Skip navigation

The New Unpredictability – Why Germany Needs a Security Strategy

The national interest or raison d’état of the Federal Republic of Germany derives from the duty to respect and protect human dignity which is set down in Article 1 of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG). At the present time, the global and security policy context in which this principle applies is once again going through an upheaval. With rapidly advancing technological progress, the history of warfare is once more on the threshold of a new chapter: between Russian aggression, Chinese nationalism, and continuing unrest in the Middle East, the conditions and demands of modern warfare are currently experiencing fundamental change. Weapons systems are spreading rapidly, non-state actors are increasingly in possession of highly advanced weapons such as anti-tank missiles and portable anti-aircraft missile systems, and the diffusion of information technologies is changing public transparency as well as the conduct of military operations. Thus, with the digital revolution and robot technology powering technical innovations in weapons development and highly advanced weapons and information systems spreading massively on a global scale, methods and principles of military engagement are undergoing a fundamental upheaval.

New technological trends of course bring a whole array of new challenges. This is particularly true of drones, which have been the focus of many debates on the future of military interventions. The advantages of unmanned combat equipment are undeniable – such as comparatively low costs, the reduced risk to troops, and the possibility for targeted and therefore often highly efficient intervention. It is not for nothing that the new generation of military robot technology is seen by many as a natural development of all previous military technologies.

Between technical problems, legal challenges, and ethical grey areas

Nevertheless, unmanned combat systems – and particularly what is called “targeted killing” – are perhaps some of the most problematic aspects of modern military conflict. The new technologies entail a large number of problems: strategic dangers of alienating local civilian populations and allied governments; troops’ lack of trust in unmanned aerial support, as recently investigated in depth by Jacquelyn Schneider and Julia Macdonald; the fact that the physical distance from the battlefield increases the odds for errors in judgement; and collateral damage due to the lack of an overview of the situation on the ground.1 While these and similar challenges are mainly of practical, technical, and strategic concern, perhaps the most important challenge with regard to unmanned combat equipment and new weapons systems lies elsewhere: in the question of the attribution of responsibility, their status under international law, and the basic legal frameworks for the use of new, highly technologized combat systems.

Thus, for example, the edited volume Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict by David Cortright, Rachel Fairhurst, and Kristen Wall,2 or Avery Plaw’s comprehensive analysis The Drone Debate,3 provide a detailed overview of the complex legal, strategic, and ethical issues posed by the new technologies. Together with other developments such as partially autonomous weapons systems, the emerging depersonalization of military intervention caused by drones and robot technology creates considerable legal uncertainties and ethical dilemma. In particular, questions of responsibility, legislative competences, and the applicability of current legislation regulating military deployments become increasingly diffuse.

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Paul Scharre argues that drones and robot deployments will decisively shape the future, despite their considerable limitations, and that the development of better drones will solve most of the problems they cause.4 Yet progress on a technological level will not solve the massive legal and ethical issues. Indeed, the urgency of the many new questions raised in strategic, legal, and humanitarian respects, as well as in respect of international law, tends to increase still further as new weapons systems become more sophisticated: What implications result from the dissolution of war zone boundaries due to the geographical displacement of attacks, and the fact that they are carried out across multiple national borders? How can legal responsibility for drones and partially autonomous weapons systems be regulated? When and to what extent could “targeted killing” be justified, considering that it currently exists outside of any legal norm? And who is involved in the decision-making process regarding the deployment, legitimacy, and scope of transnational drone strikes? These and many other questions lead to considerable uncertainty regarding the immediate future and carry extensive implications for global security policy and military intervention.

Foreign policy strategy in the complexity of the 21st century

In sum, therefore, the development of new weapons, combined with changed threat scenarios, is a huge contributing factor in making the international security environment even more complex. Charting a course in global security becomes even more unpredictable. For Germany, this means one thing above all: as the geopolitical situation becomes more unpredictable, including as a result of changing technological conditions, current German foreign policy looks increasingly inadequate. It is largely characterized by a case-by-case approach, and often seems to be shaped more by improvisation than by coherent strategic thinking. The future of warfare brings entirely new challenges – and Germany, too, will have no choice but to prepare for them. In order to effectively address the growing complexity of security policy issues, a long-term, overarching security strategy is now urgently needed.

The struggle against ISIS clearly illustrates the relevance of this issue. Aside from the development of new weapons systems and drone technology, it challenges conventional security strategies in a completely different way. With ISIS being a non-state actor, national borders lose all significance. As a result, legal frameworks designed for the legitimization of counter-attacks and the right to defense intended for nation states, such as envisioned by the UN convention, are no longer fully applicable. Faced with a threat situation that has fundamentally changed, state actors respond by changing their tactics and developing new military instruments. But in so doing, they encounter many kinds of legal and strategic uncertainties. Thus the fight against international terrorism makes it all the more clear that existing legal frameworks and principles of international military intervention are no longer sufficient to maintain modern security requirements.

The changing character of international conflicts, which goes hand in hand with the use of new technologies, means there is an urgent need for a corresponding national and international debate. A new, more stable legal framework is necessary to counter a combination of challenges at the crossroads of aggression through non-state actors on the one hand and the use of new, in part highly ambivalent technologies on the other hand. To arrive at such a framework, firstly the issue of proliferation and the creation of international treaties to limit the development of weapons systems such as cluster bombs should be discussed in depth. The new weapons pose ethical and humanitarian dilemmas that need to be taken seriously. At the present time, it is impossible to predict the full extent of possible consequences that the new weapons technologies might entail. For these reasons, there is an urgent need to modify international humanitarian law with a view to the future of global warfare. On the other hand, as part of a forward-looking security policy debate, the changing threats need to be recognized, and new military instruments and technologies for combating these threats need to be taken into account.

Overcoming security policy deficiencies for a long-term strategy

All of these aspects should be integrated into a long-term, overarching security policy approach. Of course the various challenges of one kind or another which result from technological advances and new, highly technologized warfare will hardly decrease in the medium to long term. The future of military conflicts looks different than the past, and we will have to adapt to the changes. In order to deal with increasing uncertainty in security policy and unforeseen developments, including those resulting from new weapons and technologies, Germany needs to take a strategic look into the future. Since the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) ruling of July 12, 1994, the Federal Republic of Germany is able to send troops outside of NATO territory, provided there is a mandate from the German Bundestag. In the present-day context of a changed technological situation and a new security environment, it is now up to the Bundes­tag to define political principles with regard to future German military engagement, in accordance with Article 1 (1) of the Basic Law.

To manage new challenges, a long-term strategic approach is necessary. But before this goal can be achieved, massive gaps in German strategic culture need to be closed. Therefore, the Federal Republic will have to pursue a dual strategy: firstly, Germany needs to overcome security policy incoherencies between political elites and the broad public in order to establish a workable consensus across society. While leading politicians emphasize Germany’s international responsibility, for example, nearly seventy per cent of Germans do not know why the Federal Republic is involved in the mission in Mali.5 Secondly, a comprehensive exchange of expertise needs to take place at a national level. To achieve this aim, it would be necessary to bundle academic insights from foreign policy and security analysts with the resources of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA), the German Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) and other relevant institutions and interlink these with ministries as well as the German Chancellery (Bundeskanzleramt, BKAmt). Such a format would then enable strategies for the future to be developed to address numerous issues – from Chinese and Russian aggression, structural change in Africa, and nuclear proliferation, to Iran and the MENA region. At the same time, a long-term security policy of this kind should be closely oriented towards European security initiatives. It could, for example, be linked to the European Defence Fund or Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

No overall European security strategy without a German strategy

In the era of Trump’s isolationist policies and increasing indifference toward Europe on the part of its traditionally most important ally, the EU can only develop a coherent security and defense policy if Germany – the political and geo­graphic heart of Europe – first produces a clear strategy in this regard. Without a clear German direction in security policy, PESCO is doomed to fail. The European Defence Fund would only be usable to finance marginal capacities. French intervention forces would be likely to continue to act autonomously in the future, without integration into ­European structures. Europe would become even more unsteady.

Germany must now adopt a clear position within European structures, assume responsibility, and take a leading role by the side of its European partners. To succeed here, the country requires a courageous strategic vision of maintaining democracy, peace, and prosperity in Europe. Germany now needs a national security strategy that can build on the European Common Foreign and Security Policy. To this end, national interests and potential threats as well as means and instruments of protection have to be identified. The German federal government’s 2016 White Paper took the first steps in this direction.

Technological progress will not transform modern warfare into a clean, unproblematic, and low-risk engineering exercise. In all likelihood, it will tend to make war even bloodier, more ethically problematic, and generally more unpredictable. The use of robots and artificial intelligence in particular will create more ethical and legal grey areas. Above all, new technologies will be another uncertainty factor when it comes to assessing international threats and formulating national security strategies. At the present time, it is impossible to predict the full consequences of these technological developments. Hence it is all the more important to keep their future strategic implications in sight. To respond to these changing circumstances and deal effectively with the resulting challenges, Germany and Europe urgently need an overarching, coherent, and forward-looking security strategy based on Article 1 of the Basic Law which will enable flexible responses to complex and ever-evolving threats. 

1 Schneider, Jacquelyn/Macdonald, Julia (2017): “Why Troops Don’t Trust Drones. The ‘Warm Fuzzy’ Problem”. [accessed June 5, 2018].

2 Cortright, David/Fairhurst, Rachel/Wall, Kristen (eds.) (2015): Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict. Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications. Chicago.

3 Plaw, Avery (2016): The Drone Debate. A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside of Conventional Battlefields. Lanham, Boulder, New York.

4 Scharre, Paul/Schneider, Jacquelyn/Macdonald, Julia (2018): “Why Drones are Still the Future of War. Troops will Learn to Trust Them.” [accessed June 5, 2018]. 

5 Körber Stiftung (2017): “The Berlin Pulse. German Foreign Policy in Perspective.” www.koerber-­ [accessed June 5, 2018].



James D. Bindenagel looks back on 30 years of experience in the diplomatic service of the United States of America. From 1996 to 1997 he was U.S. Ambassador to Germany. An authoritative diplomat, he has negotiated the compensations for forced workers during the Nazi Regime, the Washington Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art and the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, in order to prevent “conflict diamonds.” James D. Bindenagel was deputy head of an American think tank and vice president of the DePaul University in Chicago.