In Berlin these days, it's better not to talk about the war. Even as the battle heats up against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, several NATO allies with troops stationed there are trying hard to stay out of the fighting. Chief among them is Germany, whose 3,200 soldiers form the third largest contingent, after America's 27,000 and Britain's 7,800. Earlier this month a chorus of German politicians from all parties chimed in with Chancellor Angela Merkel in rejecting fresh calls by the United States, Canada and other allies to send troops to help NATO in the increasingly embattled south. German media quoted officials huffing that the requests were "impertinent" and "cheeky." It would be too difficult for the Bundeswehr, Merkel explained, to "constantly rush back and forth between different regions of Afghanistan." The Bundeswehr, she insisted, would remain in the peaceful north, in and around the capital, Kabul, where since 2001 it has helped build schools and dig wells and is under strict orders to stay out of counterinsurgency combat.
On the surface, the argument is over how to fix Afghanistan and share the burden within the alliance. It can get testy. In Washington before the U.S. Congress last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that NATO was fast becoming a "two-tier alliance," with ''some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not." The Germans argue that humanitarian work will do more to help Afghanistan—and that the Bush administration's heavy-footed reliance on military operations helped encourage the insurgency in the first place.
But the real reason for the German refusal to fight in the south isn't policy—it's politics. The paralysis of Merkel's unwieldy grand coalition, now in its third year, has put a stop to economic reform. Now, it's infecting foreign policy as well. As the country's Zeitgeist shifts left, Merkel and her advisers are transfixed by polls showing that 86 percent of Germans—including most of her own party—say the Bundeswehr should not be fighting anywhere, and 61 percent want even the non-combat mission pulled out. Fearful of the new and rising Left Party, whose populist mix of socialism and pacifist isolationism helped it win seats in two key regional parliamentary elections last month, Germany's political leaders are desperately avoiding a debate about war, peace and what hot spots like Afghanistan might mean for the country's future security in an unstable world.
To be sure, this is not just a German problem. France, Italy and Spain as well have refused to let their troops fight in the south. The European Union remains deeply split on just about every major foreign-policy issue, including Afghanistan, whether Turkey should be admitted to their club, and how to manage a resurgent, authoritarian Russia. Yet Germany seems unique for its almost complete lack of honest strategic debate—over global terror, over immigration, over eastern expansion of the EU, or over the security of its energy supply. Germany's allies would certainly welcome it if the country decided to play a bigger role, but the German political class seems utterly unwilling to break out of its inward-looking postwar shell.
Everyone expected more. From a few token pilots on an AWACS plane over Bosnia in 1993—Germany's first military appearance outside its borders since World War II—to the 2001 decision by the then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to send the Bundeswehr to help stabilize Afghanistan, the general belief, and the consensus among the country's own elites, was that Germany would slowly grow into an international and military role more in line with its vast economic power. It would become a "net contributor" to global security. Many outsiders believed it was a coming-of-age process that would just take time.
Now that outcome no longer seems so ensured. "The Left Party has veto power over German politics right now," says Jan Techau, head of European policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations. With national elections next year, Merkel is still shellshocked by the experience of 2002, when Schröder snatched a last-minute victory by playing the highly popular "peace card" against the American buildup to Iraq. The much deeper problem—with effects reaching far beyond next year's election—is that the German political class has consistently lacked the courage to explain to a deeply pacifist and isolationist public that the country's security and prosperity might come with a price, says Techau. "Instead of debating what's at stake in Afghanistan and how the alliance should deal with an increasingly difficult security situation, our leadership has held up the illusion that we can get by and even 'shape globalization' with humanitarian missions," he says.
Exhibit A in reality avoidance: the Bundeswehr, which remains vastly underfinanced and underequipped. Germany spends only 1.5 percent of its GDP on its military, compared with Britain's 2.4 percent, France's 2.6 percent and America's 4.1 percent. In Afghanistan, German troops lack state-of-the-art field communications and depend on Ukrainian planes to transport equipment. At closer look, even the humanitarian efforts on which German politicians take such pride are underfinanced and poorly coordinated. Germany has declared itself the lead nation for building up Afghanistan's police force. Yet it has sent no more than a few dozen trainers; the United States outspends the Germans on police training alone almost 50 to 1, according to a recent report by RAND. Three years after the EU determined that German, British and Italian efforts to build up the courts and police were running wastefully side by side, there has been virtually no progress on effective coordination, says Daniel Kurski at the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations. He calls Afghanistan "Europe's Forgotten War."
Germany may be the European power with the deepest isolationist tendencies, but there is little indication that other European countries are much more bold. Take the EU's expansion to the east and south. Here lie Europe's closest geostrategic challenges: how to stabilize its eastern frontier, North Africa, Turkey and beyond. Yet the debate seems to be driven by fear of immigrants and the dangers of open borders. "The Europeans are still very far from being able to order their environment," says John Kornblum, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and now an executive at Lazard in Berlin. "Europe sits there, naked in the world, dependent on global stability to export its products and import its resources. It sees a decaying world all around but cannot analyze the security issues involved, let alone act." As long as the geopolitics of Germany and its neighbors are constrained by populism and fear, that's not going to change any time soon.