German Opposition Criticizes Merkel’s Arms Exports

The left condemns the sale of weapons to undemocratic governments and conflict areas.

German Social Democratic Party leader Peer Steinbrück gives a speech in Berlin, October 18, 2008
German Social Democratic Party leader Peer Steinbrück gives a speech in Berlin, October 18, 2008 (SPD/Marco Urban)

German opposition leader Peer Steinbrück has sharply criticized Angela Merkel’s right-wing government for letting arms exports surge.

The Social Democrat, who will challenge Merkel for the chancellorship in September, vowed to reduce German weapons sales if the left comes to power.

Scandal

Steinbrück, who served as finance minister in Merkel’s previous government, called it a scandal that Germany has become the world’s third largest arms exporter.

“We’re even exporting weapons to regions in conflict and to areas where human rights aren’t respected,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.

Ten years ago, Germany was the world’s sixth arms exporter with $925 million sold abroad, behind the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Italy.

It now trails only the United States and Russia with nearly $2.5 billion in exports.

Further sales

The figure could yet increase.

Qatar has expressed an interest in buying up to two hundred German-made tanks, a deal that would be worth $2.6 billion.

Last year, Saudi Arabia bought 270 of the same battle tanks.

Egypt and Israel plan to buy HDW submarines worth $925 and $535 million, respectively.

Total arms export permits issued by the government topped €10 billion for the first time last year, or $13.2 billion.

Merkel Doctrine

The German weekly Der Spiegel has dubbed these weapons sales part of a “Merkel Doctrine”: strengthening the defense capabilities of partner countries outside Europe in order to enable them to maintain peace and security without the need for Western intervention.

“It’s a risky strategy,” the magazine wrote earlier this year, “and it also signifies a substantial departure from the nationwide consensus on German foreign policy.”

Demilitarized

Since the end of World War II, German society has been extremely demilitarized. Despite relatively high levels of defense spending, the German armed forces are limited in scope and even more limited in terms of what they are allowed to do. Germans overwhelmingly opposed participation in the Iraq War in 2003 and have since turned against the mission in Afghanistan.

From the government’s perspective, the Merkel Doctrine doesn’t just justify the sale of weapons to autocratic regimes; it gives Germany an excuse not to get involved in wars:

Merkel no longer wants to be responsible for major overseas military missions. She sees Afghanistan as proof that interventions in foreign countries usually fail. In the chancellor’s opinion, it is better and less dangerous to provide military support to one side in a given conflict.

Finally, there’s an economic imperative. As NATO countries cut back on their defense spending, the German arms industry has to find new markets.

Doubtful

It is doubtful Steinbrück’s Social Democrats will manage to force a change in policy. His party and its natural coalition partner, the Greens, get a combined 43 percent support in a recent ARD TV poll — more than Merkel’s conservatives but not enough to form a majority government.

Another “grand coalition” between the Christian and Social Democrats seems most likely.

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