Peace Lab / Sueddeutsche Zeitung

Presidential transitions in the United States always entail a period of uncertainty and diminished U.S. leadership. As the incoming administration takes shape and tries to finds its footing, the world watches anxiously.

Especially in this context, Americans like myself have welcomed the willingness of the German government to take on increased international responsibilities. German leadership has been indispensable to the cause of European integration and transatlantic cooperation from its earliest days and through many crises. Nor has Germany limited itself to a European role. From the United Nations in New York to the frontiers of Afghanistan, the international community has welcomed the responsible role German engagement has played.

This leadership comes at an especially important time. Across the United States and Europe, moods have soured and frustration has mounted. At the same time the international environment has become more difficult, serious domestic challenges have emerged as well, tempting populations and, in some cases, national leaders to turn inward. Much of the optimism of two decades ago has given way to a sober sense of caution about what engagement and intervention can accomplish.

Atrocity prevention is a key question for the new guidelines

Humility is indeed appropriate. Yet it is all too easy to imagine humility turning into isolationism and withdrawal, in the mistaken hope that the problems of international politics will remain far away. Instead, Germany has been willing to step forward, leading a European response to crises and, increasingly, giving voice to the international community more broadly. While some aspects of German policymaking have been ad hoc responses to pressing events, the ongoing effort in Berlin to think comprehensively about Germany’s role is most welcome. The white paper on German security policy and the future of the Bundeswehr, issued in July 2016, addressed matters of “hard security” in an ambitious and thoughtful fashion on issues ranging from cyber to the future of EU defense integration. In a reversal of a long trend, Germany has also committed to spending more on defense, a development that Washington will be watching carefully.

The next step in the review is the German federal government’s initiative to establish guidelines for crisis management and conflict prevention in a new white paper due in spring 2017. For the past two years, my colleague Lee A. Feinstein and I have been investigating one key element of this question: how to improve transatlantic cooperation on the prevention of atrocities. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has published our full report.

The importance of atrocity prevention as a focus of policy can hardly be overstated. One need look no farther than the failure of the international community to take effective action in Syria. The metastasizing crisis there has involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and millions of people have been driven from their homes. Efforts to meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers have put tremendous stress on neighboring governments and on European countries, giving new impetus to nationalist and populist politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The crisis in Syria, which began with atrocities, has become a multigenerational catastrophe that will require scores of billions of euros in the years ahead even in the unlikely event that a path to peace is found quickly.

The failure of inaction in Syria has many authors. But we must not let this failure paralyze us with regard to the possibility of preventing conflict and more effectively managing crises in the future. In taking “a fresh look” at crisis prevention now, as Foreign Minister Steinmeier laid out the challenge, Germany is on the right path.

Declaring atrocity prevention a core collective security interest and moral responsibility

An indispensable element of effective prevention is a resolute statement of its importance by political leaders. President Obama declared that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” The German government should make a similar declaration—and together with our other allies, Germans and Americans should affirm that we have a core collective security interest and moral responsibility to act to prevent atrocities.

Federal President Joachim Gauck laid out the challenge in his memorable 2014 address to the Munich Security Conference calling on Germany to broaden its international engagement. He gave special emphasis to the moral imperative for action to prevent atrocities: “Brutal regimes,” he said, “must not be allowed to hide behind the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention.” He argued that “Germany should make a more substantial contribution” to conflict prevention, “and it should make it earlier and more decisively if it is to be a good partner.”

Germany has both significant military capabilities and now a strong tradition of searching inquiry before any decision to resort to force. Legality and legitimacy matter. In the case of mass atrocities, once they have broken out, the choices narrow significantly. President Gauck candidly acknowledged that intervention in all such cases is impossible.

No European country is more important to the cause of atrocity prevention than Germany

It’s all the more appropriate, then, for Germany to concentrate its resources and attention on prevention—identifying situations where people’s lives may be at risk and working with local partners to take measures to diminish the danger. The prevention of conflict as such is an important element, but the most important element is the prevention of large-scale loss of human life, enslavement, ethnic cleansing and like crimes against humanity—in short, atrocities.

German citizens understand the importance of this commitment. Already, Germany has begun to act on it by holding genocidaires accountable for their crimes in courts of law and by taking the difficult decision to provide arms to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga militia for its fight against the depravity of the Islamic State.

Working together to prevent atrocities is a job for all the transatlantic partners, but no European country is more important to the cause than Germany. A strong statement of commitment from the federal government would provide a boost to atrocity prevention efforts in other European capitals and would send a signal to the new administration in Washington about the importance of a collective effort to prevent and halt atrocities before they turn into the next Syria.

This article originally appeared in German translation in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on December 12, 2016 under the title “Ein zweites Syrien verhindern.”