Monthly Mind October 2012 - A Special Relationship: The United States, Germany, and Israel

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger

On November 6, Germany will be in election fever. TV channels will provide special coverage of the US Presidential elections all night long. Many Germans will meet at private events or public election parties, as experts shed light on the intricacies of the electoral system and announce the latest results. One might even get the impression that, at least for some Germans, the US Presidential elections are more important than the Bundestag elections. What is more, many Germans seem to feel that they should have a say in the US elections. This not only underlines that the United States is still the leading power, whose actions and positions affect everyone all over the world, but also that there is still a very special relationship between our countries. We have not forgotten that the United States was the guarantor of West Germany’s freedom and security during the Cold War years.


The stability of the US-German partnership, built over decades, also ensures that we do not worry about the outcome of the elections. Although many Germans have a lot of sympathy for President Obama, they will also get along well with Mitt Romney should he be elected President. In the past, occasional disagreements notwithstanding, Germany has had excellent relations with both Democratic and Republican administrations. And we trust that this will continue to be the case.


To be sure, Germans also have a lot of expectations. Just as no day passes without a US politician urging the Europeans to solve the Euro crisis and generate more growth, we are waiting eagerly for an economic recovery in the United States. Given the interdependence of our societies, both sides have huge stakes in each other’s well-being. If one side is struggling, the other will not prosper.

Due to the United States' unique role in world politics, US foreign policy also matters a lot to us. Germany appreciates that the US continues to play a leading role on the global stage. For the solution of many pressing international issues, the United States remains the indispensable nation. While America cannot bring about solutions single-handedly, without US engagement, reaching meaningful agreements is often impossible.  


This is especially obvious when we look at the current situation in the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. European countries do not have much leverage in the region themselves, but they will be glad to cooperate with the United States – as they have done before. For Germany, as for the US, the Iranian regime and its unacceptable rhetoric threatening Israel remains a grave cause of concern. As the Chancellor made clear when she spoke in the Knesset in 2008: Israel’s security is part of the German reason of state. "For me as German Chancellor," Merkel emphasized, "Israel's security is never negotiable. And if this is the case, these words must not remain an empty phrase in the moment of truth."


The German government has repeatedly shown that this statement was more than cheap talk. For instance, it has provided Israel with high-tech submarines that are an essential asset in Israel’s deterrence arsenal. Yet, we need an intensified discussion in Germany about what it would mean if the escalation of sanctions eventually do not deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon. While the chancellor’s statements have been widely reported, and are consensus among most of the political parties, there has been too little debate about what that might actually signify for German policy should push come to shove.


As of now, a diplomatic solution is possible. Time has not run out yet. The harsh and lively debates among experts and politicians in Israel testify to how complicated, ambivalent, and unpredictable every possible course of action is. While all other options appear to be bad options, deterrence and containment may eventually be the least bad among them. In any case, we should be wary of underestimating the potential consequences of a military escalation – the result of which is completely uncertain. Yet, deterrence is also not an easy option. It needs resolve and clearly articulated red lines. The United States would have to play a major role in making deterrence credible without making military escalation likely.


Not only Iran's nuclear ambitions, but also the Arab uprisings have proven to be particularly challenging concerns for our foreign policy – and, of course, even more so for Israel's. Many have expressed their concern that the revolutions in the Arab world will render Israel even more isolated. However, the Arab spring might very well be an unexpected opportunity for Israel. For the first time, Israel could stop being the only democratic state in the region, joined by the young Arab republics getting rid of their dictatorships. In the short run, it could be harder to make peace with whole societies instead of regimes. But it is the only peace that will be sustainable in the long run.


To be sure, recent news from the Middle East have not always been encouraging. Yet, I truly believe that, eventually, the Arab revolutions will turn out to be beneficial for Israel’s security and its relationships with its neighbors. Germans know that times of rapid international change not only bring uncertainty, but also usually provide opportunities that can be seized. When the Soviet empire began to crumble at the end of 1980s, few, if any, experts believed that German unification would be achieved only short after – without a shot being fired. This is not to say that one could compare the difficult situation of today’s Israel with Germany’s uncertainty in the face of the transformations in Central and Eastern Europe. It just means that human beings can overcome even the most protracted conflicts, which have materialized in walls, fortified borders and sophisticated military doctrines.   


In this vein, we also hope that there will be a renewed effort to solve the Palestinian question, which has unfortunately been sidelined to some degree. We expect the next US administration – whether new or renewed – to make a strong effort to pave the way for a two-state solution, in which the legitimate interests of both Israelis and Palestinians are taken into account. Germany would like to support them in achieving this goal. This is but one of the reasons why Germans – like Israelis – will pay special attention to the foreign policy views of the two candidates and closely follow the elections in November.


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 version of this Monthly Mind has been published as "A Special Relationship: Germany, U.S., and Israel" in the newspaper Jewish Voice from Germany on September 25, 2012.

01 October 2012, by Wolfgang Ischinger