This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”
Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.
Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.
History is “dialectical,” as Germans like to say. It rarely advances in straight lines. It usually takes jagged swings between opposites. One senior diplomat explained to me that if Westerwelle had not embraced the “culture of restraint” so proudly, it would be impossible for the current players to throw it overboard so comprehensively.
The president’s remarks had an impact because they seemed to be part of a broader campaign by the German foreign policy establishment. The new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked about “reactivating the German foreign ministry” and has offered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Germany.