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Is Germany’s National Security Strategy adequate?

The Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts whether Germany’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published on 14th June 2023, is adequate for the geostrategic context the country finds itself in

Evie Aspinall, The British Foreign Policy Group

Germany’s NSS is a document of compromise, the product of an attempt to develop consensus between three parties with fairly divergent views on foreign policy. The result is a document laden with vague and imprecise language. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is somehow a ‘partner, competitor and systemic rival’ all at the same time, while the threat posed by Russia is intentionally defined as temporary – ‘today’s Russia is for now the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area.’ 

One of the biggest casualties of ‘compromise’ has been the scrapping of plans to create a national security council, which would have enabled Germany to have a more integrated and effective response to security challenges. The other is the decision to obfuscate the commitment to reach the target of spending 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, which Germany now commits to doing only as a multi-year average, with the ambition to do this ‘at no additional cost to the federal budget.’ At a time where its NATO allies increasingly see 2% as a floor rather than ceiling, Germany’s defence budget will continue to fall woefully short of current defence and security needs.

As such, while the decision to create a NSS is a welcome signal of Germany’s increased willingness to play a greater role in security, the strategy itself falls short of meeting the challenges of the current geopolitical environment. It is not necessarily surprising. But it is disappointing.

Benedikt Franke, Munich Security Conference

While the answer to the question must be an emphatic ‘no’ (mostly because it is not concrete and ambitious enough), the new strategy is still a major step ahead in at least three aspects:

First, for a country that has shied away from formulating anything akin to a strategy for decades, having a guiding document of any sorts is a revolution in and of itself. It will focus public and expert debates and provide much-needed crystallisation effects for Germany’s nascent strategic culture. 

Second, the strategy clearly recognises the crucial importance of reducing Germany’s dependencies, addressing its vulnerabilities, and increasing the resilience of its critical systems, supply chains, and infrastructure through concrete actions rather than lofty hopes. Particularly the active role of the state charted in the strategy is a major deviation from the times when Germany relied solely on market forces.

Third, the new strategy announces a large number of subordinate strategies (on topics ranging from the PRC to disinformation) which will further clarify Germany’s stands and priorities. Taken together, all these strategies will, most likely, still not add up to a great strategy, but they will certainly bring the country as close to a grand strategy as it has ever been.

Marina Henke, Hertie School

Germany has finally taken the jump and published its first NSS. Such a document was long overdue, and the effort should be applauded. Nevertheless, as it is so often the case, first attempts fall short of expectations. The Federal Government made some grave mistakes when drafting the document. The greatest mistake is arguably that the strategy completely ignores strategic trade-offs. Indeed, one could say that Germany’s NSS is not a strategy per se, but a wish list of all things Germany wants to have: security, democracy, wealth, a zero-carbon economy, a strong European Union (EU), and close relations with the United States (US).

But Germany cannot have it all. Indeed, weighing strategic trade-offs constitutes the very core of strategic thinking. If Germany prioritises security, there will be necessary cutbacks in areas such as social welfare and environmental protection. If Germany invests in a strong Europe, transatlantic relations will suffer. Cheap Russian gas allowed the German economy to grow but it also made Germany dependent on Russia. Successive Federal Governments ignored this strategic trade-off until, of course, Russia’s fully-fledged assault on Ukraine last year, which forced Germany to reassess its energy supply with dramatic cost increases for German citizens. 

The new German NSS commits the same mistake: it sells to the German public that all is possible. This is wrong and also dangerous. Once reality hits, discontent and disillusionment will set in and public contestation of the government in power is likely to grow as well as support for extremist parties such as the Alternative for Germany.

Paul Lever, Former British Ambassador to Germany

Germany’s NSS is a competent piece of work which develops the themes of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ‘Zeitenwende’ speech of February last year. It addresses a wide spectrum of security risks. It is free from the illusions and wishful thinking which have sometimes characterised German security policy in the past. It is robust on Russia and it recognises that in Europe it is now hard security, and defence capabilities, which count. The commitment to NATO is paramount.

Its weaknesses are its failure to prioritise (a feature of the UK’s Integrated Review as well) or to explain how and when the NATO target of 2% of GDP will actually be reached. It also fails to define a security role for Germany (or indeed the EU) outside Europe. The PRC is described as ‘a partner, competitor and systemic rival’, but there is no mention of Taiwan or the PRC’s military build-up.

The strategy’s emphasis is on multilateral institutions. It identifies only the US and France as important bilateral partners. That there is no mention of the UK is not a surprise; but the absence of any reference to Germany’s immediate neighbours like Poland, Denmark or the Netherlands is strange.

Julian Pawlak, German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies

The Federal Republic of Germany’s first ever NSS is a major step forward in achieving a deeper approach towards the geostrategic challenges ahead. Deliberately not crafted by a single ministry, it emphasises an ‘integrated security’ approach, stressing that security is ‘part of all policy fields.’ German security policy is described as resting on the three pillars of robustness (Wehrhaftigkeit), resilience, and sustainability.

Observers who might be disappointed by the broad, often general, and mostly unsurprising, content should differentiate that this is in fact not a defence strategy. The Federal Government’s idea was to underline the interconnectedness of security in all dimensions. Yet, this certainly includes Germany’s crystal-clear commitment to deterrence and defence, with the strategy underlying that ‘collective and national defence are one and the same’.

Moreover, the comprehensive description of security leaves room for further elaboration in more specific follow-up papers, such as topical strategic documents. In summary, one should not underestimate the impact the NSS will have on German policy and strategy development, as it is where future policy and strategy will be drawn from. It represents an important step in addressing the geostrategic context of the 21st century.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

While it lacks the ambition or cohesion of the UK’s Integrated Review or its refresh, Germany’s NSS marks a genuine first stab at formulating a written national security strategy. It comes at a time of growing geopolitical tension, which afflicts Europe, even Germany’s own neighbourhood, as much as anywhere else.

But whether the NSS marks the promised evolution, let alone revolution, in Germany’s strategic culture remains an open question. Telling is the omission of any mention of the UK or Poland, the two European countries which have done more than any other to resist the Kremlin and support Ukraine since Russia’s renewed aggression in February 2022.

If Germany seeks greater security for itself and for Europe, it is no good focusing only on France. Only the UK has integrated the requisite nuclear forces and military presence across the continent – with nodes in Norway, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Cyprus and Gibraltar, even in Germany itself – to deter external aggressors. And only Poland, Germany’s large and increasingly wealthy eastern neighbour, has put in place a military modernisation programme to develop a powerful armoured defence force by the early 2030s.

With the NSS, Germany shows it is beginning to take security and defence more seriously. But without closer relations with Europe’s leading military powers – Poland and the UK – Germany will fail to reach its potential.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

Germany’s NSS has been overlong in the making. It is distinctly underwhelming. The document is at its most honest in its concluding section when it describes its purpose as contributing to ‘the development of a strategic culture’ and to be the ‘starting point for societal debate’. However, the order of the current European and international security challenges the NSS itself identifies warrant a far speedier move from procrastination to proactive responses. 

The document is not the product of a ‘Zeitenwende’ in thinking needed to inform the action of a large and powerful European state. Rather, its contents demonstrate the outcome of a process that has failed to fully grapple with the responsibilities of a Germany that possesses an abundance of wealth and capabilities that can make a significant contribution to European and international security. 

Credit should be given for its clear-eyed analysis of Russia as the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic. But its analysis of the PRC as a ‘partner, competitor and systemic rival’ covers all bases while studiously avoiding any hint of what constitutes the German approach to managing this situation. Germany – and Europe – deserves more clarity from the leadership of a pivotal European power.

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