It would be too easy to consider that Germany’s abstention during the vote on Resolution 1973, on Libya, at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was a serious mistake caused by the inexperience of Guido Westerwelle, the young German Minister of Foreign Affairs. Diplomatic cables published lately by Wikileaks confirmed that this was the US impression of the minister. American diplomats outlined a track record of his alleged inconsistencies and incompetence in support of their argument in the Wikileaks cables. In reality, however, the abstention was prompted by major political and economic considerations. Time will demonstrate what the full consequences of that decision will be. However, for now it is possible to analyze the basic reasons behind it, and what might be some of the possible outcomes.

On 17 March, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which created the legal framework for the creation of a “no-fly zone” over Libya and demanded an immediate ceasefire and an end to attacks on civilians by armed forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The UN General Secretary said that these attacks might indeed constitute “crimes against humanity”. The Security Council imposed a ban on all flights over the country’s airspace and tightened its existing sanctions on the Gaddafi regime and its supporters.

Ten members of the Security Council voted in favor of the resolution: the United States, Great Britain, and France, all permanent members of the Security Council, and Bosnia, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal and South Africa, non-permanent members. No country voted against it, but there were five abstentions: Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Germany. The Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has called the Germany’s abstention “an absurd mistake.”  So why did Germany, a close supporter of the U.S., refuse to support Resolution 1973? What made the German Foreign Minister, who had praised the desire for freedom among the young people in Tunis and Cairo a month before, suddenly change his tune in the Resolution 1973 vote a month later?

There is no need to draw a parallel with Germany’s non-participation in the “coalition of the willing”, which intervened militarily in Iraq in 2003, as in this case Berlin assessed, like many other European major powers and members of the international community, that there was a lack of legitimacy for such a foreign armed intervention. In the case of Libya, a great majority of UN Security Council member states have actually endorsed Resolution 1973.

Germany’s decision to abstain on this resolution derives from the uncertainty about how the Libyan political crisis would proceed and Berlin’s refusal to intervene in a civil war, and impose a “no-fly zone” that was seen by the German Chancellery as the first stage of ramping up hostilities to that level, as it often has been historically a first step for more invasive actions, even ground troops.

On the issue of “humanitarian intervention,” including stopping attacks on civilians, it should be noted that there is still a debate going on in the international community between interventionists and pacifists, and the case for such interventions is not universally accepted, as some in the past have brought positive results, while others have been put into place too late to be effective. Many world leaders and their advisors are haunted by the example of the Srebrenica massacre in the 1990s, a clear example of a horrendous crime against humanity, and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were murdered.

The German Foreign Minister Westerwalle also argued that that it would not have been honest to vote in favor of the resolution and then decide not to send troops on the ground. He argued that committing German ground forces might have constituted an appeal to the ‘use of force,’ an action which is specifically excluded from the UN mandate. The German minister has even withdrawn support for the proposed naval embargo on Libya. Westerwelle’s statement that Germany “shared the values” ​​in the resolution was an attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, and suggested to analysts a total confusion in Germany’s foreign policy.

Others have referred to the wording of the German Constitution, which specifically forbids Germany from sending combat troops abroad, but Berlin, since 1999, has overcome the taboo over participation in armed interventions. In that year Germany joined in the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, although the same Chancellor who made this decision, Gerhard Schroeder, refused to allow a German troop contingent to be sent to Iraq.  Germany has since participated in several international missions, including in Afghanistan, Somalia and Lebanon.

In addition to these factors there are others pertaining to Germany’s decision to abstain on the Libya resolution.  Domestic politics played a part, as the vote came at an especially delicate time for the ruling party. Local elections were due – March 27 – ten days after the vote on Resolution 1973 and according to a survey conducted after the elections, just over six out ten, (61%) of Germans agreed with the decision not to intervene directly in Libya, presumably as the government had calculated. Moreover, polled respondents did not consider military intervention to be a viable option or the best solution to the problem. However the abstention did not avert a crushing electoral defeat for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as it lost its historical base of support in the southern Baden-Wuerttemberg region, which it had run for about 60 years, to the Greens. This success for the Greens was sufficiently serious in government eyes to persuade it to reverse its position on the use of nuclear energy, an issue which the public has become greatly concerned about in the wake of the environmental crisis at the Fukushima power plant in Japan. In addition, the growing domestic criticism of the 10 year German military presence in Afghanistan made the Merkel government reluctant to be seen engaging in any more foreign military adventures. Consequently, it had strong motivation to abstain in the Resolution 1973 vote to secure its own survival.

Another key factor is the long term strategic ramifications of an intervention. Often we tend to focus on the short-term consequences of decisions without considering the longer-term policies they must inevitably also form part of. The other abstainers, Brazil, Russia, India and China, are members of the BRICs bloc and some of the most significant emerging powers on the international scene. Current projections suggest that these countries will have even greater clout in the future, both politically and economically.  Germany has very strong economic interests in these countries, and therefore its abstention may have been designed to improve Germany’s standing there, making future dividends more likely.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Germany has many interests in North Africa itself, and like all European powers Germany is interested in maintaining a privileged position in the region, especially in trade and energy security terms. France had already decided to lead the coalition against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, while the UK was willing to be on at the cutting-edge of a concerted action. Italy worked behind the scenes to establish the coalition, at first taking a more neutral position but adjusting its stance as the sands of political reality shifted.

As Germany was not sure what the outcome of the Libyan crisis would be, it decided that a pragmatic wait and see approach was the most appropriate. This would enable Berlin to present itself to the future winner as having been neutral, and leave it in better positioned to participate in the divvying up of the spoils of victory and renegotiate its existing trade agreements.

The final factor which may have influenced Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Westerwelle was the role played by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the early days of the conflict. During the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Germany and France were jointly committed to staying out of what many perceived as an un-sanctioned war. Since then however, relations between Paris and Berlin have deteriorated. Berlin has not forgotten ​​Sarkozy’s 2007 plan to create a “Union of the Mediterranean” based on Euro-Mediterranean partnership and involving only the Mediterranean littoral countries, while excluding Germany. The cooling of Franco-German relations has obvious negative implications for European unity.

Berlin’s abstention is likely to have an important impact on two international issues endearing to Germany: its quest for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and the foreign policy of the European Union (EU).

Joschka Fischer claims that the German abstention could have fatal consequences for the campaign to gain permanent Security Council membership, setting the country back for many years. It is also undeniable that the decision has caused a rift with the United States, as President Obama failed to mention Germany in a recent speech to European leaders. However, there are two sides to every coin. Whenever Berlin is not in the good graces of Washington, the political weight of the BRICs countries, which Berlin rarely hesitates to court when it deems it necessary, can act as a counterweight. The abstention may have been a short term political boomerang, but could equally turn out to be a good move in the longer term.

Germany’s role in Europe, including its weight in EU foreign policy as a whole, continues to be a sensitive issue; the “no” to Resolution 1973 detached Germany from ‘official’ Europe. Breaking away from France does not make Berlin strong enough to make decisions on its own without suffering consequences, but it demonstrates the total lack of agreement between the major European powers on matters of foreign policy. The fraying of Europe over a multitude of common issues is far from being anything new, but as all EU Member States were unanimous in supporting the military action in Libya, Germany’s refusal to concur with their position has implications for its neighbors, as Germany has greater influence on the EU than most of its other members and has now shown it is not afraid to use it to prevent the formation of a common position not to its liking. All of this likewise demonstrates the relative ineffectiveness of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which was formally launched on December 1, 2010 to serve as a foreign ministry and diplomatic corps for the EU.

Germany has chosen to prioritize domestic considerations when called to make difficult choices at the international level. Since the two world wars diplomatic rifts have occurred over a number of issues, the most notable in recent times being the invasion of Iraq. However, a more important divergence now appears to be emerging on the international stage due to Germany’s new disregard for the principle of European unity on which its post-war future has been built. Germany is not in the position to make decisions without paying a price for them, but domestically, the Libya resolution abstention has probably reinvigorated the domestic movement for Germany to be given a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, as this is the positive impression its diplomacy has made on the wider German public. On the European level, the Libya crisis has once again highlighted the lack of a consistent European foreign policy and created a fracture in the EU which, if not treated sensitively, will widen over time due to the Union’s existing lack of resolve on many political and economic fronts.