Moral Ignorance When Dealing with Saudi Arabia

The Khashoggi affair shows how differently the U.S. and Germany are dealing with Saudi Arabia. It also makes clear how much Berlin needs to change its foreign policy.

In the simple world of the U.S. president, the incident has been resolved. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the regime. It plays no known role in Donald Trump’s world, because Trump followed up with the most important statement: that Saudi Arabia remains an important partner for the U.S. and that arms exports and strategic cooperation against Iran are at stake. Washington has established its priorities.

The Republicans’ critique of their own president soon thereafter amounted to nothing. Could the U.S. lose its role as a moral example? It already has. Trump has also established his foreign policy under the motto “America First.” At best, foreign policy follows economic interests, but above all, it follows the daily whim of the president.

Nevertheless, displaying moral ignorance toward Saudi Arabia is a decision that has reignited the debate about arms exports in Germany, too. The German government has found an answer for Saudi Arabia for now: all export transactions that have not yet been carried out will be halted. But is that really a clear path? It would be really surprising if it were, because there is hardly an area in which German politics are as hypocritical and ambiguous as in arms deals.

The German Government Cops Out

There are plenty of examples. The coalition contract, for instance, stipulates that no parties fighting in the war in Yemen should be supplied with weapons. But which countries are affected by this? Do they include Jordan, one of Germany’s partners in the operations in Syria?

The German government has avoided giving a clear answer. The response given in complete seriousness to any inquiries is that it is not known which countries are involved. A provision addressing consequences for foreign policy was written into the coalition contract, but shortly after it was written, no one wanted to take responsibility for it. This is characteristic of the German stance on arms exports.

And yes, it’s also true that things are complicated. On the one hand, Germany, with its military goods, delivers the tools for war in this world, and regimes in crisis regions are naturally the best clients. And even though exports are subject to ever stricter regulations, there are still uncertainties, loopholes and the uneasy feeling of becoming a participant in the conflicts by way of business interests.

The Arms Industry As a Test Lab

On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of jobs in Germany, many in economically underdeveloped regions. In Wolgast on the Baltic Sea, short-term work has recently begun in the shipyard Peene-Werft, where, in fact, patrol boats are being built for Saudi Arabia.

But in the region around Wolgast, every third person already votes for the right-wing Alternative for Germany party. And now? The arms industry is also serving as a test laboratory for other industries; in civil aviation especially, large-scale production often only begins after the product has been tested in the military. Do we really want to bid farewell to this knowledge?

It’s a complicated decision, but that’s just the way politics is. It’s a field with difficult and uncomfortable decisions. The basic challenge for representatives and ministers is to make these decisions clearly and to defend them earnestly.

Putin’s Russia Takes On New Strength

But there is no area in which German politics shys away from this unambiguity as much as foreign policy and security matters. There is much more than exports at stake. Germany’s role in the world is at stake – at stake in Trump’s world – where the U.S. is transforming at breathtaking speed from the security guarantor that it was in past decades to a security risk.

For several years, the debate here about security policies has largely concerned the fact that Germany needs to take on more responsibility. But little has really happened. What will Germany actually do in a world in which the U.S. is no longer available as a partner in the West? In which, in the East, Putin’s Russia takes on new strength and China rises to the status of world power? Is Germany truly ready to accept this new situation, or at least to talk about it?

The conversation is not taking place in Berlin. Germany’s place in the world has no role in the debate about Angela Merkel’s successor. The Social Democratic Party is torn. The Green Party already avoids it anyway. But to accept it would mean acknowledging reality. That should be the real takeaway from the most recent erratic action by President Trump.

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