Rethinking Germany: From nuclear to NATO

After not endorsing the Libya no-fly zone and its small Green party victory, developments in Germany should be praised.

German chancellor Angela Merkel shut down seven of her country’s old nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster, but critics and activists decried the move as a superficial attempt to help win regional elections [GALLO/GETTY]

Germany, in many respects, is the least lovable country in the Western world, not only for their unforgettable Nazi past, but also due to the hard power materialism and reactionary politics of the German success story.

Despite the rise of the European Union and Germany’s dominant role as the economic engine pulling the European train, the culture and politics of the country remain unpleasantly nationalist, unwelcoming to foreign minorities, even after several generations of residence  an assessment that most of the three million Turks living there will confirm.

If anyone doubts this harsh depiction of German reality, then I recommend watching Jerichow, the acclaimed Christian Petzold film that depicts the tragic plight of the Turkish “success” story in Germany. Or, for that matter, a reading of almost any novel by Gunter Grass – especially, for me, The Tin Drum and The Rat.

But my purpose here is to take issue with the recent bashing of Germany because of its stands on nuclear energy and the Libyan intervention.

Going ‘Green’

Of course, national stereotypes should always be taken with a grain of salt, and if possible, balanced by an acknowledgement of contradictory evidence, which in this case would call attention to a litany of German cultural and scientific achievements through the ages.

Germany has given the world more than its share of great music and literature, and its engineering skills and high quality labour force continue to produce a range of superior products.

And philosophically, German thinkers have exerted a profound influence on modern political and religious thought, perhaps none more than the enigmatic Nietzsche, whose metaphysical scepticism induced a still-not-fully acknowledged courageous humanism, and led generations later to such seminal figures as Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Juergens Habermas.

Personally, I had the good fortune to have a friendship with two extraordinary Germans  Petra Kelly and Rudolph Barro  who both died young, and brilliantly represented the opposing factions of the Green party during its early period of prominence in the heartland of the Cold War.

It was this green questioning of modern industrial society that raised the most serious post-Marxist challenge to what later became known as “The Washington Consensus”,  the geopolitical slogan that identifies the neoliberal ideology that continues to exploit the peoples of the world and to destroy our natural habitat – having in the last several years proved itself resistant to correction despite a deep recession, with expectations of worse to come.

These two Germans had a basic divergence of judgement as to the depth and breadth of the Green vision; Kelly thought that a responsible capitalism was possible, while Barro – “a post-industrial utopian” – was convinced that nothing less than the rollback of industrialism could ensure ecological and spiritual survival for the human species.

Fundamental issues

Especially in the aftermath of the Sendai/Fukushima ordeal, such fundamental issues are – or should be – integral to the political and moral imagination of all those of us who currently see the future through a glass darkly.

With respect to nuclear energy, German public opinion exhibited more of a reaction to the Fukushima problems than anywhere else on the planet, probably in part because of the Green political presence, memories of the devastation of World War II, the fears of windblown radiation generated by the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986, and because 25 per cent of German power comes from nuclear reactors.

In a tight electoral atmosphere, chancellor Angela Merkel retreated from her earlier embrace of nuclear energy, imposing a moratorium on extending the life of existing reactors as well as temporarily shutting down seven over-age reactors throughout Germany that were of the same design as those in trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex.

German voters were evidently not persuaded by this last minute switch, and in the key conservative state of Baden-Württemberg, the electorate gave the Green party a surprise victory on March 27th, and, for the first time, control of a German state that happened to have been under Christian Democratic Union (CDU) control for almost six decades.

Green shoots in a new political landscape

The mainstream media derided Merkel for her failed cheap political trick and simultaneously attacked the Greens as unfit to govern or to devise a viable energy policy for the future.

In effect, Green insistence on totally ending German reliance on nuclear power is accompanied by a belief that the accelerated development of wind and solar energy generation can supply energy needs without hurting the economy – if a sufficient effort is made.

In their bid for greater political influence, the Greens now accept the persistence and contributions of capitalism, and believe that markets can be made to function humanely and in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.

Whatever else, this Green upsurge brings forth some alternative thinking that is desperately needed throughout the world, and is sadly missing in most major societies  perhaps most dramatically in the United States.

It also engages German youth, especially women, as a way of forging a brighter future. Instead of considering the Green success in Germany as an anomaly in secular politics because it focuses less on jobs and Eurozone difficulties than does public opinion, it should be regarded as a challenge to the sterile and historically irrelevant political parties that continue to dominate the scene in Euro-American elections – a condition that helps explain the alienation of the young and the embitterment of the old, as well as such a genuine anomaly as the mean spirited rise of the totally dysfunctional Tea party in the United States.

What plants manage to flourish in the current US political desert should make all Americans – and for that matter, everyone everywhere – tremble.

We not only are damaging ourselves, but because of our heavy global footprint, putting others throughout the world at severe risk.

Praiseworthy debate

The German interrogation of nuclear energy is entirely justifiable, and rather than being dismissed as an over-reaction (Germany is not prone to either earthquakes or tsunami) or economically quixotic (renewable energy will not be able to supply sufficient energy to dispense with nuclear), it should be praised as taking seriously risks that have been thoughtlessly assumed and promoted by special interests elsewhere.

It is not only the events in Japan that should give us pause, but the oil rig disaster associated with the deep sea drilling of British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, alongside the oil-driven interventions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, which should be introduced to the calculus of gains and losses.

These various developments, including a variety of geo-engineering schemes to gain access to deep pockets of natural gas and oil shale deposits, suggest the overall proneness of these economically seductive frontier technologies to catastrophic accidents.

In effect, our consumerist compulsions to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the earth is pushing human endeavour up against a series of limits – which, if not respected, enters domains of apocalyptic risk that will only be realised as such in retrospect.

It seems self-evident beyond discussion that now that the Fukushima reactor accidents have taken place, the future of nuclear energy will be scrutinised in a manner that was inconceivable earlier. Will it be enough to prevent future disasters?

Just as Hiroshima was a warning ignored with respect to nuclear weaponry, there is every indication that Fukushima will be muted sufficiently to end up as yet another unheeded warning.

Influential governmental and industry reassurances are in the offing, likely in the form of higher safety and monitoring standards, more care being taken when deciding upon reactor locations, and claims that alternative energy sources cannot meet demand.

A variety of arguments will probably be made by the formidable private interests at stake that soft coal is far more dangerous to human health and societal wellbeing than is nuclear energy, even taking into account periodic occurrences that generate public fear of the sort now present.

The claim is being widely made in the media these days that a catastrophic accident disrupts social reason, and that with a return to rational decision making the benefits  indeed the necessity  of nuclear energy will soon be appreciated.

Germany, whatever its motivations, has reminded the world that these issues, however resolved, should engage both the leadership and citizenry of a robust democracy.

In this sense, the German actions that have aroused widespread criticism should rather be seen as a display of public reason at its best, rather than a foolish detour into the underbrush of romantic politics derisively associated with this Green ascendancy.

‘No’ to no-fly

Germany has also been widely criticised for its refusal to back the Security Council resolution authorising the establishment of a no-fly zone for the protection of civilians in Libya.

The contention is that the German vote to abstain was a stab in the back from the perspective of European unity and loyalty to NATO.

It was an irresponsible refusal to stand behind the humanitarian values that the intervening governments were claiming to be at stake.

No matter that the concerns that Germany expressed prior to the vote have all been proven well taken: a no-fly zone is a clumsy instrument of intervention, essentially incapable of either altering the outcome of the struggle for power on the ground in Libya or achieving regime change – given that this political goal would involve ignoring the explicit limits to action set by the UN resolution.

As the military operation has unfolded, it has decreasingly been devoted to protecting Libyan civilians in cities under attack by Gaddafi forces, and mostly using NATO firepower to help the rebels somehow prevail in the struggle, despite their meagre military capabilities and shadowy identity.

By refusing to endorse such a venture it would seem to me that Germany deserves the thanks of the world, not a lecture on alliance loyalty.

Should not a democratic government be reluctant to commit its resources and citizens to foreign military undertakings unless the case for doing so is fully convincing on legal, moral and practical grounds?

In the instance of Libya, Germany had urged that diplomacy and sanctions be tried prior to any serious discussion of military intervention.

Is not this what the UN Charter mandates, seeking to make recourse to force the last option after all efforts at peaceful resolution have been tried and have failed?

Unfortunately, the UN has in the past succumbed to US-led geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War, authorising without any ongoing supervision the first Gulf War (1991)  when a diplomatic solution could have probably achieved the same thing with a far less human cost and now again in relation to Libya twenty years later.

True, the Security Council did not endorse the Kosovo War (1999) (thanks to the prospect of a Russian veto) or the Iraq War (2003), but it did acquiesce later in the results produced by the unlawful uses of forces in both instances, thereby making its refusal to mandate the attacks in the first place little more than a nominal obstacle that could be circumvented by acting independently of UN blessings.

For Germany to stand alone among its Western allies while being in solidarity with the BRIC countries should be a moment of national pride, not soul searching as the German mainstream press has been encouraging.

It may even be that if the EU cannot manage its sequence of sovereign debt and banking crises, the German future will be a move toward a closer alignment with an emergent global multipolarism and away from an outmoded adherence to the US-led bipolarity of the Cold War era.

Admittedly, this is a remote prospect at present, although attractive from the perspective of constituting a genuine “new world order” in the face of continuing US decline, including a hoped-for overcoming of violent geopolitics if this eventuality comes to fruition.

A brighter German future

Where others raise eyebrows over these recent German developments, I find them deserving of admiration.

Just as Turkey has been recently chastised by both US neoconservatives and Israeli warmongers for getting out of its lane – that is, for actively seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran in relation to its nuclear program – so is Germany now being instructed to get back in its NATO lane, tantamount to doing what the United States wants done.

It is true that, in relation to Libya, it was France and Britain that were most ardent, seeming to have the most at stake (above all, oil and fear of an influx of Libyan immigrants). But the engagement of NATO is not likely to be credible without US leadership, as the Libyan operations have shown the world.

In effect, in matters of war and peace, each country is ethically sovereign, given the way the world is organised, even if each often acts as political subservient that is, being deferential to the existing geopolitical hierarchy than showing respect for international law, or honouring its own calculus of values and interests.

For all these reasons, let us hope that these German initiatives are not merely episodes soon to be repudiated, but represent a new pathway to a brighter German future – one that others should reflect upon, rather than dismiss.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.