President Horst Koehler sent political shockwaves through Germany by announcing his immediate resignation yesterday afternoon. Koehler -- who assumed the titular presidency in 2004 and was widely expected to serve out the remainder of his second term until 2014 -- stepped down barely a week after controversial remarks about the use of Bundeswehr troops abroad triggered a political firestorm that left him politically damaged and isolated:
“A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that [...] military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests -- for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes,” Koehler remarked after a visit to Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan.
German left-wing politicians from the SPD, Greens, and the Left Party as well as the mainstream media were highly critical of Koehler’s remarks and went as far as accusing the 67-year-old former IMF head of violating Germany’s Basic Law by promoting a new 19th century-style “gunboat diplomacy.” While Koehler clarified his controversial remarks (which were designed to shore up popular support for Bundeswehr missions abroad) and emphasized that he had specifically referred to the use of Bundeswehr units to fight Somali pirates operating in the Indian Ocean, neither Chancellor Merkel nor any other leading politician from her ruling center-right CDU/CSU-FDP coalition felt it necessary to defend the conservative president against these political attacks. In the end, Horst Koehler probably simply had enough and reasoned that an immediate resignation was the only way out for him:
“This criticism [regarding my Bundeswehr remarks] has no justification whatsoever. It lacks the necessary respect for my office [as German president].”
The events leading up to President Koehler’s surprise resignation Monday afternoon demonstrate that even twenty years after its reunification, Germany is not yet a “normal” country that feels comfortable clearly defining and defending its full range of key national interests in an international context. The 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy makes it a priority to “safeguard the sea, air, and space domains from those who would deny access or use them for hostile purposes”, something that “includes keeping strategic straits and vital sea lanes open.” One would assume that Germany, given its position as a resource-poor country that is also one of the world’s leading exporters, easily recognizes the linkages between military and economic security. Apparently, however, that is not the case. Horst Koehler closed his emotional farewell statement, during which he seemed on the verge of tears, by declaring “It was an honor for me to serve as Germany’s president.”