesn't have a license for those countries.

OLAF SIMONSEN: For example, if France has no problems to deliver items to a former colony in Africa, it's now allowed for the German exporter to transfer an item from Germany to France. And then France can export transfer the final product to this country.

NELSON: But some analysts like Christian Moelling believe the concerns over German arms exports are overblown. The defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin says the level of actual exports hasn't changed that much in recent years. He says they hover around 2.5 billion U.S. dollars each year, or about 1 percent of Germany's gross domestic product.

CHRISTIAN MOELLING: What may, however, be true for the future is that German defense companies are looking for new markets as everybody is for the moment.

NELSON: Moelling and other experts say that's because NATO countries and other allies Germany traditionally sells to are buying less.

MAIZIERE: (German spoken)

NELSON: German Defense Minister de Maiziere implored the U.S. - tongue in cheek, perhaps - to buy important military products from Germany once in a while and not just try to sell its own goods.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.