Jun 29, 2023

Can Germany Keep Pace in a Fast-Forward World?

Germany’s new National Security Strategy is not a strategy but a list of good intentions. It lacks priorities, adequate funding, and a real sense of change.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Finance Minister Christian Lindner attend a press conference on the day they present the national security strategy during a press conference at the House of “Bundespressekonferenz” in Berlin, Germany June 14, 2023.
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In Germany’s new National Security Strategy, everything is on the menu—advancing biodiversity and feminist foreign policy, enhancing crisis engagement and conventional defense, reducing dependencies, standing up for democracy and human rights, fighting aggressors abroad and extremists at home. It’s all very reasonable. That’s what makes it so disappointing.

Having declared a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in world affairs, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) and his coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), have now announced they are ready to right the world’s wrongs. There are just three problems.

Three Problems

First, there are no priorities. The document promises to “advance,” “enhance,” or “strengthen” efforts across more than 75 different areas. Yet, it does not say which deserve the greatest attention. If everything is a priority, nothing is. 

Second problem: no money. The document commits Germany to “boost investments in areas including critical infrastructure protection, cyber capabilities, effective diplomacy, resilient disaster prevention and relief, stabilizing our partners and engaged humanitarian assistance and development cooperation.” Berlin is ready to go “beyond its current commitments” to tackle climate change. It wants to strengthen European defense and the EU’s rapid deployment capacity.

Then comes the hammer: All of this will be done “at no additional cost to the overall federal budget.” Ministries are to implement these initiatives within their current means. That implies that savings will come by abandoning other projects. Yet the document says only where Germany will do more, not where it will do less.

The most egregious failure relates to Scholz’ promise to strengthen the Bundeswehr and to meet Germany’s NATO commitments. Berlin has still spent only a fraction of the one-off €100 billion special fund it established to reverse years of neglect when it comes to defense. German military experts say €300 billion is actually needed if Scholz is to make good on his pledge to make Germany “the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be.” Scholz promised to allocate “more” than 2 percent of German GDP for defense, yet spending hovers at around 1.5 percent.

Creative Accounting

What’s more, for the remainder of its term the government has capped the annual defense budget at €50.1 billion, far lower than the €85 billion needed to meet the 2-percent spending target by the end of 2026. Faced with this reality, the paper fudges: “We will allocate 2 percent of our GDP, as an average over a multi-year period, to reaching NATO capability goals, initially in part via the newly created special fund for the Bundeswehr.” In other words, Germany will only meet its pledge through its one-off special fund, not through the regular budget, and only through the end of this coalition’s term. After that, all bets are off. It is an exercise in creative accounting, not a statement of reliable commitment.

Also, the coalition had initially agreed that defense budget increases would be matched euro-for-euro with those for development spending. Boosting defense through a special fund while freezing the defense budget allows the government to sidestep this commitment. No more for defense, no more for development. The document also doesn’t explain how Berlin intends to meet additional resource demands that are certainly coming its way—on Ukraine, the green transition, EU enlargement, to name just a few.

Strategy is about making best use of limited means to achieve desirable ends in operationally relevant timeframes. Because the paper avoids the imperative of choice, it is not a strategy; it is a best-face list of good intentions. Grumbling is evident even within the coalition ranks; one leading Social Democrat dismissed it as a “security brochure rather than a sound strategy.”

The third problem: Somewhere along the way, the Zeitenwende got lost. The document largely describes current issues; little space is devoted to the deeper “tectonic shifts” to which Scholz has alluded but never explained. The 75+ initiatives promise to do better what the country has already been doing. This is a course correction, not a “turning of the times.”

Those involved in the process know this to be true. They argue that the German public’s willingness to embrace—and fund—a true change of course will only come as a new strategic culture develops, and that this will take time. The paper is “not the end but a starting point,” say Scholz and his colleagues.

A Barometer, Not a Strategy

In my last article for IPQ I noted that “Ultimately, Germany’s response to the Zeitenwende won’t be measured in tank deliveries or energy flows, but in the recesses of its national psyche. … The Zeitenwende im Kopf will be its hardest test.” Seen in this way, it is perhaps useful to view the security paper less as a strategy than as a barometer of Germany’s conflicting pressures.

As the coalition’s leaders look for narrative tools to shape the public debate, the security paper offers some semantic bread crumbs that can help us understand which orthodoxies may persist, what new accents are being set, and where work still needs to be done.  

In some ways, the paper is refreshing. The authors studiously avoid accumulated slogans that have clouded thinking and crowded out debate. There is no mention of such tired phrases as “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel), “change through interconnection” (Wandel durch Verflechtung), “civilian power,” or “military restraint.” Multilateralism, while valued, is not treated as an end in itself. Checkbook diplomacy is nowhere to be found. There are no vacuous references to the “Global South” or “strategic autonomy,” although the equally empty term “technological and digital sovereignty” is deployed without definition.

Admirably, the paper offers a straightforward statement of German interests and values. Perhaps the days are fading when German leaders feel they can or must couch their country’s interests in the language of economics, of “Europe,” or of  multilateralism. This would be helpful, because German debates about the country’s need to take on greater responsibilities must be driven by an understanding of German interests and the consequences of Germany’s enhanced weight, rather than being seen as artificially forced by Germany’s partners toward their own specific preferences, which may not necessarily align with those interests.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

All in all, the paper does a service by clearing away much narrative debris. In other ways, however, the paper steps back from the arc of recent debates about German responsibilities. In 2006, the German government only foresaw for itself “an important role in the shaping of Europe and beyond.” Ten years later, Germany branded itself as an “active shaping power” (Gestaltungsmacht) that was prepared to act “early, decisively, and substantially… and to assume leadership” on international issues. Former foreign minister (and now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier went so far as to say Germany was ready to act as Europe’s “chief facilitating officer.” Such assertive language is absent from the current security paper; many passages read more like 2006 than 2016. It is hard to avoid the impression that German self-confidence has been knocked hard by the disruptive and disorienting events of recent years, including but not only Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Germany still wants to be smaller than it is.

One new accent is the theme of strategic competition, which threads through the paper. “Today’s Russia is for now the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it proclaims. The authors hew closely to the EU’s agreed language that “China is a partner, competitor, and systemic rival,” while noting that “the elements of rivalry and competition have increased in recent years.” The paper resists the easy temptation to conflate Russia and China under the hazy rubric of “great power competition,” yet offers few specific German responses to the distinct challenges posed by Moscow or Beijing, doesn’t explain what the Russia-China entente means for German interests, doesn’t mention the German interest in Taiwan’s security, and, in contrast to the United Kingdom’s and the United States’ security strategies, shies away from discussing how North Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security issues are becoming increasingly intertwined. It asserts that the EU should be “able to act geopolitically,” but it does not explain what this might mean or what Germany is prepared to do in this regard.

The Multipolar Muddle

In his introduction to the security paper, and in his other writings and speeches, Scholz has latched on to the term “multipolar” to describe the world as he sees it. His intent is clear: He wants to convince his compatriots that Germany’s security is intertwined with the diffusion of power and the rise of many transnational challenges. Fair enough. The term, however, is problematic.

First, “multipolar world” is a tool Moscow and Beijing use to counter the United States and broader Western influence. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin first deployed it in a 1997 joint pledge to build a multipolar world to constrain the unipolar power of the United States after the collapse of the bipolar Cold War era. Since then, the term has become a staple of Russia-China bilateral declarations and treaties, most recently when Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping pledged to “advance multipolarity” in their “no limits” partnership declarationshortly before Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022. German support for the term is wind in the sails of Putin and Xi.

Second, “multipolar” implies a world organized around “poles” of great power, whose differing rules would govern their respective spheres of influence. A multipolar world is unlikely to be a world safe for multilateralism, to which Berlin has traditionally assigned great weight. It is the world of Yalta, not Helsinki; the world of trade blocs, not the WTO. Does Germany really want to support a world in which the big push the small? Furthermore, what are the poles in a multipolar world? Does Germany consider itself, or the fractious EU, to be one of the poles? The paper is silent on these issues. 

If the world is “multipolar,” what does Germany say to those living in the lands between the poles? For many countries, “multipolar” is not an assessment, it is an aspiration and a hedge. They use it to mean they don’t want to be reliant on China or Russia or the EU any more than on the United States. Scholz personally does not use the term to suggest that Germany itself might seek to hedge against US President Joe Biden’s America. But it does evoke a sense of distancing that could be exploited by others.

Third, the paper presents the “multipolar world” as empirical fact. That is questionable. Many security dynamics today are not being driven by great poles of power but by in-between peoples and spaces in a nobody-in-charge world. The “multipolar world” is a state-centric concept in a world better characterized by the diffusion of power—from some states to others, from states to non-state actors, and from states to regional or broader multilateral arrangements. Of course, there are power disparities among states. But the transnational challenges facing Germany will not be solved by big-power, state-centered “multipolar” cooperation, but by coalitions composed of big and small states and state and non-state actors alike. Germany has often played a key role in building such coalitions, yet the paper neither explains this nor suggests how it could build on those strengths.

Still Wehrhaft After All These Years? 

The document’s most enigmatic term, wehrhaft, is also its most telling. “Robust,” the reductionist English translation, is just the tip of a very German iceberg. Inspired by the work of emigres Karl Lowenstein (“wehrhafte Demokratie”) and Karl Mannheim (“streitbare Demokratie”), the term as used in German political discourse has far richer connotations. It conjures the image of a vigilant, pugnacious, and well-fortified democracy that is both able and willing to defend itself. Its uniquely German pedigree is rooted in the determination of postwar German leaders to avoid the Weimar Republic’s fate—the destruction of democracy via democracy. 

Haunted by Weimar’s fragilities and failures, those who drafted the Basic Law of the untested Bonn Republic equipped it with constitutional protections that in some cases go beyond those of far older democracies. Over the decades, authorities have regularly curtailed civil liberties in the name of protecting democracy from terrorists and from people or activities judged to be “extreme.” Last year, authorities further tightened already strict rules on how social media companies must moderate and report hate speech and threats.

As the Bonn Republic matured, including by joining NATO, it certainly built a robust outward deterrence force against the Warsaw Pact, fielding 12 Bundeswehr divisions and allocating up to 3.5 percent of its GDP to defense. Yet wehrhaft traditionally has been used to describe what is necessary to ensure internal, rather than external, security.

When Scholz’ coalition assumed office in December 2021, it continued to use wehrhaft in its traditional domesticsecurity context. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two months later prompted a rethink. Under pressure to explain the practical consequences of Scholz’ proclaimed Zeitenwende, officials began to use wehrhaft to describe how the country needed to fortify itself against the full spectrum of internal and external security threats, and to explain how those threats are increasingly interrelated—hence the paper’s headline term, “integrated security.”

As Scholz and his government have struggled for a new narrative, they have found wehrhaft to be politically useful. It is a recognized yet malleable legacy of the Bonn Republic that they believe can offer reassurance as the Berlin Republic faces major changes. Transposing a term traditionally used in domestic affairs to foreign affairs allows Interior Minister Nancy Faeser to describe Russia’s aggression as “also a Zeitenwende for domestic security,” pointing to enhanced foreign espionage, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks. At the same time, it enables Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to declare that Germany “must be wehrhaft to protect itself and its allies from external violence.”

This more expansive understanding of wehrhaft has also allowed Scholz to redefine another of the Bonn Republic’s basic precepts: “Never again!” Traditionally, the phrase developed two meanings: Never again should war emanate from German soil; and never again should another Auschwitz be allowed to happen. For years, “Never again” was used to justify Germany’s culture of reticence. One year after his Zeitenwende speech, however, Scholz framed it anew: “Our European peace order is wehrhaft. Our ‘Never again!’ means that wars of aggression will never return as instruments of politics. Our ‘Never again!’ means that Putin’s imperialism cannot be allowed to impose itself.”

Wehrhaft resonates within Germany. But it is puzzling to outsiders, making it harder for German leaders to explain what their “strategy” is all about. There is also danger of overload. To make Germany more wehrhaft, the security paper promises actions in fields ranging from national and collective defense and civil preparedness to crisis engagement, development policy and arms control. There are reassuring words about Germany’s commitment to the EU, NATO, and to nuclear deterrence. There is a clear statement of support for a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders, and for EU enlargement to include Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans. Yet little is new, much is vague, and, again, priorities are missing.

The Resilience Imperative

A further narrative shift is evident in the government’s decision to make resilience a central component of its security strategy. Unlike the resonant term wehrhaft, Resilienz has been used less in German security debates than in the English-speaking world. Establishing it as a second pillar of security is a welcome evolution in German thinking. I recall arguing the case for enhanced resilience more than a decade ago. My German interlocutors told me it was too unfamiliar to German ears, it did not translate well, its meaning was too hard to convey. Well, here we are.

The government’s decision to elevate resilience as a core pillar of German security is belated recognition that the stability of the post-Wall world has given way to a more dangerous and volatile age of disruption, a world of ambiguous, asymmetric, and potentially instantaneous threats and dangers. It reflects an understanding that competition among states and non-state actors extends beyond traditional measures of power to include challenges to effective domestic governance and critical societal functions.

These challenges not only put democratic resilience at the heart of today’s security environment, they mean that governments accustomed to protecting their territories must also be able to protect their connectedness—the vital arteries that are the lifeblood of open societies.

Building resilience to disruptive threats has clearly become a major common task. The challenge is to render the concept operationally meaningful. The security paper argues that if Germany and its allies are to become more resilient, they must do more to secure their values, protect and promote technology and innovation, reduce inordinate economic and resource dependencies, diversify supply chains, deter and defeat cyberattacks and hybrid threats, engage more robustly in outer space, support multilateralism, and defend the UN Charter, human rights, and the rule of law. Here again, the paper checks boxes. But it avoids priorities and offers no funding.

Is Germany Zeitenwendig?

Is Germany zeitenwendig, is it agile enough to turn with the times? The security paper suggests it will continue to struggle. As former US Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, has noted, in a society anxious about historic upheavals, German voters seem to demand an emotional insurance policy before agreeing to anything new. The security paper is written with this in mind. Its answer to global crises is “more of the same, only better.” It’s a low-pressure document in a high-pressure environment.

The failure of the coalition to agree on establishing a National Security Council is further evidence that a more active, outward-looking agenda is likely to be frustrated by the distinctive domestic institutional arrangements established during the Bonn Republic, which are not well suited to the task of responding effectively to quick or dramatic changes. The same protections that render Germany wehrhaft can make it difficult for it to be nimble.

The counterpoint to this view is Germany’s stunningly swift effort to wean itself largely off of Russian energy. It approved an energy transformation fund of €200 billion—double the special fund allocated to the Bundeswehr—and used it quickly to procure alternative sources of energy, accelerate its green transition, and shield the population from the worst effects of those changes.

Germany can move quickly when pressures build. As one of the world’s critical connective nodes, it is as well-placed as any country to thrive in a world that is more multihub than multipolar. Germany is starting to adjust; changes are palpable despite the country’s institutional rigidities. Old mantras are adapting to new truths.

Germany’s coming tests will be those of deed and speed. Those eager to proclaim a new German consensus for change might well recall former German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s warning at the time when the so-called “Munich consensus” about Germany needing to take on greater responsibility seemed to coalesce in 2015. This new “consensus of words” was all very fine, she cautioned, but it had not translated into a “consensus of action.” This is still so today. Chancellor Scholz now speaks about a “new German speed.” But it is an open question whether the Berlin Republic can keep pace with a world in fast-forward.

Daniel S. Hamilton is  nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network, and  a senior fellow at the  Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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