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Businessweek Archives

The German Military Comes Out Of The Barracks

International Outlook


Amid horrific reports of Serbian war atrocities in Bosnia, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ordered a destroyer and three navy aircraft to join the NATO forces patrolling the Adriatic Sea. Although largely a symbolic contribution, this apparently breached Germany's constitution, which bans German troops from operating outside NATO countries. It's the latest sign that the Continent's dominant economic power is trying to break out of its military straitjacket and carve out a leading role in European security. "We've developed a culture of military reticence, and we must take many small steps to overcome it," German Defense Minister Volker Rhe told business week in an interview.

The opposition Social Democrats have challenged Kohl's action in court. But he is counting on the judges ruling in his favor--which--he says could be an "opener" to further maneuvering abroad. Bundeswehr officials already are preparing units for future U.N. peacekeeping missions. And news that they are laying the groundwork for a 50,000-man rapid reaction force has raised eyebrows in European military circles.

With the U.S. reducing its troop strength in Europe, the Germans are trying to fill some of the vacuum as well as find a role more in line with their economic clout. But that will be a delicate task--not the least because German assertiveness inevitably stirs up bad memories. Moreover, even mild shifts in Germany's military posture could heighten tensions between the U.S. and France--and even help push the U.S. out of Europe. The reason: The French want the Germans to put more resources into building an independent European force. But Washington, buttressed by Europe's shocking inability to deal with the Yugoslovia crisis, argues for continued reliance on the U.S.-led NATO.

Caught in the middle, the Germans try to please both sides. Last May, they signed off on French plans to form a 35,000-troop Franco-German brigade. Behind closed doors they told troubled U.S. officials not to worry. The new "Eurocorps" would not be big enough to challenge NATO, and the dual-helmeted Germans would be NATO troops first.

Well aware that any serious European force is years off, the Germans badly want to keep NATO intact. But they are also very sensitive about protecting their ties with the French, a relationship they regard as the cornerstone of a stable Europe. NATO is "the most important security structure in Europe," says Rhe. "But we need some add-ons in response to a very changed situation."

BALANCING ACT. Rhe and others think they have found a formula that will patch over the rift between the U.S. and the French. They hope to get the French to agree to put Eurocorps forces under NATO operational control during any NATO conflict. U.S. officials now say they won't oppose the development of a separate European force under those conditions.

But maintaining the balancing act will not be so easy. The Germans have failed to broker deals between the French and the Americans before--notably on trade. American, British, and Dutch officials all fear that the French will eventually win the Germans over to their idea of a grand, independent European force--dooming NATO as it now stands.

The Eurocorps may be fledgling now, but if it expands, "we may find ourselves unable to sustain the argument for U.S. forces in Europe," says a State Dept. official. That means that sooner or later the Germans are likely to face a tough choice between their role as a European power and a transatlantic ally.Gail E. Schares in Bonn, Bill Javetski in Paris, and Amy Borrus in Washington Edited by Stanley Reed

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