On 20 August 2014, the German leadership (Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (all members of the CDU), Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel and Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), after short closed-doors consultations, took the controversial decision to supply arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga, which is involved in an armed conflict with Islamic terrorists. This exception from the existing ban may set a precedent that could potentially change the German doctrine of non-interference in military conflicts.
Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (all members of the CDU), Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel and Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), after short closed-doors consultations, took the controversial decision to supply arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga, which is involved in an armed conflict with Islamic terrorists. This exception from the existing ban  may set a precedent that could potentially change the German doctrine of non-interference in military conflicts.
The decision must be viewed in the context of the reform of the Bundeswehr that started back in the 1990s and initially envisaged Germany’s participation in foreign missions. Simultaneously, changes were taking place in arms export control. Over the past two decades the country has made serious progress along this path, declaring its strategic goals to be Germany’s expanded international responsibility and the need to comply with the principle of the priority of allied obligations within NATO and multilateral cooperation within the framework of the Alliance and the European Union. Incidentally, the political principles underlying the decisions on the involvement of the Bundeswehr in actions outside the German state have yet to be formalised. It is assumed that the aforementioned obligations are above all to be honoured with regard to the USA, which constantly insists on more vigorous participation by its allies in international security actions .
The new government coalition favours the country’s more active involvement in resolving international conflicts, including by military means. The seven points made by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the traditional Munich Security Conference in 2014 are noteworthy. Among other things, they address the need for more resolute and substantial foreign policy moves as well as Germany’s specific responsibility in foreign, defence and security policy matters, especially in Europe. Of particular interest is the fourth point in which the Minister argues that the current culture of (military) restraint (Kultur der Zurückhaltung) should become a culture of non-participation/detachment (Kultur des Heraushaltensv) and that Germany is too big to confine itself to simply commenting on what is happening around the world. Therefore, it should think intensively and creatively together with other parties about “how to use the diplomatic toolbox to implement reasonable initiatives”. This signalled a transition to a new foreign policy paradigm based on the culture of responsibility, which envisages a substantial increase in Germany’s independence in making foreign policy decisions. The decision on military supplies to a crisis-struck region must be viewed in this context.
In Germany, such issues are heavily dependent on the domestic policy factor, which traditionally plays a restraining role on the government in its actions and decisions. This is related to public opinion and the demand for strict parliamentary control over any arms exports. It is a factor that is taken into account by the parties within the government coalition that stress the supremacy of Basic Law in their documents and international law provisions when making corresponding decisions. The government’s Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat, established in 1955) discusses arms export issues in its closed sessions. The Bundestag gets information post factum once a year in the form of a government report when nothing can be changed. In addition, it has no direct leverage on that body.
Opposition parties are important guarantors of compliance with legal norms. The Greens and the Left once again objected to the secrecy of the discussion and adoption of the decision to render military support to the Kurds. They were backed by the representatives of ruling parties in parliament, particularly the CSU whose minister had not been invited to take part in the discussion on 20 August, causing understandable consternation within the party ranks. The opposition called for an emergency session of the lower house of parliament  to discuss the government decision, including the list of weapons recommended by the coalition (the issue is due to be discussed by the government on Wednesday, 27 August). On 22 August, parliamentary parties decided to hold the session on 1 September. The session will hear a government statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel .
The government points out that the Kurds would be supplied from Bundeswehr warehouses, that is, no specific manufacturing companies (which are subject to control) will be involved in exports. Along with defensive equipment (bullet-proof vests, helmets, etc.), grenade throwers and anti-tank rockets are to be supplied and their use involves the presence of instructors. Concern has been voiced about the high risks of this approach. Among other things, German weapons may fall into the hands of third parties (including Islamic terrorists) and the Kurds may later use them to fight for their independence.
Angela Merkel continues to rule out the Bundeswehr’s direct involvement in military conflicts. In addition, the government said in the coalition agreement that it was ready to change the timeframe for reporting on arms exports, and the Bundestag deputies will now get it before the summer recess. Also, an interim report will be prepared and current information on the Federal Council decisions will be provided (no later than two weeks after they are adopted).
The latest decision on arms supplies confirms that Germany is shifting from a culture of restraint in its foreign policy concept to a culture of responsibility, which entails the country’s more active participation and greater independence in resolving various conflicts, including military ones. Such involvement will be coordinated with NATO and EU allies, but in many cases Germany will initiate specific steps. In the foreseeable future such steps will deal with arms supply. Later the participation of Bundeswehr troops (first with UN contingents and then outside its framework) will be put on the agenda. The government will have to meet the Bundestag half-way and agree to more effective parliamentary monitoring, an issue that has been actively discussed over the past several years. In addition, the ruling coalition parties will have to keep an eye on the behaviour and reaction of their electorates, which are generally opposed to the active involvement of their country, especially the Bundeswehr, in the resolution of foreign military conflicts.
1. Current arms export regulations allow exceptions when this is dictated by “the special foreign policy interests and the security interests of the Federal Republic of Germany with due account of allied interests.” To date the government has invoked this exception only once over the issue of arms supply to Israel for which Germany bears special historical responsibility.
2. See also: Germany. 2012 / (ed. V.B. Belov). Part 2. Moscow: Institute of Europe RAS: Russky Suvenir, DIE No. 295, pp. 70–83; Germany. 2013 / (ed. V.B. Belov). Moscow, Institute of Europe RAS, 2014. DIE No. 304. pp. 86–97 (these publications are also available at http://www.ieras.ru/reports.htm).
3. 50 such sessions have been held since 1949 (Sondersitzung).
4. The leader of the Left, Gregor Gysi, is pressing for the introduction of amendments to the Law on Arms Export, a ban on arms supplies to certain countries and the need for parliamentary approval of such exports to other countries. Angela Merkel has categorically rejected these demands.