MORE than a dozen years ago, I was present at a meeting of Ministers dealing with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agenda included the problem of our German allies’ unwillingness to use lethal force in Afghanistan (though at the time they had more troops there than Britain did).

And the deployment of a Japanese engineer unit in Iraq depended on our finding other allies to give them robust protection. The Prime Minister of the day leant back wearily and said: “My father wouldn’t believe me if I told him one of my biggest problems was to get the Germans and Japanese to fire their guns.”

This came back to mind this week, as British politicians and media have competed to criticise Germany’s reluctance to send lethal weapons to Ukraine. German self-interest and its dependence on Russian gas have been presented as the drivers in this.

We risk failing to understand the deeply held outlook in Germany underlying and supporting their legal requirement not to provide lethal equipment to non-allies in trouble spots. (Other equipment is fair game: a recent rapid review made an exception to allow the provision to Ukraine of anti-drone weapons).

German policy on Ukraine is not unanimous. Many Germans and German politicians would like to make Ukraine an exception to their restrictive rule. Almost all Germans are strongly sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight.

But the broad acceptance of the policy of not adding the fuel of military ordnance to political fires is fundamental. British and French opinion accepts far more happily the production of military hardware as a major contributor to employment, economic activity (including profit) and advancing technology. Our markets are identified more by their willingness and ability to pay than by their commitment to democratic or human rights. Over the past ten years the Middle East has been by far Britain's biggest market, with Saudi Arabia at the top of the league table.

We have licensing arrangements, described by successive governments as amongst the strictest in the world (presumably not counting Germany’s) which constrain our sales. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours currently buy on average around £5 billion worth per year of our defence exports – just under 60% of our exports in this sector over the last ten years.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular are heavily involved in Yemen’s civil war. Our licensing constraints will be being applied assiduously and taking up much time in Whitehall, including a recent court battle which briefly suspended sales to Saudi Arabia. But the sales will continue. And there is little public opposition to this.

German hesitation in joining the supply of weaponry to Ukraine may frustrate our policy makers and commentators. But before condemning it, we might, like that former prime minister, reflect on a world in which German and Japanese triggers were enthusiastically squeezed.

George Fergusson is a former head of the Foreign Policy Team in the Cabinet Secretariat.