While the US, Britain and France are agonising about intervention in Syria, there is no agonising in Germany. A large majority of the electorate wants to stay out of the conflict – and all of the big political parties agree. The moral issue that has divided Germans this election is not chemical weapons, but vegetarianism. The Green party’s proposal that public canteens should stop serving meat, one day a week, has stirred up an impassioned debate about whether politicians have the right to get between Germans and their sausages.
This smallness of the German political debate is peculiar for a nation that is the fourth-largest economy in the world – and the biggest political and economic power in Europe. But a large part of Ms Merkel’s appeal seems to be her ability to persuade Germans that she can protect them from the harshness of the world beyond their borders. . . .
Privately, some of Germany’s more thoughtful policy makers are also well aware that – as a great trading nation and the second-largest exporter in the world – their country depends on a global security system to which it makes little contribution. “You could say our position on Syria is a bit inconsistent,” muses one. “We say we want a rules-based world and that Syria should be punished for using chemical weapons – but that somebody else should do the punishing.” Germany’s strategic thinkers seem to be just as alarmed as their French and British counterparts at the potential global implications if the US Congress votes against action on Syria.
But such sentiments are deeply out of tune with public sentiment in Germany – and probably in the west as a whole. As the British and American debates over Syria have revealed, the general public in the west is much more sceptical about the case for military strikes on Syria than the foreign-policy elite. The difference is that politicians in the US, the UK and France still feel the need to challenge voters by making the case for action. German politicians do not even attempt to make the argument.
The current turmoil in the Middle East shows no sign of provoking Germany to rethink its global role. On the contrary, Germans seem to be even more convinced that they are on the right course. In that context, staging a national debate on vegetarianism is oddly appropriate. When it comes to global security, Germany is a vegetarian nation, in a world that is still full of carnivores.