The court's decision is of potentially great significance because it enables Germany to take a small step towards becoming a full participant in global security operations under the auspices of Nato and the UN, thereby finally emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. But Germany still has a long way to go. Paradoxically, while the politicians have been pretending that the issue is a legal one, the court cited political reasons, saying that Germany's international standing would be damaged if German crews were withdrawn from the Bosnian operation. The court avoided a broader constitutional ruling on military activities outside Nato.
Germany's anguish over whether its armed forces should be deployed abroad is in fact only marginally related to the post-war Constitution, which set up barriers to a revival of militarism. Most experts regard the Constitution as unclear but as imposing no absolute ban on participating in multilateral military operations outside the Nato area.
The problem is one of political will. Germany has been deeply inoculated against war by two shattering defeats this century. Military power and prowess are further discredited in the German mind by having been harnessed to the cause of Nazism. During the Cold War the issue could be avoided because Germany's security was in the hands of Nato, its armed forces were under American command and its role was confined to the defence of its own territory.
Most of today's leading German politicians want their country to play a fuller role in the new security commitments that are emerging from the Cold War, but they are unsure of themselves and prevented by the left wing of the Social Democratic Party from mustering the two-thirds majority necessary to clarify the Constitution.
Germans also worry, with some justice, that if they appear too eager to flex their military muscles they will revive old fears among allies and neighbours. They would prefer to be pushed. Many also remain uneasy with concepts of international responsibility after so many years confined to the narrow focus of the Cold War. Moreover, they know that even if they overcome their inhibitions, bitter historical memories in many places besides Serbia will pose special problems for German forces.
For the rest of Europe, it is better to be dealing with a reluctant Germany that yearns to be Switzerland than a restless power in search of an empire. Better than either, however, would be a grown up Germany willing to shoulder its share of responsibility for international security in a period that promises to be complex and turbulent. Its allies will have to draw further on reserves of patience before the transition is complete.Reuse content