When the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 authorizing military action in Libya, the first casualty took place neither in beleaguered Benghazi nor in Ghadafi's Tripoli but in the very heart of the trans-Atlantic alliance. The German decision to abstain from the vote and, in effect, to side with Russia and China, alongside Brazil and India, represented a break with the foreign policy tradition that had prevailed for decades—since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.
As an episode in contemporary political history, the German abstention on Libya is rich in implications. It sheds light on fault lines in the western alliance. It teaches a lesson about the importance of American leadership (and the consequences of its absence). And it offers important insights into aspects of Germany’s political culture, which will remain influential long after the Libyan war.
The abstention provoked vociferous criticism in Germany, from conservatives dedicated to Westpolitik and from leftists committed to human rights. Yet public opinion polls have been mixed on the vote, and there is certainly no evidence of any appetite for direct German engagement in Libya. The abstention was therefore a significant political statement, a refusal to side with the U.S. And that is worth scrutinizing.