Monthly Mind September 2012 - The Bundestag should have a say
The course that the Syrian crisis has taken to date would appear to demonstrate that, after its experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is no longer prepared to get involved in any more military interventions, at least for the time being. Some may welcome this development, although the tricky question as to the negative consequences of this sort of stance for global and regional stability remains unanswered. Will the new and noble principle of the responsibility to protect become a mirage? And which conclusions will dictators, terrorists and other unsavory players draw from the current situation?
The political trend would certainly appear to be trying to compensate - at least in part - for this new-found abstinence by facilitating arms shipments. At the same time, the voices embroiled in Germany's security policy debate calling for a certain easing of the requirement for parliament to approve foreign deployments of the German army would appear to be getting louder, most recently among members of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group again. The expectations of our NATO and EU partners would also appear to be moving in the same direction, the suggestion being that Germany should not leave itself paralyzed, or exclude itself as a potential partner, as a result of the parliamentary approval requirement. But the collision of these two trends, the easing of the parliamentary approval requirement that would certainly be desirable from a security perspective, and the decision to focus less on military operations abroad and more on strategic arms exports, would actually reduce parliament's power to contribute to and shape German security policy as a "double-whammy" effect. In this sort of scenario, of course, the chances of achieving a majority for the easing of the parliamentary approval requirement in the Bundestag are virtually zero.
So what is the solution? If the Bundestag plays a decisive role in shaping German security policy by being involved in issues relating to foreign operations - such is our understanding of the constitution - why is the Bundestag then happy to sit back and merely act as a bystander when it comes to the question of strategic arms exports, which is just as serious and is becoming increasingly important from a security policy perspective? This is certainly not a well-rounded security policy that is abounding in inner logic.
If the German government starts thinking – as it is certainly entitled to – about breaking ties with the traditional, but politically somewhat helpless principle of "no arms exports to regions in crisis", these export decisions become all the more important in a strategic, political, and humanitarian sense.
As a result, there are a lot of arguments in favor of the Bundestag having the right, in the future, to have a say in strategically important arms export decisions – particularly when they affect regions in crisis. Deliveries to partners and allies can, of course, be left out of this equation. The argument that discussions on these export applications have to be kept secret does not stand in the way of this. The various Bundestag committees have always treated certain issues as highly confidential. What is more, the conventional secrecy regulations of the Bundessicherheitsrat (Federal Security Council) are likely to meet with more and more political opposition in the foreseeable future anyway. So it is time for a rethink in this respect, too.
Worries that the involvement of one or several Bundestag committees could hinder the interests of the German arms export industry are not plausible. On the contrary: involving parliamentary committees in the advisory and decision-making process may help reduce political conflict and help build a consensus, as is repeatedly seen in other areas of political decision-making.
The side-effects of such parliamentary involvement for the German government itself would also be positive: after all, it would be much more elegant if the grounds given for saying "no" to a requesting country were cited not as mistrust in the country's intentions, but rather as a parliamentary veto. Incidentally, this clever division of labor when it comes to saying "no" has been successfully practiced by many of our partners for some time now.
If this were to strengthen the Bundestag's involvement in German security policy, then there would perhaps also be a better chance of easing the parliamentary approval requirement for foreign operations. The results would have a positive impact all round: on the Bundestag, which would enjoy better participation rights on the whole, on the German government, which could expect more of a consensus when it comes to controversial arms export issues - and on the arms industry, which would see its legitimacy reinforced by the parliament's involvement: a win-win situation for everyone, albeit one that needs the Bundestag to take the initiative in order to change the legislation accordingly.
Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and Ambassador in Washington and London. He is now Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an advisor to Allianz SE. A German version of this piece was published in the German daily Handelsblatt on 31 August 2012.