German Opposition Criticizes Merkel’s Arms Exports

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

German Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrück speaks in Berlin, October 18, 2008
German Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrück speaks in Berlin, October 18, 2008 (SPD/Marco Urban)

German opposition leader Peer Steinbrück sharply criticized Angela Merkel’s right-wing government on Saturday for letting arms exports surge in recent years. The Social Democrat, who will challenge Merkel for the chancellorship in September’s election, vowed to reduce German weapons sales if the left comes to power next year.

Steinbrück, who served as finance minister in Merkel’s previous government when her conservatives governed with the Social Democrats instead of the liberal party, said it was 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 largest 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 worth of exports.

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 intend 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.

The German weekly Der Spiegel has dubbed these weapons sales part of a “Merkel Doctrine” — the strengthening of the defense capabilities of partner countries outside Europe 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.”

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 their prerogatives in warzones such as Afghanistan. The German public overwhelmingly opposed participation in the Iraq invasion in 2003 and has since turned against the mission in Afghanistan as well.

From the coalition’s perspective, the “Merkel Doctrine” doesn’t only justify the sale of weapons to autocratic nations; it addresses the public’s conflict wariness as it provides the government with an excuse for Germany’s reluctance 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 for increasing weapons sales. As NATO countries cut back on their defense spending, the German arms industry has to find new markets if it is to remain among the most innovative in its field.

Whether Steinbrück’s Social Democrats will manage to force a change in policy is doubtful. His party and its natural coalition partner, the Green party, win a combined 43 percent of the votes in a recent ARD TV poll; more than Merkel’s conservatives but not enough to form a majority government. A “grand coalition” between the Christian and Social Democrats seems most likely. Merkel previously led such a government between 2005 and 2009.

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