Was it worth the military to join the military?

German defense policy

Matthias Dembinski

Dr. Matthias Dembinski is a research associate and project manager in the "International Institutions" division of the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (PRIF) in Frankfurt / Main. His research interests include European foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations and NATO.

Thorsten Gromes

Dr. Thorsten Gromes is a research associate and project manager in the "Internal Conflicts" department of the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (PRIF) in Frankfurt / Main. His research interests include peacebuilding, humanitarian military interventions, and ethnic conflict.

When are foreign assignments legal, when are they legitimate? And can you measure your success? Matthias Dembinski and Thorsten Gromes provide an overview of the requirements and criteria for a political evaluation of military interventions.

Bundeswehr soldiers from the UN MINUSMA mission stand in front of their vehicles at Camp Castor in Gao (Mali) on April 5, 2016. The soldiers wear light blue berets and helmets - the hallmark of the United Nations on peace missions. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

At the end of May 2018, almost 4,000 Bundeswehr soldiers were deployed abroad, most of them in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria / Iraq and Kosovo. The Bundeswehr has been involved in more than 50 missions abroad since the early 1990s. 108 soldiers and one female soldier were killed in previous missions, more than half of them in Afghanistan. According to the Federal Ministry of Defense, the missions abroad caused additional expenditure of almost 21 billion euros up to August 2017. The engagement in Afghanistan was the most expensive.

What exactly are "foreign assignments"?

The keyword "foreign missions" covers a broad spectrum of operations: from the provision of humanitarian aid to training or peacekeeping missions to combat missions beyond one's own national and alliance borders. Most peacekeeping missions (peacekeeping) have the task of preventing an armed conflict from flaring up again after a ceasefire or peace agreement. Peacekeeping operations with the aim of averting an outbreak of violence in advance are rarer. On the other hand, peace enforcement missions (peace enforcement) stop an ongoing violent conflict. They thus fall into the broader category of so-called humanitarian military interventions, which are carried out with the declared intention of protecting the citizens of another state. Above all, foreign deployments with a mandate to use force and stationing in ongoing violent conflicts are controversial. They are the focus in the following.

The political evaluation of foreign deployments revolves around two concepts: legal and legitimate. A statement in the final report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo underscores the fact that these can be in tension with one another: NATO's intervention in Kosovo was not legal, but legitimate.

When is a foreign assignment legal?

The legality, i.e. legality, of deployments abroad has a constitutional and an international side. In terms of constitutional law, the Federal Constitutional Court set the course with its judgment of July 12, 1994. According to Article 24, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law, Germany can join systems of collective security and take on the resulting duties such as military operations "out of area", i.e. outside its own national and alliance borders. Because the Constitutional Court also understood alliances of collective defense as systems of collective security, this ruling forms a far-reaching constitutional basis for deployments abroad. The ruling created a restriction in parliament, according to which the Bundestag must approve the use of armed forces. "Armed forces are deployed when soldiers of the Bundeswehr are involved in armed operations or are expected to be involved in an armed operation", stipulates the Parliamentary Participation Act (Section 2.1).


Article 24 of the Basic Law

System of collective security

(2) In order to maintain peace, the Confederation may place itself in a system of mutual collective security; In doing so, he will consent to the restrictions on his sovereign rights, which bring about and secure a peaceful and lasting order in Europe and between the peoples of the world.
In international law, according to the widespread opinion, interventions are only permitted if they are either authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with Chapter VII, Article 42 of the UN Charter or at the invitation of the government of the country concerned and thus under Article 51 of the UN Charter the right to collective self-defense. The interpretation of these provisions is changing and key aspects are still controversial today. The UN Charter was written with a view to avoiding interstate wars, but violence after 1990 dominated domestic wars. The international community reacted to this tension with a new interpretation of legal provisions. The Security Council supported the emerging practice of forced interventions in domestic conflicts by identifying civil wars and widespread domestic violence as a threat to international peace. The Security Council set the tone with Resolution 733 of January 23, 1992, which identified the great loss of life and material damage in Somalia as a threat to international peace and security. With this justification, the Security Council also authorized the use of US armed forces.

An additional legal basis for interventions could be the international responsibility to protect (responsibility to protect), which were included in the final document of the UN World Summit in 2005. The heads of state and government involved declared their readiness to intervene militarily if the government of a country fails to protect its population from genocide, "ethnic cleansing", war crimes and crimes against humanity (United Nations General Assembly 2005: 30). The political significance of this declaration is still controversial today.

On the one hand, the scope for implementing a mandate from the Security Council is also controversial. In many cases he authorized a coalition of states to enforce a mandate through military force. In doing so, he accepted that the coalition would interpret the mandate broadly or, as with the intervention in Libya, even overstretch it. Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 authorized the use of force to enforce a no-fly zone and to protect civilians in immediate distress. Germany abstained from voting, as did Russia and China, and did not take part in the subsequent military operation. The coalition of eleven states, including the USA, Great Britain, France and other European NATO states as well as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, used this basis to overthrow the Libyan government.

On the other hand, the scope of the right to defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter is disputed. This concerns the question of whether the government of a country affected by internal violent conflicts may call for intervention. Doubts are raised especially when the government, as in Syria, has lost control of large parts of the national territory or there was no promise of assistance from the intervener before the start of the internal conflict. It is also controversial whether the right to self-defense covers military operations against cross-border terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State on the territory of third countries. The Federal Government said that this is so in its justification for the current Federal Armed Forces deployment in Syria and Iraq (German Bundestag 2018).

Operations by the United Nations are always carried out with a mandate from the UN Security Council; The peacekeeping operations of regional organizations such as the African Union often have such an authorization or are carried out at the invitation of the target country. Even of the politically particularly controversial humanitarian military interventions, almost two thirds were mandated entirely by the Security Council. This is shown by an as yet unpublished data set that was created at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (PRIF) (Dembinski / Gromes 2017: 25-26).

When is a foreign assignment legitimate?

Even if an operation appears constitutionally and international law permissible, it does not have to be legitimate, that is, it needs to be approved. This is where moral considerations come into play. The doctrine of the "Just War" (Walzer 1977) is particularly well known. It wants to limit the use of force through high justification hurdles and demands a right intention and legitimate authority, the use of force as a last resort, proportionality and a prospect of success.

The German debate almost exclusively declares solidarity with allies and the humanitarian motive to be permissible as the right intention. The UN Security Council is considered to be the legitimate authority. Since all five permanent members of the Security Council can veto a mandate, as was the case with Russia in 1999 during the NATO intervention in Kosovo, some authors discuss alternative authorizations and refer to the General Assembly of the United Nations or regional organizations (ICISS 2001: 53).

The criterion of the "ultima ratio", the last resort, requires that the military only be deployed when a serious emergency cannot be averted or ended by other means. This criterion is not to be interpreted in the sense of a temporal last, but of an outermost means. In a specific case, however, it is difficult to assess whether an emergency cannot be averted through mediation, sanctions or other means below the threshold of the use of military force. Contributing to this problem is the fact that emergencies can escalate quickly, the deployment of troops takes a long time and an early deployment may be the most likely to be successful.

Proportionality of the means means, on the one hand, not using more coercion than necessary to end the emergency, and on the other hand, the well-founded expectation that an intervention will do more good (e.g. save human lives) than cause damage (Tesón 2017: 100). The prospect of success is important because, without it, legally authorized intervention, which, with right intentions, uses the military as a last resort, would be rejected.

How can you tell the success of an assignment abroad?

In order to assess the success of foreign assignments, one can look at the developments in the target country. In the case of peacekeeping missions, the question arises as to whether a violent conflict breaks out (again). As a study often cited in the professional world shows, peace missions after civil wars reduce the likelihood of a recurrence by 60 to 85 percent (Fortna 2008: 116).

In the case of interventions in ongoing conflicts, the success can be determined by whether the violence to which the intervention reacts stops or at least subsides within a certain period of time, whether the violence flares up again later and how the intervention affects neighboring countries. As Figure 2 shows, in more than two-thirds of humanitarian military interventions, the violence continued one year after the start of the operation.

Figure 3 shows how the fatal violence developed during the humanitarian military intervention compared to the period before the deployment. In the vast majority of evaluable cases, the death rate fell significantly. A new violent conflict occurred in more than a third of those cases in which at least five years had elapsed after the end of the humanitarian military intervention. In almost every fifth humanitarian military intervention, there were indications that it had worsened the situation in neighboring countries (Dembinski / Gromes 2017: 32).

The success criteria can point in different directions in the same intervention. The intervention in Kosovo was followed by a quick end to the violent conflict, but expulsions and other attacks on the civilian population intensified during the deployment. Although there was no relapse into the war, weapons and fighters from Kosovo made their way to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and worsened the situation there.

Proponents and opponents of a mission tend to attribute the developments that fit their opinion directly to the intervention, but to explain other trends with factors beyond the mission. However, the figures presented above only document what happened during and after the intervention, but do not prove that this happened as a result of the intervention.

Some evaluations of foreign missions compare the real events with what would presumably have happened without the intervention. Such thought games along the lines of "what if ..." can lead to very contradicting findings. One study claims that the intervention in Libya in 2011 prevented a massacre and ultimately saved many people (Pape 2012: 61-63). Another analysis comes to the opposite conclusion, without the intervention thousands fewer people would have lost their lives (Kuperman 2013: 108-123).

The political debate is happy to take up developments beyond violence. If the violent conflict ended, critics of the intervention refer to unresolved political issues, a high unemployment rate or widespread corruption (e.g. Jöst 2009: 125-126). If the violent conflict persists, as in Afghanistan, for example, it is often the advocates of a mission who emphasize partial successes with reference to the number of new hospitals or schooling girls (e.g. German Bundestag 2014: 7270-7280).

Further criteria for evaluating foreign assignments

As the case of the UN mission in Somalia shows, regardless of the other trends, one's own losses can decide on the assessment and thus on the continuation of an assignment abroad. After the death of 18 of its soldiers in the capital Mogadishu in October 1993, the US government ended its participation in a mission that many observers thought was a success (Johnson / Tierney 2006: 205-241). What counts as unacceptable losses depends on the strength of the interests of the intervener, which is why the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the declared war on terrorism continue despite thousands of victims on the part of the interveners.

A fundamental position on the use of military means is also included in the political evaluation of an operation. Especially in the left and liberal spectrum there are concerns about justifying military conflicts and high armaments spending with foreign deployments. Reference is made to the often enormous costs of an assignment abroad: funds that could help many more people if they benefited from vaccination programs or humanitarian emergency aid (Valentino 2011: 67-70). On the other hand, reservations in conservative and right-wing circles are based primarily on the concern that foreign deployments put international over national responsibility and served foreign rather than German interests.

Use the potential of a constructive debate

The dispute over foreign missions will continue, firstly because the global incidence of violent conflicts will remain high for the foreseeable future and Germany will repeatedly have to decide whether to take part in a mission. Second, allies like France, but also the uncertainty about the further policy of the USA, are pushing the Federal Republic to a greater military engagement. Thirdly, the federal government has been emphasizing for some time what the coalition agreement of the new grand coalition also stipulates: "Germany wants to take on more responsibility for peace and security" (Ein neue Aufbruch 2018: 147).

Controversies about deployments abroad are good for a democracy. Wrong decisions about whether and how an assignment abroad will be less likely if the Federal Government and the Bundestag feel urged through a differentiated public debate to justify as precisely as possible which goals the deployment is pursuing and how the planned resources are to achieve these goals. The more the debate is not limited to the same general arguments that are different from the case, but rather focuses on the specific application, the more gaps in the reasoning, over-optimistic expectations or other problematic assumptions come to light. A careful, open-ended evaluation of previous missions can show the circumstances under which they were associated with an increase or decrease in violence in the target country. Such an evaluation thus promises to put current decisions on a better basis (Dembinski / Gromes 2016).


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