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International Engagement

German President’s Resignation (Not) Afghanistan-Linked

Thomas Ruttig 2 min

More News from the German Front: In a surprise move, without precedence in German post-war history, head of state (Bundespräsident) Horst Köhler stepped down from his office with immediate effect today after noon. His step was triggered by remarks he made on the return of his first trip to Afghanistan (after six years in the job).

Talking to a journalist on the plane, he said that the German society was on the way to realize that a ‘country of this size, with its orientation on exports and, therefore, also dependence on exports needs to understand that […] in an extreme case a military deployment is necessary in order to protect our interests, for example free trade routes, for example to prevent the instability of whole regions which, surely, will negatively backfire on our chances through trade, jobs and income’. This was read as a justification of a German participation in military interventions for economic interests in general and in the current intervention in Afghanistan in particular.

A few days after his interview, Köhler tried to explain that he was only referring to the German participation in ‘Operation Atalanta’ that fight pirates at the Horn of Africa.

This did not help. Köhler’s words drew widespread criticism and, at the same time, he received no support by any leading politician. In his three-paragraph resignation statement, he referred to the ‘lack of respect’ that had been shown by the critics to his public office.

On one hand, Köhler’s resignation is a clear sign that all issues linked – and if only vaguely – to Afghanistan, are highly sensitive in Germany. According to polls, the Afghan military mission is rejected by a strong majority of Germans. While many journalists comment that the link between Afghanistan and German economic interests really did not exist (‘there is no oil in Afghanistan’), it is probably a bit more complicated. Afghanistan as a market is probably not too interesting for the German economy as a whole because the biggest chunks of business – in mining, the security industry and infrastructure projects – go to Americans and, of late, Chinese. But a mission like the one in Afghanistan also triggers the need to develop new military and information technology and, let’s not forget, Germany is the third-biggest exporter of military goods. There might be indirect gains also for the German economy. And in time of crisis, every penny counts.

On the other hand, Köhler’s statement was a commonplace. ‘Hands up who had had doubts that military interventions have something to do with economic interests’, a radio presenter asked acidly this morning. Furthermore, the office of the German Bundespräsident is merely ceremonial and Köhler himself (initially derided as ‘Horst Who?’ and often ridiculed for his lack of eloquence) is not an impressive politician. He had started as a clear-cut neo-liberal (he once headed the International Monetary Fund), but later – when the winds shifted – he tried to reinvent himself, being a bit populist, as a critic of financial venturers and ecologist.

Maybe, another uttering really broke his back: When he spoke in favour of a ‘paradigm shift’ towards a ‘mode of production our planet can cope with’ and demanded higher prices for fuel in March this year, he again harvested harsh flak. BP of Gulf fame, the other oil companies and the German car industry lobby surely were not amused.

Nevertheless, his resignation will not lead to any shift in German policy. His resignation will be a very short storm in a teacup.

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Germany Horst Köhler

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