Government statement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag on the Ukraine crisis on 27 February.

Ukraine war
The deep desire to declare a state of emergency

Russia's attack on Ukraine took Germany by surprise. The "end of an era" has shifted the political focus to the military, bringing back stale memories of the Western response to the attacks of 9/11. Essay by Stefan Buchen

"An attack on civilisation, on freedom and the openness of our societies," commented opposition leader Friedrich Merz (CDU).

"We are dealing here with a totalitarian lack of liberty that is directed against us all and which challenges the fundamental values of democratic and liberal societies...We are facing a truly historic challenge. Freedom must now be defended anew ... A nation like Germany, the second largest NATO partner, the most populous country in the European Union, located in the geopolitical centre of Europe, must acknowledge its international responsibility ... When the U.S. president requests a package of measures in Congress to the order of 20 billion dollars and within just a few hours is granted 40 billion, then this sends a clear signal to the financial policymakers of the countries of the free world to set new priorities on their part as well ... We offer you, Mr. Chancellor, a national alliance of firm determination."

Friedrich Merz's words may sound like a reaction to the Russian army's invasion of Ukraine. The opposition leader has after all been speaking in a similar fashion for the past several days. In fact, however, the above quotes by the CDU politician are more than twenty years old. They stem from his appearances before the Bundestag on 12 and 19 September 2001, when Merz, like today, was at the forefront of the opposition to an SPD-led German government.

In his speeches, he invoked the determination of the "free world" to take up arms against the Islamist terrorists who had sown death, destruction and terror with their aeroplane attacks in New York and Washington. At the same time, he presented himself as a reliable watchdog over the chancellor should the latter fail to show the necessary rigour in defending democracy and freedom.

Chancellor at the time was Gerhard Schroeder, and back then no one had any doubts about his resolve. After what he termed a "declaration of war on the civilised community of nations", Schroeder committed the Germans to a prolonged conflict with the enemy. It was a matter of defending "our way of life", he said. According to Schroeder in his state address of 12 September 2001, he had spoken on the phone with leaders including the Russian President Putin. And they were "in agreement that the acts of terrorism could be taken to constitute a declaration of war on the free world".

Government and media proclaim the "end of an era"

Today, the Western community of nations no longer regards Vladimir Putin as an ally in the defence of the free world, or even as part of that world – but more on that later. First, let us focus on the attempts in the autumn of 2001 to invoke a liberal democratic community of values, bringing formulas and terms into play that sound eerily familiar today.

State distribution of bread to the population in Kabul (photo: Reuters/O.Sobhani)
Already forgotten? The West has just failed in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban seized power, the country has been plunged into a devastating humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 20 percent of the approximately 38 million Afghans were already close to starvation in November last year, and children are particularly at risk. "The debacle on the Hindu Kush, where the Taliban have resumed power after a cycle of twenty years, is still so fresh that we might be taken by surprise at some of the phrases now being trotted out again in the name of the battle for Western values," writes Stefan Buchen

"A new strategic era is dawning," wrote a columnist for Die Welt. "But whether the long war now embarked upon, which will also include cyberwarfare, will lead to victory or defeat, or else to a battle without end, that is being decided during the present days – and with it the future of freedom and prosperity in the Western world," reads the opinion piece published on 13 September 2001. "It is, everyone feels, the age of a permanent state of emergency," the author continues. "And then everything becomes an exception."

The urge to declare a state of emergency came through so loud and clear that it could hardly be called a secret any longer. More money for the Bundeswehr, more powers for the intelligence services: those setting the tone gave the impression that they had been waiting in the wings the whole time for this "end of an era" to finally make long-cherished dreams come true.

What became of this mood of "determination" is in the meantime only too apparent. Invasions of distant lands were followed by wars of aggression in the name of freedom. The United States and its allies hoped their actions would have a domino effect. The violent overthrow of Islamist rulers and blood-thirsty Arab dictators was supposed to set off a wave of democratisation across the Middle East and North Africa, spreading "our way of life" throughout this backward region of the world. But that dream did not come true. Instead, prisons where torture was the order of the day sprang up under U.S. command: in Iraq, in the new NATO countries of eastern Europe, in Guantanamo. The West betrayed its values, its moral fibre fraying to the point that Donald Trump was able to become president of the USA. Last August, America, Germany and the other countries involved literally left the last shards of the "war on terror" on the field in Afghanistan.

The debacle on the Hindu Kush – already forgotten?

The debacle on the Hindu Kush, where the Taliban have resumed power after a cycle of twenty years, is still so fresh that we might be taken by surprise at some of the phrases now being trotted out again in the name of the battle for Western values.

Faced with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are now hearing once more that "we must defend our way of life". German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has proclaimed a struggle for democracy and freedom using military means. German weapons are being delivered to Ukraine. Scholz wants to arm the Bundeswehr by way of a "special fund" of 100 billion euros and raise annual military spending to more than two percent of gross domestic product.

In the conflict with Putin, the chancellor wants to be seen as a staunch defender of the "free world". As was the case with the Islamist attackers of 09/11, he is attributing an ideological motive to the enemy. Scholz has said that Putin wants to build "a Russian empire". This recalls all the talk of radical Islamists seeking world domination.

Scholz has, however, not yet addressed in his deliberations the question of the significance of the West's last campaign, the one that began more than twenty years ago and reached an all-time low only last August – and what conclusions can be drawn from its failure. He seems either to be ignoring that question or to discount its relevance. This by itself already demonstrates a criminal complacency.

At issue here is the fundamental problem of the right strategic answer to massive politically motivated crimes that kill some and shock others. There can be no standard response to the thousands murdered in New York and Washington on the one hand and to Russia's criminal war in Ukraine on the other. The acts of violence are simply too different. 2001 was a one-off attack by non-state actors. 2022 is a war of aggression by the largest territorial nation on earth, which happens to be a member of the UN Security Council.

It would seem clear by now that strategic prudence was lacking in how the terrorism perpetrated by al-Qaida was dealt with. Therefore, in their dealings with Putin and Russia, Western policymakers must first ask themselves how things could have come to such a pass and what specific mistakes Europe's and America's foreign policy has been guilty of – on a large scale – since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and, on a smaller scale, since Russia's deployment in the Ukrainian border region last autumn.

Is NATO condoning further escalation?

The hackneyed terms "resolution and determination" cannot dispel the suspicion that the West missed out on several opportunities to prevent escalation. Western diplomacy is implicated in a colossal failure. The current rhetoric of warfare and rearmament only fuels the suspicion that NATO member states are condoning further, even deadlier spirals of escalation.

Watchtower at the US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba (archive photo) (photo: US Navy/Spc Cody Black/REUTERS)
Watchtower at Guantanamo Bay: the Guantanamo detention centre represents the betrayal of Western values during the "war on terror". After the 9/11 attacks, the West invoked its 'determination'. What became of this mood "is only too apparent. Invasions of distant lands were followed by wars of aggression in the name of freedom," writes Stefan Buchen. "The United States and its allies hoped their actions would have a domino effect. The violent overthrow of Islamist rulers and blood-thirsty Arab dictators was supposed to set off a wave of democratisation across the Middle East and North Africa, spreading 'our way of life' throughout this backward region of the world. But that dream did not come true. Instead, prisons where torture was the order of the day sprang up under U.S. command: in Iraq, in the new NATO countries of eastern Europe, in Guantanamo"

For all the differences between the two events, a certain presumption and self-assurance on the part of the West that it alone embodies the good and the intention to do the right thing could lead to risky mistakes being made today, as it did back then.

The chancellor has pronounced "the end of an era". The widespread assertion that Olaf Scholz is now delivering statesmanlike leadership cannot be corroborated without further proof. "We will do what is necessary," is one of his guiding principles.

A year ago, it was necessary to push ahead with the energy partnership with Russia and to reject the sanctions the USA threatened to impose on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as contrary to international law. Today, it is necessary not only to accept the end of the pipeline through American sanctions, but also to create the impression that Germany is the one putting a stop to the project. Recently, it was necessary not to let the military budget get out of hand. Buying F-35 fighter jets from the USA was once deemed rather unnecessary. But now it seems quite necessary.

And of course it is now also necessary to build liquefied natural gas terminals for the import of a raw material of non-Russian origin, which was not essential before. The "end of an era" may provide evidence of Olaf Scholz's agility. In any case, the SPD – and this is more the rule than a major turnaround – is prepared to provide the necessary budget for the military in a state of emergency.

The satirical expression "Quiet, we're shooting" (Hebrew: "sheket, yorim"), borrowed from Israel's wartime history, emphasises the duty, especially now, in wartime, not to keep schtum, but to ask critical questions. Could it perhaps be that some protagonists now see an opportunity to finally do what they wanted to all along? It is indisputable that the decisions taken today will have dramatic consequences. History teaches us that some of these consequences will be unintentional.

Germany's chancellor can count on effective support in realising his turnaround. The mainstream media backs his recent decisions. Unfortunately, writes the foreign policy commentator for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the escalation surrounding the Ukraine is striking a nation that is "largely unprepared". The Germans lack the tools for dealing with military threats. The result is a dangerous "weakness", the article goes on to say. This passage would appear custom-made for Friedrich Merz. The leader of the opposition, both now and then, quoted it in the historic Bundestag debate on 27 February dealing with the Russian invasion. It sounded a bit like rote repetition. As if Merz were trying to say: with enough drilling, the soft population will soon come round to a state of emergency.

Stefan Buchen

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

The author works as a television journalist for the ARD political magazine "Panorama". 

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