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Foreign Relations

Opinion: Listen carefully when Germany's president speaks

German President Gauck is pushing for Germany to take on more international responsibility. His latest choice of words is proof that he is not satisfied with the current public debate, says DW’s Christoph Strack.

Just how far can the German president go, and what are the limits of his competencies? That question was answered by Germany's highest court a few weeks ago. The Constitutional Court ruled that Germany's president is allowed to, in short, use blunt speech to express his opinion. Before the decision, a statement by Joachim Gauck himself was read out in which he gave his view on the matter. "The federal president acts through words," is how Gauck defines the president's job, adding that essentially the president can "only act through speeches and conversations."

It's part of a wider-reaching debate currently going on in Germany about the country's future diplomatic role and global changes. President Joachim Gauck has picked out Germany's military involvement abroad as a central theme and wants Germany to take on more responsibility. In the struggle for human rights and for the sake of innocent people's survival, it is "necessary at times to take up arms," the head of state has now told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk in a radio interview. His plea for a more active role for Germany in international politics at the Munich Security Conference was given much attention. But with this interview six months on, Gauck seems to suggest that the debate he desired at the time never ensued.

Repeating his call

So while Gauck's message is not new, there's a fresh stir. There's been a severe escalation of the Ukraine crisis since Gauck held his speech in Munich in January. The violent civil war in Syria is now in its fourth year, and there's no end in sight. And the situation in Iraq is more than explosive, say critics from politics and the media.

But: What can Gauck in light of those worrying developments? Drop the topic elegantly in the way only presidents can? The new German debate about more international responsibility would instantly turn into what Gauck doesn't want: It would become a fair-weather topic, i.e. an abstract debate.

Christoph Strack, DW (photo: DW)

DW's Christoph Strack

No, with his contributions on Germany's role in the world, the German president has pointed to the global changes which Germany faces. The United States is currently redefining its global role, despite all uncertainties and potential course adjustments along the way. The Western military alliance, NATO, sees itself in crisis because of the demands it faces resulting from the conflict in Ukraine. In parts of the Arab world, the quest for identity has turned into sectarian wars. And Europe is again searching (for) its soul, as the recent elections showed.

Whether the Germans like it or not, they're playing a crucial role in many of these conflicts, as proven by the never-ending list of guests from the international political sphere who flock to Berlin. They come because Germany is important internationally.

'Take up arms'

Same message - but this time around, Gauck used new words. Back in January, in Munich, he spoke for a long time, carefully choosing his words. The radio interview was different. There were the expected references to global situations and questions of responsibility, but he also used a new expression: "Take up arms". In his speech in Munich, where he addressed representatives from the sphere of international politics - such as diplomats and military policy expert - Gauck never used the word 'arms' once. Not a single time.

And it's the words that count. Much more clearly than in January, Joachim Gauck now clarifies what "an active involvement in conflict solution" could actually mean. In the radio interview, he continued by saying, "As a last resort, sometimes it's necessary to fight off acts of aggression together with others."

It's remarkable how, in the interview, Gauck chose to give the example of the "very active" involvement of the German government in the Ukraine conflict. The German stance on the topic had always been that war was not a solution, and there could not be any acts of armed involvement.

Yes, Germany's role in the world has changed already and is being redefined. It's a good thing that the German president is not dropping the topic and is instead pushing for a public debate, which is clearly lacking for now.

If the new word he used in the interview triggers more than temporary confusion, i.e. if it triggers a broader public debate, then that's proof that the German president has done his job. He's acted through his words.

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