The Blog

The U.S.-German Conversation

In Germany, a small American think tank has spurred a serious intellectual debate about the war on terrorism.

12:00 AM, Aug 15, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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FOR THE PAST WEEK, a U.S.-German debate over the war on terrorism has been raging in the German press. Here, almost no one has noticed.

Similarly, almost no one paid attention back in February, when the Institute for American Values, a small New York think tank specializing in family issues, published "What We're Fighting For: A Letter From America," signed by 60 intellectuals of mostly neo-con persuasion. (Think Fukuyama, Huntington, Galston, Putnam, Weigel.)

Some Germans, however, did notice, and they responded in May with a letter of their own. Its 103 signatories are, loosely speaking, pacifist intellectuals or peace-movement activists--a more mainstream group in Germany than in the United States, given Germany's very different intellectual history. Now the Institute for American Values' comeback, published on August 8, is making front-page news and prompting comment in newspapers across Germany.

The original American letter was a fairly sophisticated 20-page reflection on basic political values, separation of church and state, just-war theory, and the provocation of September 11. It concluded that war is justified against the "organized killers with global reach [who] now threaten all of us."

The German reply is entitled "A World of Justice and Peace Would Be Different." It rejects the very concept of "just war" as "an ill-starred historical concept" and calls the killing of civilians in the American assault on Afghanistan "mass murder." It portrays the United States as an arrogant superpower that is planting "military bases in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia" so as to "decide the fate of peoples largely on its own authority." The source of the danger: "the growing influence of fundamentalist forces in the United States on the political elite of your country, which clearly extends all the way to the White House."

Well.

The American response--"Is the Use of Force Ever Morally Justified?"--is brief, courteous, and to the point. It nails the Germans on their incoherent sometime-pacifism: While condemning the very notion of just war, they yet praise the United States for "an outstanding contribution" in World War II. Their position, then, is not a principled opposition to all use of force. If liberating Europeans from murderous tyranny is okay, why not Afghans?

Second, the American response notes that the Germans, while alarmed about "fundamentalist forces" that "tend to incite racist, nationalistic, and religious fanaticism," locate these forces only in the United States, never condemning the fanaticism that is causing so much trouble in the Muslim world.

Third, the Americans vigorously reject the suggestion that they would "justify one mass murder by another." "We are saddened by these comments," says the letter. "For you to equate unintended civilian casualties in a theater of war, in which the cause is just, and where the goal of the combatant is to minimize the loss of civilian life, to the intentional killing of civilians in downtown office buildings, in which the cause is unjust, and where the goal of the combatant is to maximize the loss of civilian life, is an act of moral blindness."

The person who got this interesting ball rolling is a German reporter in Washington named Malte Lehming. He was the first to report on the American reply to the Germans, and his paper, Der Tagesspiegel, based in Berlin but with nationwide circulation, reprinted the American letter in full. The important Suddeutsche Zeitung soon followed suit.

Lehming says he'd never heard of the Institute for American Values when all this began, but he's pleased with the result of their effort. "This exchange of letters has generated an instantaneous nationwide discussion in Germany," he notes. "The Iraq question speeded the process. I value this engagement between Germans and Americans."

Another German in Washington who welcomes reflection on these issues is Dieter Dettke, executive director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German-government-funded educational institute associated with the Social Democratic party. Dettke recalls Germany's long and necessary renunciation of military engagement after World War II. It left behind, he says, "a kind of escapism in Germany. We adopted a civilian power paradigm--as if simply by way of not engaging ourselves, we made a contribution to peace. We have to come to grips with a more complicated world."

"In Kosovo," he says, "the German mantra 'force will only make things worse' was turned around" when NATO bombing halted ethnic slaughter and allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to go back home. Afghanistan was the second test case--and, Dettke notes, when the German government decided to stand with the United States, public opinion came around.