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To what extent is Germany implementing Zeitenwende?

The Zeitenwende speech delivered by Olaf Scholz, German Chancellor, on 27th February 2022 in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine heralded an immediate shift in aspects of German foreign and defence policy. However, it is not just about more guns and money, but a cultural shift in German thinking on strategic matters – a process that cannot be forced. There are many signs that this shift is occurring, and also many that it is not, such as the Taurus leak. So to what extent is Germany implementing Zeitenwende? We asked six experts in today’s Big Ask.

Evie Aspinall, British Foreign Policy Group

When Zeitenwende was announced, it did genuinely mark a turning point in German foreign policy – a turn away from decades of caution to a more active military role for Germany. The speed at which Germany was able to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, the creation of Germany’s first National Security Strategy, and the fact Germany is set to become the second-largest financial and military supporter of Ukraine, are testament to this turn. 

However, scratch beneath the surface and challenges remain. The use of the ‘special fund’ [Sondervermögen] to meet spending commitments means Germany could face a major financing hole in its security policy by 2028, while the National Security Strategy failed to provide the level of ambition and strategic thinking needed to meet current geopolitical challenges. Furthermore, the refusal of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine speaks to a fundamental unease which remains within Germany about leading on European and wider defence and security.

That is unsurprising. Despite some initial quick wins, Zeitenwende will require a fundamental cultural and values shift within Germany, a process which will take years if not decades. The challenge is that with conflict in the Middle East, as well as Ukraine, increasing concerns about the People’s Republic of China, and the growing prospect of a second Trump presidency, German leadership is needed urgently. European partners will be hoping, for the sake of their own security, that Zeitenwende quickly speeds up.

Klaus Brummer, Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt

It is impossible to answer to what extent Germany is implementing Zeitenwende since nobody really knows what the latter is supposed to entail. True, German foreign and security policy has experienced a number of significant changes in response to the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine. Establishing a ‘special fund’ [Sondervermögen] of €100 billion as an additional, and direly needed, source of funding for the German armed forces [Bundeswehr] is one. Sending large amounts of military equipment to Ukraine is another.

Yet it remains to be seen whether steps like those culminate in a broader strategic reorientation as the term Zeitenwende implies. Such reorientation might eventually come, for example through meaningful changes to military recruitment or procurement. Another step could be to finally heed the decades’ old call to establish a National Security Council where both conceptual and operative aspects of German security policy could be bundled.

Through such steps, the thus far primarily policy-oriented Zeitenwende would receive structural underpinnings. However, judging from the constant bickering which the current government has had over almost every aspect of the country’s response to the full-scale Russian invasion so far, it is by no means a given that such underpinnings will materialise.

Edward Hunter Christie, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

German defence is a case of working hard and moving forward every day, but on a trajectory which is substantially lower than what the evolution of external threats should command. The central problem is that the political leadership remains grounded in undue self-restraint. 

Downstream from the political level, Germany suffers from the same structural traps as other Western European countries: decades of underinvestment have yielded a force which is undersized and underequipped, coupled with a defence industry which is struggling to rise out of a low-capacity trap. These traps are mutually reinforcing: even when financing rises, procurement orders take too long to come through. A leap forward based on more ambitious capability targets and taboo-breaking budgets would stimulate industry far better, but the political level remains confined overwhelmingly to minimum delivery within Germany’s alliance commitments. 

Germany is making progress: its procurement budget will be high in 2024 and 2025, new equipment is coming in, and spending will, on paper, reach 2% of GDP this year. But to transform at the speed of relevance, Germany should want a higher level of ambition for its forces while also making much greater efforts on both budgets and relevant flanking policies. If Poland can do it, Germany can do it too.

Paul Lever, Former British Ambassador to Germany

In many respects Germany’s implementation of Zeitenwende has been impressive and rapid. It has dramatically reduced its energy dependence on Russia. It has increased its defence budget, which is now the largest in Europe, and committed itself to the NATO target of 2%. It has invested in new production facilities. And most importantly it has supplied massive amounts of military aid to Ukraine, more than any other country except the United States (US).

But Scholz has been consistently hesitant when it comes to the supply of certain types of weapon systems. He initially resisted providing tanks, then combat aircraft and now Taurus cruise missiles. In the case of the first two he eventually changed his position, but on Taurus he is digging in. He seems to be worried that if Germany supplied Taurus it would have to provide German military personnel to operate it (not true) and that Taurus would enable Ukraine to strike targets deep in Russian territory.

This suggests that for Scholz at any rate the intellectual Zeitenwende only goes so far. Yes, he appreciates that the old way of dealing with Russia has to change, that a more muscular approach is needed and that Ukraine deserves support. But he still cannot wean himself away from one of the traditional weaknesses of his party’s security policy: an excessive sensitivity to Russian concerns and a reluctance to accept that there are times when issues have to be resolved on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table.

Christoph Meyer, King’s College London

To its credit, Germany has demonstrated a large cross-party majority – supported by public opinion – around mobilising substantially more resources for its armed forces. Yet, the €100 billion special purpose fund will run out in 2027, and it is unclear currently how the ordinary defence budget will grow to meet the shortfall. 

The government also radically changed its Russia policy and managed to successfully reduce its over 50% reliance on Russian gas. This matters, because together with the economic disentangling due to sanctions, the material incentives underpinning German Ostpolitik have been largely removed. German politicians now acknowledge publicly the mistakes of their previous Russia policy. But there is still too little willingness to identify and learn from the deeper and wider root-causes of Germany’s foreign policy failures.

Without structural changes in the machinery of government, whether it is on strategy-making, intelligence, defence procurement or bureaucracy, Germany is doomed to repeat past mistakes. Indeed, the Zeitenwende is about much more than just defence spending; it is also about the resilience, agility and competitiveness of the German state as a whole.

Boris Pistorius, the German Defence Minister, is driving this more expansive agenda by arguing effective deterrence of Russia requires the engagement of the whole of society and business. He even proposed reactivating conscription in a modified form. Few Germans are ideologically pacifist as polling shows, and the terms of public debate around defence in Germany have changed radically. Yet, Germans remain far more sceptical and risk averse about the use of force than those in France or Britain. There is also a worrying gulf between West and East Germany on supporting Ukraine and dealing with Russia that may feed into electoral success of parties opposing  dramatic changes in policy towards these issues at the regional and European elections.

Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

Three days after Russia launched its unprecedented full-scale aggression against Ukraine, Scholz gave what was considered at the time one of the most consequential speeches on German foreign and security policy to the Bundestag. Scholz boldly stated that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine constituted a Zeitenwende and required a fundamental reassessment not of the goals of Germany foreign and security policy but of the tools with which these goals were to be achieved.

So profound was this apparent turn away from Germany’s traditional Ostpolitik that by the end of 2022, Zeitenwende became one of the Financial Times’s ‘year in a word’ and Scholz was invited to elaborate his concept for an English-speaking audience in Foreign Affairs.

There can be no question in this author’s mind that the Zeitenwende is real and that Germany’s approach to how it pursues its national interests through a more assertive foreign and security policy has changed. Germany is the second-largest donor of military aid to Ukraine after the US in absolute terms. The highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline was abandoned. For the first time in three decades, Germany has hit the target of spending 2% of its GDP on defence. And for the first time ever, Germany has a National Security Strategy that puts ‘strengthening the Bundeswehr as a cornerstone of defence in Europe’ at its centre and emphasises the importance of a German ‘contribution to NATO’s deterrence capabilities.’

Three years ago, this would have been unthinkable. The challenge for the current and future German governments will be to normalise this Zeitenwende so that it becomes embedded permanently in a new strategic culture.

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