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Germany’s new security policy: A global ‘Zeitenwende’?

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been a shock for all of Europe, but none more so than for Germany. It has removed one of the main pillars of the country’s economic policy, the import of cheap energy from Russia; and it has shattered one of the long-standing illusions of its foreign policy, the conviction that it is always important to maintain contact and dialogue. It has also called into question the quality of the country’s own political leadership, particularly that of Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany.

In the period before Russia invaded Kyiv, and in the days immediately after it, Scholz seemed almost in denial about what was happening. Right up until the last minute his main priorities appeared to be to ensure that the Nordstream gas pipeline would be exempt from any sanctions which the European Union (EU) might impose, and to avoid doing anything which might appear ‘provocative’. He also showed himself to be a poor communicator: unable to offer the German public a clear account of how he saw the situation and what his policies were. It was the two senior Green members of his coalition, Annalena Baerbock, the Foreign Minister, and Robert Habeck, the Economics Minister, who seemed to be making all the running.

On 27th February this changed. In a dramatic speech to a special Sunday session of the Bundestag, Scholz announced that what had happened in Ukraine was a ‘Zeitenwende’ (best rendered into English as the title of one of Bob Dylan’s best known songs: ‘The Times They Are a’ Changing’). Henceforth, Germany would increase its defence expenditure, support Ukraine both economically and militarily, close down the Nordstream pipeline and eliminate imports of Russian oil and gas. It seemed as though Germany was now back in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) mainstream.

If Germany is serious about developing a new strategic culture it needs to focus on measures of containment as well.

The speech was well received, both in Germany and internationally. But it did not take long before some of the doubts about Scholz’s style of leadership returned. Germany provided military hardware to Ukraine both directly and indirectly, but seemed to spend a lot of time agonising internally over whether certain weapons systems should be supplied or not (armoured anti-aircraft systems yes; tanks no). More significantly, perhaps Scholz found it hard to acknowledge that the purpose of supplying arms was to enable Ukraine to secure a military victory; and that if there was to be any form of negotiation it was up to Ukraine, and Ukraine alone, to decide whether and, if so on what terms, such a negotiation should take place. 

There were questions too about Germany’s policy towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Again, it was the Green ministers who took the lead: Habeck in particular warned that Germany should heed the lesson of its experience over energy supplies from Russia and ensure that it did not become overly dependent on exports to the Chinese market. Scholz on the other hand followed the practice of previous Chancellors and last month visited the PRC – the first leader of a free and open nation to do so since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic – at the head of a large business delegation. He also overruled his coalition colleagues and granted a state-owned Chinese firm a shareholding in one of Hamburg’s port terminals. 

Scholz seems, however, to have realised that he needed to offer some broader vision of Germany’s security interests and its role in the world. He has written for the January/February 2023 edition of Foreign Affairs, one of the most prestigious foreign policy journals in the United States (US) and indeed internationally, an article in which he sets out his stall. ‘The Global Zeitenwende: How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era’ seeks to embed Germany’s foreign policy decisions in a wider conceptual framework; and to show that accusations of appeasement or mercantilism are unwarranted.

Much of his analysis is well-thought out and convincing. He traces the history of the increasingly aggressive behaviour of Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, and the attempts by Germany and France through the Minsk agreements to maintain a political dialogue with Russia. He concludes that ‘a revisionist Russia made it impossible for diplomacy to succeed’ and that ‘Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine in February 2022 then ushered in a fundamentally new reality: imperialism had returned to Europe.’ 

He goes on to reiterate some of the conclusions he set out in his speech to the Bundestag: Germany needs a change of strategic culture to reflect the fact that war has returned to Europe, more investment in its own armed forces and a new policy on arms exports. He also recognises that NATO needs to do more to credibly deter further Russian aggression in Europe and sets out the various ways in which Germany will contribute to this, for example through increasing its forward presence in the Baltic states and eastern Europe and by renewing, with its purchase of dual capable F-35 aircraft, its involvement in NATO’s nuclear burden-sharing arrangements. His message to Moscow is clear: ‘we are determined to defend every single inch of NATO territory’.

During the first Cold War NATO’s policy towards the Soviet Union was based on the Harmel doctrine (named after the Belgian Foreign Minister whose report underpinned it) of defence and détente. Germany, though always robust in its commitment to defence, tended to be more associated with the détente element of this and was assiduous in maintaining political contacts with all the countries of the Warsaw Pact. It is notable that in his article Scholz does not make a case for retaining such contacts with Russia. In practice he will no doubt continue to do so – he spent an hour on the telephone to Putin earlier this month – but he seems to accept that until there is a change in Russian leadership only a robust policy of deterrence is appropriate.

His attitude to the wider world, however, is less clear-cut. His starting point in the article is that there is a new multipolar world in which different countries and models of government are competing for power and influence. He argues that the ‘Zeitenwende’ goes beyond the war in Ukraine and beyond the issue of European security. He goes on to identify the central question as being: ‘How can we, as Europeans and as the European Union, remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world?’

It is a strange question to which he does not attempt to provide an answer. It is of course natural and legitimate for any country to wish to extend its power and influence. Even the EU does so through its economic weight, its trade policy and its programmes of development aid. By implication, Scholz wants it to do more or act differently, but he does not specify how. He offers some vague ideas about improving defence co-operation within the EU, but acknowledges that NATO is the ultimate guarantor of Euro-Atlantic security. The ability of the EU, or individual European countries, to act independently is of course constrained by the limitations of their military power. Scholz seems to regret this; but, though he favours more majority voting within the EU on foreign policy, he does not advocate its transformation into the sort of politico-military entity which would be able itself to exercise power in the way that the US does.

What does seem to concern him is the fear that the world might once again separate into what he calls ‘competing blocks’, and that ‘the dawn of a new cold war is approaching’ which will ‘pit the United States against China’. But again he does not offer any prescription for how such a development might be avoided, other than by building up relationships and partnerships with countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly those which are democracies.

This is a laudable aim, and one which already forms part of the security strategies of the US and the United Kingdom (UK). What is unclear from Scholz’s article is whether he sees these partnerships as having any defence component. For many countries in the Indo-Pacific region the PRC’s growing military power, and its belligerence towards Taiwan and illegal activity in the South China Sea, is a key security concern. The US ‘rebalance’ to the Indo-Pacific and the UK ‘tilt’ to the region reflect this. So does France’s attempts to retain a military presence in the region. 

The article’s very title illustrates the dilemma Germany faces in its security policy. Whether a new cold war can be avoided does not lie in Germany’s or the EU’s hands. It depends on the behaviour of other powers, notably Russia and the PRC.

Whether Germany follows suit will be a test of whether it takes the notion of a global ‘Zeitenwende’ seriously. Unlike France or Britain, it does not have armed forces with global reach – it has no plans to acquire aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines – but it has a navy which is capable of deploying outside the North Atlantic area. If Germany wants to show that European countries are able to remain independent actors, a good starting point might be to suggest that a German naval vessel joins a British or French carrier battle group on its next Pacific or Indian Ocean deployment.

Germany also needs to have a policy for dealing with the PRC. Scholz claims to have spoken to Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, during his recent visit to Beijing about the PRC’s human rights abuses and its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan. But words are cheap. So far the Federal Government has refused to put pressure on German firms like Volkswagen, which have factories in Xinjiang, next door to the Uighur concentration camps, to disinvest, and in his article he makes no mention of any need to avoid over-reliance on exports to the Chinese market nor display any concern about Chinese investments in Germany itself. 

Indeed, the article’s very title illustrates the dilemma Germany faces in its security policy. Whether a new cold war can be avoided does not lie in Germany’s or the EU’s hands. It depends on the behaviour of other powers, notably Russia and the PRC. Neither of them is committed to the open international order which Germany and its allies support. Avoiding a confrontational relationship with Russia and the PRC is fine as an aspiration. But, as experience with Russia has shown, it is not always achievable. If Germany is serious about developing a new strategic culture it needs to focus on measures of containment as well.

Sir Paul Lever was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Germany (1997-2003) and Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1994-1996). His most recent book is Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way (I.B. Tauris, 2017).

Embedded image credit: Raimond Spekking (CC BY-SA 4.0 cropped)

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1 thought on “Germany’s new security policy: A global ‘Zeitenwende’?”

  1. Scholz is empty words. In a free trade world, the enemy will attack from within to try to make life miserable. It wants money and influence, not inches of NATO land. It will bribe, hack, bot, influence and assassinate, and it will employ accomplices in Schroeder and Merkel. Nothing has changed with Scholz.
    NATO is still, like it has been before, nothing more than an appeasement plan where Russia would provide at the expense russification of the Europe of the Ostenerweiterung.
    Elect your own government? Get dehumanised as a Nazi, eventually get invaded as a result, suffer devastation and war crimes and watch Germany sit on its hands.
    Ban Russian and the Red Army monuments? Get slapped on the wrist by the same appeasing NATO.
    The looming threat of falling back into Russian prison again is there because Germany wants it to be there as a key element of the appeasement deal. It’s a disgrace. Austria has provided nothing but resentment.

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