The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 12, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: Futureproofing German Security Policy

Stubborn stasis. Huge unilateral change. Stubborn stasis. Germany has repeated this pattern for decades, causing gridlock in Europe. Now it is in danger of repeating it yet again.

Blick auf das Regierungsviertel mit Reichstag {u), Paul-Löbe-Haus {r} und Kanzleramt. Das 75 Meter lange Luftschiff im Dienst der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft startet seine Expedition «Uhrwerk Ozean» am Donnerstag in Berlin.
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After Hamas’ atrocities on October 7, German academics took to the air waves. They said future-proofing the Zeitenwende would require four things from government: Kick off a big societal debate on security; establish a National Security Council at the highest political level; ramp up the armaments industry; and lead Europe.

These talking heads are on the right side in the debate about Ukraine, and anyone who has spent the last few decades calling for a shift in German security and defense policy surely wishes them well. But that does not mean everything they say is correct.

German lawmakers have a strange trait whereby they need an exceptional crisis to do something perfectly ordinary (i.e., change course), and then they use subsequent shocks and crises in order to avoid doing others things (i.e., adapting and recalibrating). This dangerous pattern of correction and stasis is establishing itself again.

From One Wende to the Next

German policymaking tends to be characterized by a long period of stasis, followed by a once-in-a-generation shift, then a new stasis. No other Western country behaves quite like this. Most countries constantly recalibrate their chosen course in response to international pressures. Or they properly protect it from them. Germans combine obstinacy with complacency. They tend to persuade themselves that their course is somehow in everyone’s interests so don’t bother to change or insulate it until it is much too late.

Crisis is key to this. After a decade or so of stubbornly sticking to a faulty course, by some mysterious alchemy, the German government decides that enough is enough and that this international crisis really merits a course correction, a Wende. Germany then holds its partners hostage whilst it debates a new course, before ploughing off again on another 10-year journey. When setbacks inevitably arise, “every crisis is an opportunity”—an opportunity for Germany to sideline skeptics and plough on down its chosen course.

Don’t misunderstand me. Russia’s war against Ukraine is grounds for a huge shift in German security policy after years of stubborn complacency, and October’s atrocities in no way discount the spirit of Zeitenwende (historical turn)—taking international security seriously. But that is not the point. Rather, the faulty underlying patterns of German policymaking remain. Germany currently invites a crisis—it needs crisis to galvanize its political system, and this behavior invites new crises. Germans need to get better at staving off shocks by taking smarter decisions in the first place.

The talking heads who rushed to the airwaves on October 7 are part of the German system, and, thus, part of the problem. If they, the high priests of Zeitenwende, have listed what they see as the logical recipe for futureproofing, a good rule of thumb is to advocate the exact opposite:

Do Not Have a Big Societal Debate

The high priests of Zeitenwende say we need a big societal debate to wake up Germans. They advocate this, presumably, because they view their compatriots as uniquely disinterested by international affairs—a people paralyzed by past crimes; consumers who love a bargain and don’t ask questions about why a product is cheap. Listen to these talking heads, and it is not long before they claim that the only way to galvanize the German people is with a really big crisis and big public discussion.

For anyone outside this priesthood, however, one cannot but suspect that all these endless debates are part of the problem. The German Zeitenwende Talkshow Complex, where hawkish professors and left-wing politicians lecture ordinary Germans about the state of the world, can only leave society apathetic and divided. Rather than a big societal debate, which polarizes and politicizes what consensus there is in Germany, it would be better to identify that consensus and act upon it.

Polling reveals that this basic societal consensus exists: Contrary to their reputation, Germans are well aware of international affairs, and they want their government to focus more on defense and security. They are prepared to pay more for goods that have been “de-risked” (or indeed for those produced in risky but friendly markets like Ukraine). The trouble is that they do not understand government policy and so fear that action taken against China or Russia or Iran will only backfire. And they do not understand how, by altering their own consumer choices, they can affect world affairs. These people crave information and action, not pro-contra debates.

Do Not Establish a National Security Council

Aggressive acts by Iran or Russia or their proxies are shocking and brutal. But they are also part and parcel of life. They are systemic and routine, and that is the exact opposite of a crisis, a turning point, or a juncture. They come about because the West has been good at establishing an initial lead—in the economy or in governance—but then has neglected to prepare for blowback. Germans have been particularly good at establishing those early leads. And they are also particularly surprised by the inevitable setbacks and blowback.

By telling itself that its rules and industrial innovations suit everyone, Germany has routinely ignored the inconvenient fact that the West’s advantages are unfair. Consequently, it has ignored the need to robustly defend its technologies and institutions—adapting them to making them more effective and attractive, bringing new friends into its club one by one, deterring spoilers, and enforcing its values with a firm hand.

If Germany wishes to correct this blind spot, it does not need a National Security Council, a body which would basically institutionalize Berlin’s permanent surprise that the world does not live up to its expectations. It needs a Complacency Unit, designed to routinely stave off lazy German assumptions, to defend and capitalize upon the geopolitical advantages the West still enjoys.

Do Not Ramp Up the Armaments Industry

Germany does of course need to increase armaments production to help itself and other vulnerable states in Europe, especially if the United States is now focusing more on Israel: Germany, like its allies, has done the easy bit over the past few months—exhausting its existing stocks of weapons and handing them to the Ukrainians. Now it has to focus on making new weapons, possibly for its own use. And this is the tricky bit—choosing which investments to make for the future—what kind of capabilities, for what wars, with which allies.

So, industry does need to increase investment and production. But all this talk of government ramping up production risks becoming just another example of that familiar pattern: Berlin is investing in a big new 20-year policy course on the basis of a false sense that it has finally understood the stakes.

In reality, Germany needs to find ways of making its policy choices more resilient, either more adaptable or better protected. For that, there needs to be a change in the relationship between government and business. Successive German governments have denigrated German business—big banks and big pharma, producers of automobiles and armaments—only to find they need them. When the government decides that a change of course is required, it turns to industry and tells it to “ramp it up.” Consequently, German business tends to live up to its bad reputation for decades, then demands concessions and cozy terms from lawmakers when they come begging. A sustainable security policy should not be about politicians “ramping up” the German armaments industry, but rather both government and industry fixing on a sense of mutual responsibility for German security. 

Do Not Lead Europe

Germany has in fact been trying to lead Europe for years. But too often that has involved a presidential style: Berlin sits back, does not articulate its interests and, after other Europeans have shouted themselves hoarse, eventually sews up a domestic package that might graciously take account of others’ positions. The high priests of Zeitenwende presumably want this to change and for Germany to come out quickly and early with a position. But they are not addressing the basic problem—the pattern whereby Germany pictures itself as the only grown-up, and moves ahead almost unilaterally according to its chosen course—the way it believes that it alone has understood the stakes of change.

When Germans gird themselves to “lead Europe,” they find themselves moving outside of their comfort zone. They reassure themselves that they must act because their partners are not capable. And that quite often means denigrating them. The Poles are unreliable. The French are show-offs. And as for our partner over the pond, it is seeking to withdraw from Europe, and could soon be in the hands of Donald Trump. Never mind that they have been prodding Germany for years to take its defense more seriously and are vital to international security.

Germany should not try to “lead Europe” because this is based on a sense of exceptionalism and unilateralism. But perhaps it could try to lead in Europe. The cumulative result of German behavior over the past few decades—stubborn stasis followed by huge unilateral change—is political gridlock in Europe and a loss of Western prestige. There is currently a risk that the Zeitenwende, conceived as an exceptional once-in-a-generation course correction, repeats this pattern.

Roderick Parkes is director of the research institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). He also heads the DGAP's Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe.

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