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Exporting Arms to Questionable Regimes


The German armaments industry has a good reputation for doing what it does best – exporting high grade and stylistic means of killing well.  But during the Merkel years, a trend has emerged in what has come to be called the Merkel Doctrine.  Der Spiegel took note of this in July last year.  The case in question involved Saudi Arabia, and the relevant sale of 270 modern Leopard (Model 2A7) tanks.  No reasons were given for the policy shift, and none have been forthcoming.

“This would be the first time Germany supplied heavy arms to an Arab government that has declared its intentions to fight its opponents ‘with an iron fist’, a country that deployed tanks against demonstrators in a neighbouring country and ranks 160th on the Economist’s Democracy Index, just a few spots above North Korea, which holds the very bottom spot” (Der Spiegel, Oct 14, 2011).

The previous position had been articulated by the veteran Foreign Minister of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Hans-Dietrich Genscher.  Weapons of war were not to be exported to crisis regions.  This position has been a constant in German foreign policy, and did not change under such varied figures as Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl or Gerhard Schröder.

This reversal, which Merkel did her very best to keep secret till Der Spiegel got whiff of it, places German foreign policy in an odd position.  Bonn has been keen to force the European line on human rights closer to home (take the Kosovo dispute with Serbia), but has taken a more Realpolitik line in the context of distant, infamously violent clients, actual and potential.  Clearly, the Saudi deal showed that the human rights dimension had been either sidestepped or mysteriously washed away.  Arab Spring aside, business is business and weapons will always find a market.

The deal warmed the blood of politicians, making them dispute with unusual intensity.  Horst Teltschik, foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Kohl, considered the decision an act of folly.  “I consider the idea of delivering German tanks in such a situation to be absolutely wrong.”

What this stance has shown is that Merkel is not averse to a good deal of secrecy, a closed set which she guards with the assistance of her spokesman Steffen Seibert. There is also some comfort on the part of Merkel and her team – a disclosure of details pertaining to a Federal Security Council can result in a five years’ imprisonment.  Effectively, Germany’s other politicians in the Bundestag have been sidelined on the subject of exporting arms.

Naturally, the question of what is placed into the basket of what we term a “dubious regime” or otherwise is both critical and, to a certain extent, facile. All regimes, whatever their credo, are in the business of buying some lethal machinery in the name of defence.  Whether they end up being rotten apples in the barrel is not something that is always obvious first hand, so some governments prefer to ditch the classification altogether.  Either way, we know they will be used.

It might be said that Merkel has found her inner-Machiavelli, and is content to be self-interested and vicious when required.  Better German weapons than German troops, who can be kept out of harm’s way even as ruthless regimes keep tabs on their unruly subjects.

This well rehearsed amorality applies to Germany’s armaments companies as well.  Business has proven difficult for the cartels.  Regular customers such as Greece, a country scolded for its fiscal irresponsibility while spending more on its defence as a percentage of GDP than any other EU country, are not proving as reliable.  Budget cuts to the Bundeswehr mean that better customers can be found elsewhere.

A debate in Germany is now taking place over the sale of the versatile “Boxer” armoured personal carrier, a state of the art, all killing machine, and certainly a thrill for those who can get their hands on it. The Russians have been very impressed, airing a special report on Ren TV extolling its impregnable features against anti-tank mines.  While Russia has proven to be Germany’s historical enemy at stages, it has also proven to be its greatest enthusiast in engaging German weaponry.  Berlin’s armaments industries know they have a friend eager to spread largess in Moscow.

As with purchases for the Leopard, unsavoury regimes have stepped up to offer their wallets.  The Saudis have again expressed their enthusiasm for German hardware, as has the government of the United Arab Emirates.  Those in the business of approving such deals should again be wary about who they might be deployed against.  Urban uprisings will be choice targets.  Not that it will concern Merkel.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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