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Germany promises more engagement: but not on the battlefield

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gives his speech during the annual Munich Security Conference February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Luka
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gives his speech during the annual Munich Security Conference February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Luka

By Stephen Brown

MUNICH (Reuters) - Germany's U.S. and European allies welcome Berlin's promise of a more robust foreign and security policy, but with no appetite at home for troops to fight, it may mean little more than extra logistical help and tougher rhetoric.

At this year's security conference in Munich, where 11 years ago pacifist-turned-foreign minister Joschka Fischer told U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld "excuse me, I am not convinced" about the war in Iraq, Germany promised its knee-jerk reaction would no longer be a 'no' to overseas missions.

"In my view, to be a good partner Germany should get involved more quickly, more decisively and more substantially," said head of state President Joachim Gauck, in a message that was reinforced by the German foreign and defense ministers.

"Germany is too big to only comment on world politics from the sidelines," said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Seven decades after the defeat of the Nazis, Germany still feels constrained by history, and public shows of patriotism like flags at football matches are a fairly recent phenomenon.

The Americans and Germany's close neighbors have long urged it to provide more decisive leadership for Europe - beyond prescribing austerity during the euro zone crisis - and play a more prominent geopolitical role, leveraging its trade relations.

"Leading, I say respectfully, does not mean meeting in Munich for discussions, it means committing resources," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the 50th annual Munich Security Conference this weekend.

Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who said in 2011, "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity", told Reuters in Munich that in the Ukraine crisis, "Germany is taking its role, I'm glad to say."

So far, that has involved Chancellor Angela Merkel issuing firm condemnations of President Viktor Yanukovich's crackdown on protesters and phoning Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A more robust diplomatic posture alone is unlikely to erase what U.S. Republican Senator John McCain described in Munich as the "embarrassing" moment in 2011 when Germany declined to help its NATO allies support the Libyans fighting Muammar Gaddafi.

McCain told Reuters Gauck's speech had been important but acknowledged that the president "didn't commit Germany to anything that was specific or large". McCain limited his expectations to a bigger military role in disaster and humanitarian relief.

One senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said German officials in Munich showed an interest in a more "expeditionary" international security policy.

The source cited the French-led intervention in Mali, where about 100 German military personnel provide support such as troop transport flights and training, and an upcoming European mission to the Central African Republic, where Germany has said it may again provide logistical support - but not firepower.

This is very much along the lines of all Germany's overseas military missions: almost 5,000 Germany personnel currently take part in nine international missions, including more than 3,000 in Afghanistan, mostly working on training local security forces.

TAKING UP THE SLACK

Steinmeier said in Munich that with Europe increasingly hemmed in by conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, "Germany, with all its diplomatic, military and aid capacity cannot stand by when its help is needed".

It must also hurt German pride to be patronized by old rival France, whose Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius boasted in Munich that President Francois Hollande has proved he is willing to "do the job" in Africa and now Europe "has decided to come with us".

In global terms, demand for a stronger German and European presence in the world's troublespots mirrors worry about the Americans' growing reluctance to entangle their troops abroad.

"There's a realization all over the world, including here in Germany, that the United States is withdrawing and is weaker and other countries are going to have to start to take up the slack," said McCain.

There are is also a party political explanation for the bold new German tone. Merkel's third term has begun with a whirl of activity from pensions to renewable energy, and the foreign and defense ministries do not want to be left out.

In the coalition deal between her conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD), the center left did not get the finance portfolio so Steinmeier needs to beef up the foreign ministry, which lost influence at home and abroad under his predecessor.

At the same time the defense ministry has become the vehicle for Ursula von der Leyen's ambitions of becoming conservative leader for the 2017 election. She has visited German troops in Afghanistan and vowed the make the armed forces family-friendly.

But the president, who was a pastor and rights campaigner in the former communist East Germany, asked in his Munich speech if Germans were willing to "share the risks" with their allies.

The answer is: probably not. In opinion polls just over half of people approve of more engagement in humanitarian missions in Africa but two thirds oppose a bigger overseas military role.

"Gauck is preparing us mentally for the militarization of German foreign policy," said Bernd Riexinger, head of the Left Party which opposes NATO membership and, like the opposition Greens, represents a strong pacifist strain in German society.

Merkel's conservatives and SPD allies also know that while their former World War Two foes have mostly got over their hang-ups about German militarism, the public tends to look inwards.

Hence Merkel's clear comment to parliament that any Central African Republic mission would "not be about a German combat force", but the Bundeswehr in its familiar supporting role.

Annette Heuser of Washington's Bertelsmann Foundation said Gauck had started a "desperately needed debate ... about a proper, more activist foreign and security policy".

But she cautioned that the notoriously cautious Merkel was "yet to become fully engaged on this issue".

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Missy Ryan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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