One year after Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s seminal speech in the German Bundestag, the country is still caught between conflicting instincts. The government needs to decide if it wants to embrace the “Zeitenwende” as something it actively pursues as a guiding principle for structural and long overdue changes or if it merely wants to interpret the term as a frame of reference for an altered environment to which one must, grudgingly, adapt.

For Germany watchers, it has been an interesting year. Chancellor Scholz surprised the international community when on 27 February 2022, he announced sweeping changes to Germany’s post-Cold War foreign policy consensus in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the country has displayed a decidedly mixed performance, adapting impressively in some areas while hesitating to act in others, all garnished with often confusing messaging.

The industrial policy challenge of weaning itself off Russian gas deliveries was accomplished much quicker than believed possible, albeit partly forced by the Russian decision to cut deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September 2022.

On the other hand, Germany’s performance on the defence policy dimension of “Zeitenwende” has been much less impressive so far. Even though the government approved a special fund of 100 billion euros to strengthen the German Bundeswehr, ramping up defence procurement has been very slow. It has become clear by now that the country will – again – not fulfil its pledge to meet the NATO commitment of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

By now, the promises to meet the spending goals by 2025 ring somewhat hollow. The appointment of Boris Pistorius as the new Defence Minister in January has brought a change in tone resulting in clearer communication on what concrete steps will be taken in implementing heavy weapons deliveries to Ukraine and renationalising production of ammunition. He has even backed an increased spending goal for NATO members – which is appreciated abroad.

Missed opportunities

However, while Germany has by now moved to third place in military support for Ukraine, the way this was achieved has come with a political cost for the country. Through a combination of hesitancy, tortuous decision-making, institutional inertia, and obscure communication on every substantial arms delivery decision, the German government has been perceived as dragging its feet in supporting Ukraine at best and intentionally trying to block progress at worst.

Ironically, the outcome has been the same in every instance – while Germany did ultimately, step by step, decide to deliver heavy weapons (howitzers, self-propelled anti-aircraft systems, armoured personnel carriers, and finally main battle tanks), and mostly in greater numbers than many other countries, the political consequence has been that Germany is still seen as resisting a proactive role of leadership in confronting Russia.

If one imagines that the German government had made exactly the same decisions, only a bit earlier and on its own initiative, the detriment in terms of political capital and trust – especially among Poland and the Baltic countries – but also, after the latest imbroglio about delivering Leopard 2 tanks, with the United States – might have been averted. If it had acted faster and with less risk aversion, Germany could have consolidated political leadership on foreign and security policy issues within Europe and in the transatlantic relationship.

This leadership role is something that Germany has been hesitant to embrace for a long time. However, it will not be able to escape this responsibility due to its size and relative economic strength. The fundamental challenge that Russia’s war in Ukraine poses to the European security order has ended the grace period of relative geopolitical calm after the end of the Cold War.

Germany, which had carved out a comfortable niche in this environment, will need to step up to meet the new demands placed on it. To play this role successfully, the German government will need all the political capital it can get to implement this leadership position and act as an honest broker, particularly within the EU, for example when forging closer ties with the EU’s neighbourhood.

Last, best chance to tango with the US

During the whole process of confronting Russia’s war of aggression, the Biden Administration has been very successful in leading from the front (providing by far the largest military support), holding together the NATO Alliance and a wider group of aligned countries such as Japan and South Korea.

Both President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have on numerous occasions underlined that they view Germany as their closest partner in Europe or even in the world. Even when Germany has sometimes been a difficult partner, i.e., when trying to push through an investment compact with China before the new administration had had a chance to formulate its own policy or when pushing the US to deliver M1 Abrams Tanks to Ukraine.

The German government would be well advised to recognize that the Biden administration might be the last dyed-in-the-wool transatlantic-oriented partner they will have in the US. While it is a given that the economic, political, and cultural ties across the Atlantic will remain strong for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any successor of President Biden will have the same long-standing relationship and intimate understanding of the “Old World.” Even President Obama, who had a very trusting and constructive personal relationship with Chancellor Merkel, was less transatlantically inclined than Biden, as his “pivot to Asia” policy initiative clearly showcased.

Therefore, it is even more important for Germany to use the present window of opportunity to agree on common policy priorities in strengthening the European security architecture, reforming and rebuilding the multilateral trade order, and overcoming challenges in the bilateral trade relationship.

On many of these issues, there might be time to make significant progress over the next two years, but there seems to be a distinct lack of urgency on the EU-US track – at the Trade and Technology Council – as well as on the bilateral front. Instead of proactively defining a concrete agenda with specific deliveries, the German government seems to only react when domestic US policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act threaten to have a direct impact on the German economy.

Fully embracing the consequences of the “Zeitenwende” also means taking responsibility for shaping the international environment together with partners in order to build resilience in the face of intensifying international rivalries. The chance to do this in lockstep with the US might never be as good as it is today.

Trust in oneself and in the support of the German population

The contrast between Olaf Scholz’s inspiring words during the original “Zeitenwende” address in the German Bundestag and the timidity with which most of the necessary policy changes have been communicated and implemented afterward brings to mind the old German adage that someone has “jumped as a tiger and landed as a bed rug.” Looking at the consistently high levels of support for Ukraine, even in the face of rising energy prices and the highest inflation rates seen in a generation, it seems that large parts of the German population have embraced the tenets and consequences of “Zeitenwende.” Therefore, a more decisive implementation relying on the continued willingness of the German population to shoulder the necessary burdens – including for significantly increased defence spending – would stand Berlin in good stead.

However, this will require expending political capital at home to continually make the case that the changes in Germany’s stance on security and defence policy are a necessity, not only for addressing the current challenge posed by Russia but also to ensure that the country remains able to pursue its own and its EU allies’ interests in a world that is increasingly defined by geopolitical rivalries.

About the author

Mark C. Fischer is a Senior Project Manager co-heading the Project Sovereign Europe at Bertelsmann Stiftung. He is an expert on transatlantic relations, EU and NATO Enlargement, European foreign and security policy, as well as development cooperation issues. 

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