BERLIN—Last week, the president of Germany quit. Just like that. "I declare my resignation from the office of president,"said President Horst Köhler, "with immediate effect." And he walked away.
Köhler was, he said, merely responding to criticism: He had been widely attacked for remarks he made during a trip to Afghanistan last month, and he felt he could not continue in office. The German president is a ceremonial figure, elected by the parliament, and in theory he is not supposed to say anything contentious. Having been accused of violating this convention, he quit.
So far, so ordinary. But before you shrug and say, "That could happen in any country," read what Köhler actually said. His quote: "A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that ... military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests."
In the United States, Britain, or France, no one would even notice such a statement. But in Germany, Köhler broke two major taboos. First, he admitted that the German military is in Afghanistan for a military purpose, once again undermining the public's firm belief that its soldiers do charity work. (Fighting is for Americans. Germans build roads.) Last September, this fiction was blown open, literally, when German forces in Kunduz called for American airstrikes, which in turn killed as many as 90 Afghan civilians.
The public was angered by the mistake, but it was even more disturbed to hear that German troops sometimes call upon U.S. forces for help. That implies that Germany is actually part of a coalition that is fighting a war—a fact that few German politicians have ever had the nerve to convey to their voters. In Afghanistan a couple of years ago, I met a German pilot flying a plane from Kabul to the rougher, southern part of the country: He wouldn't give his name to a German journalist traveling with me, on the grounds that Germans weren't supposed to be flying to the south—even though circumstances and alliance requirements sometimes force them to do so—and he didn't want to start a controversy.
But Köhler's second blunder was worse: By declaring that Germany is a large country with a large export sector and economic interests around the world, Köhler broke the even more powerful taboo that forbids German politicians to speak of any use of the military in any foreign engagement at all. Germany's passivity is a matter of national pride, German pacifism is written into the constitution, and Germans don't talk about themselves as "a country of our size." In polite company, Germans never, ever talk about using the military "in an emergency to protect our interests."
Yet as time goes on, as World War II fades into history and as even the Cold War becomes a distant memory, Germany's conventional way of speaking about itself is becoming increasingly unreal. In truth, Germany is indeed a large country, the largest in Europe. When Greece got into trouble and the euro had to be bailed out, it was Germany that took the major decisions, Germany that pushed hardest for draconian Greek economic reforms. If it all goes wrong, Germany may well be blamed.
Germany really does have many economic interests outside Europe, including economic interests in several countries that could very well present military challenges to the West in the future. Iran—where Germany is one of the largest outside investors—comes instantly to mind, as do China and Russia. In an Iranian-Israeli fight, would pacifist Germany stay neutral? What if China attacked Taiwan or Russia went to war with Ukraine?
I am not suggesting that any of these conflicts should or will occur, nor would I necessarily want Germany to join them if they did. I don't want Germany to rearm, go to war, or pick fights with anybody, either. But it does seem strange that the president of a country whose economy depends on exports—including exports to authoritarian and militaristic regimes—is not allowed to ponder the possible military consequences of its economic policies out loud. Americans sometimes make the mistake of thinking that every conflict has a military solution. But it is equally myopic to pretend that no conflict will ever have a military solution—and dangerous not even to talk about it.