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Germany’s strategic culture is changing, but in odd ways

Last week Joe Biden, the United States (US) President, announcing that he would line up with Germany and send tanks to Ukraine, publicly thanked Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, for his leadership. Berlin had faced huge pressure from European partners to green-light the supply of German-made Leopards to Ukraine, and there had even been reports of heated meetings between US officials and the Chancellor’s men. The president graciously buried the rumours of rancour and ended the ambiguity about American tanks.

At almost the same time, Scholz was giving an interview of his own, and in a markedly different tone. If Biden’s message was a magnanimous ‘thank you’, the Chancellor’s reply was a punchy ‘yes, thank me.’ Scholz asserted that Germany had been uniquely able to hold out against Biden because of its international standing: everyone knows Germany is contributing the most to Ukraine’s support – financially, in humanitarian terms and militarily – he seemed to say. Next time, Scholz intimated allies and so-called experts should think twice before criticising him.

Scholz’s strong self-belief has subsequently coloured the international media coverage of the process that led to the American and German decisions. British commentators who had been critical now acknowledge that Germany has made strides, at least measured by its own historical benchmarks; US diplomats evidently understood the German domestic context, and were right to praise Scholz even for baby-steps; Scholz had genuinely achieved a tactical masterstroke, forcing the Americans to match the German pledge of sending Abrams alongside Leopards. 

Scholz may have sounded graceless, then, but it was understandable: here was a man blowing off steam. All week a new alignment of European countries had put huge pressure on him – an east-west group bracketed by Poland and Britain, and with a pivot made up of the Netherlands and Denmark, two countries that since Brexit had actually been seeking close relations to Germany. Scholz had to deal with this whilst he was having a conversation directly with Washington.

But even if Scholz did shift the US position, at what cost? The US is irked by Europe and its inability to get its affairs in order. Here was a chance to show that Europeans could move quickly on their own, sending British, German and even French tanks eastwards. Instead, Scholz delayed, and forced Biden to expend his small stock of political capital on a public pledge, one of limited worth because it is going to take considerable time to get the Abrams into a shape where they can be integrated into the Ukrainian effort.

It is customary to ask whether the German language provides a good descriptor for a particular phenomenon. In this case, it does. And the German media is using it to describe Scholz’s style. Besserwisser. This attribute was at the heart of last week’s problems – the Chancellor’s feeling that he knows best and does not need to communicate his thinking. The world must learn to wait until he has reached a decision. This bad communication style caused frustrations to boil over, only for Scholz to emerge serenely from incubation and chide his critics.

If the Besserwisser phenomenon feels familiar, not least from the crisis-plagued years of Angela Merkel, former German Chancellor, it is because it is structural. German politics no longer produces decisive, outspoken leaders, but rather taciturn backroom operators. Political power here has ceased alternating between the two big parties (Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Scholz’s Social Democrats) meaning that would-be Chancellors need to be quiet operators, perpetually watchful about saying something that might permanently alienate potential coalition partners. 

Until the early 2000s, the two big parties still produced personalities large enough to master Germany’s constitutional set-up. This was vital for Germany’s capacity to act. The German constitution dissipates power, downwards (to the local level), outwards (to individual ministries) and upwards (to the European Union (EU)). The two big parties, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Social Democratic Party of Germany, are meant to colonise these various nodes, and produce outstanding personalities to coordinate them. These days, however, they produce leaders who have dysfunctional ways of managing a dysfunctional system. 

It would be cynical to claim that German leaders manufacture international crises in order to get things done without the hard work of political persuasion. Yet it is undoubtedly true that they have developed an extraordinarily high pain threshold for international criticism and shaming. Far from speeding up domestic decision-making to avoid crises, they indulge in foot-dragging. Acute international crises centre political power on the Chancellery, and this suits those like Scholz who feel they know best but do not wish to test their ideas in the court of public opinion.

So there is something distinctly fishy about the narrative of Scholz bravely facing up to his country’s history and encouraging Germans to rethink their international responsibilities. In many ways he is doing the reverse. He is using a historical narrative as a way to squeeze indulgence from Germany’s allies. He is unwilling and personally unable to make the case for change. So he centres power on himself, forces others to make the arguments and then emerges to take the credit. The toll is growing.

For one thing, the Besserwisser style makes German public opinion cautious and conservative. Some months ago, support in Germany for sending tanks to Ukraine was high. This was based not on fear but conviction – a response to revelations about the behaviour of Russian forces in Bucha. Scholz poured cold water on this, hinting at intelligence that he alone enjoys and responsibilities that he alone carries. Domestic support dipped, international anger at Germany grew, German voters became indignant and lined up behind Scholz in pursuit of cautious baby-steps. A familiar pattern. 

Second, and related to this, Scholz’s behaviour tends to realise what Germany fears most. Sitting in his Chancellery, speaking to almost nobody, not his foreign minister, not close European allies with nuclear capabilities, Scholz is convinced of escalation from Russia, shaky support from the US, and reckless competition between his European partners to supply Ukraine with arms. His mix of vacillation and brinkmanship have made all these things more likely. This in turn only vindicates the Chancellor and his cautious approach.

Third, Scholz is not above holding his allies hostage until they acquiesce to his narrative. The abject sight of Biden thanking him for his leadership is just the latest example. Many recall the energy crisis: Germany’s strategic errors have made its allies vulnerable. But Scholz was ready to leverage these vulnerabilities until they acquiesced to the German interest. He pointed out how dependent Europeans are on the German manufacturing sector, suggesting they might want to make their gas available as a thank you present for German solidarity in previous crises. 

It would be cynical to claim that German leaders manufacture international crises in order to get things done without the hard work of political persuasion. Yet it is undoubtedly true that they have developed an extraordinarily high pain threshold for international criticism and shaming.

So what is the United Kingdom (UK) to do? Germany has proved once again to be a liability, and an unthinking one too. Britain cannot hope to go round it and nor can EU members compete with it due to the institutional underpinning of Germany in the bloc. Nor can the UK really hope to reach German voters. True, some German political leaders pride themselves on levelling frankly with the public. But precisely this attribute means they are unlikely ever to marshal a governing coalition. 

Perhaps, however, the UK can go over Germany’s head and speak directly with the US. Biden early on chose Germany over Britain as his special partner, and seems to associate Brexit with Donald Trump, his predecessor. But Scholz, typically, has seen this relationship as a chance to take not give, recognising that Biden is politically dependent on him. What Biden needs in Europe is precisely someone who is capable of communicating about American actions – sensitising Europeans to the Inflation Reduction Act or its security policy. 

The Besserwisser is not a communicator. Britain can be.

Dr. Roderick Parkes is head of research at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin and directs its Alfred von Oppenheim Centre on the Future of Europe. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author alone.

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