The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 02, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: The Missing Paradigm Shift

German foreign policy is still to leave its path dependency behind. It’s high time for Berlin to get more serious.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, July 19, 2023
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To talk about Zeitenwende, or watershed moment, is not more than a diagnosis: one era ends, another one begins, in between lies the moment of a watershed. Whether this leads to a new strategy depends on the political actors. Paradigms and circumstances can change, and yet policymakers can refuse to embark on the necessary fresh start.

No Unity in Berlin

Behind the scenes, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, disagree on what the new era consists of; and the different diagnoses are resulting in different strategies. This becomes visible in the forewords by the chancellor and the foreign minister to Germany's first National Security Strategy presented in June 2023. Scholz writes that the global order is changing “fundamentally,” that “new centers of power” are emerging, and that the world of the 21st century is “multipolar.” What this means he has laid out on several occasions: that a large number of countries in Asia, Africa, and South America are not prepared to follow others anymore, and that the task of policymakers is to preserve multilateralism in this multipolar world—which means an order in which “very different centers of power work together reliably in the interests of all.” To achieve this goal, several fundamental principles must be valid: no territorial revisionism and respect for fundamental rights.

The foreign minister adopts a very different approach in her foreword to the National Security Strategy. Where Scholz sees a harmonious world emerging, supported by multilateral cooperation between the “new centers of power,” Baerbock anticipates growing conflicts and disputes: a “world marked by rising systemic rivalry” in which we must “stand up even more for our fundamental values" so that “power and arbitrariness" do not prevail. In her speeches and statements, the German foreign minister varies this theme; warning that Russia and China “no longer fully share international rules that have always united the world,” which is why democracies are now “in a systemic rivalry with autocratic forces.”

The diagnosis is decisive for the strategy. If the new era into which the Zeitenwende leads is characterized by the systemic conflict between democratic and autocratic powers, if the aim is to resist the attacks on “our freedom” (Baerbock), then Russia and China must be weakened in their ability to attack this order and one’s own position must be strengthened.

If, on the other hand, the task is defined as the continuation of globalization under only slightly changed conditions, then the expectation of constructive cooperation remains the guiding principle. The “order of the day” is then, as Scholz put it at the United Nations in New York in September 2023, “not less cooperation—perhaps packaged today as de-coupling or as ‘cooperation only among the like-minded.’ Instead, we need more cooperation.”

For Scholz, the old paradigm of German foreign policy remains unchanged: relying on partnerships regardless of the character of the governments, and on unlimited globalization. For him, only Russia is the exception for the time being. For Baerbock, on the other hand, the large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine has made it clear that freedom and democracy are indeed under massive pressure from powerful autocracies—not only from Russia, but also from China—and that it is necessary to develop and implement comprehensive counterstrategies.

The Autocratic Challenge

The evidence supports the foreign minister’s view. Russia’s war of aggression is not an accident, it is the result of the logic of a new overall geopolitical constellation. The liberal order is being fundamentally challenged by powerful autocracies. Moscow and Beijing are co-operating ever more closely. They are not just intent on expanding their regional dominance in accordance with the rules of classic power politics. Much more is at stake: a reorganization of the world in line with principles that serve the interests of the autocratic regimes in Russia and China and ensure their long-term regime security and global power.

The struggle between autocracies and liberal democracies is intensified dramatically by the fact that the rulers in Moscow and Beijing feel their power is threatened at home, to the extent that they are fighting for their very survival. As the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech in Washington in October 2023, “Our democracies are under sustained and systemic attack by those who abhor freedom because it threatens their rule.”

After the end of the Cold War, ruling elites in Russia and China were on the defensive; since a few years they have gone on the offensive. The first step in their survival strategy was the limited integration into the West, in order to regenerate themselves and rise to power and prosperity internationally through globalization under the umbrella of “Pax Americana.” The second step, which we are now seeing, is the struggle for global supremacy: Russia and China want to replace the liberal-democratic order that became hegemonic with the end of the Cold War, under US-leadership, and put themselves at the commanding heights of the international order.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made this ambition clear when he said goodbye to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in March 2023 and told him, thinking the microphones had been switched off, “Right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Xi probably first has Chinese history in mind when he talks about "100 years"; what the official historiography paints as the rebirth of Chinese strength after "humiliation."  Yet there is also another telling reference point: a good century ago, in 1919, during the peace negotiations in Paris after the World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson pushed forward the project of making the world “safe for democracy”—an order of liberal democracies that would jointly guarantee collective security, not accidentally mirroring the domestic order of the United States. After failing in the first attempt, this blueprint for a new order became highly successful after World War II and after the Cold War.

The rulers in Beijing and Moscow are now turning against this order, in a bid to move the course of global history into another direction: They want to make the world “safe for autocracy”—in order to stabilize the security of the regimes they have built in their countries.

As a consequence, the former primacy of “soft” economic power has now been replaced by the primacy of hard military power. Russia and China have rearmed massively. In a first step, they want do dominate what they see as “their” regions. This requires the weakening of the US-led order, in many cases the withdrawal of US forces and the devaluation of US security guarantees.

Iran, who’s rulers shares many interests with the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, is increasingly emerging as the third partner in an autocratic axis. Yet Russia and China are moving cautiously in the Middle East. They do not want to completely wreck relations with the Gulf monarchies, which feel threatened by Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, and with Israel, a technological powerhouse.

For a long time, the democracies in North America, Europe, and Asia ignored this new challenge—hoping that Russia, China, and Iran could somehow be integrated into the “rules-based” security order after all, that economic logic could somehow prevail, and that global challenges could be tackled together. When Chancellor Scholz talks about global politics, we often hear an echo of this school of thought.

But all these Western efforts at full integration have failed to curb the will of autocracies to attack the liberal-democratic order; they may even have fueled them because they have given the impression that the West is weak and can be thrown off balance with propaganda and disinformation—primed for a hostile takeover. In the Darwinian world in which autocratic leaders live and have prevailed, a willingness to compromise, a search for “win-win solutions” is often perceived as a lack of willingness to stand up for one's own interests.

The Overdue Paradigm Shift

In this much harsher and more dangerous global environment, Zeitenwende means that the conflict with autocratic powers—that the liberal-democratic countries had sought to avoid at almost all costs—can no longer be ignored. Germany must “stand up even more” for its concepts of order, as Baerbock put it. What does that mean?

It means, first, that there is a new paradigm: one has to realize that the tensions and conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe, in the Indo-Pacific, and in the Middle East are part of an overall challenge that supporters of the liberal-democratic order must confront by standing up to autocratic powers. This is the core of the Zeitenwende.

Second, it means abandoning a paradigm that does work anymore: Globalization, the deepening of economic and other relations across borders, under the condition of Pax Americana, the US-led and guaranteed international order, no longer works, as powerful autocracies have decided to go into the offensive against the very order that made globalization possible, that allowed companies and civil societies to open up toward each other. Even if a rapid decoupling is impossible, a certain degree of disentanglement should be urgently sought in order to reduce the political and economic risks of dependency, particularly on China. At the same time, like-minded liberal democracies should form close links and networks amongst them—an alliance of democracies spanning, in particular, Europe, North America, and Asia.

Third, Germany must learn to operate in a world of power politics by pursuing power politics itself—something that the Federal Republic has essentially left to the US since its foundation after World War II. This includes to seriously build up military power, essential in a world in which war and military intimidation have become again everyday features. Deterrence and defense capabilities are basic prerequisites for maintaining a liberal-democratic order.

Fourth, the liberal-democratic alliance needs global critical mass and must compete for swing states courted by Russia and China. These often are not democracies, but important allies; German foreign policy must learn to handle this paradox by moving from a moralistic toward a strategic approach.

Although the outlines of the paradigm shift in German foreign and security policy are becoming discernible, and the debate in Germany has changed, path dependency and the supposed safety of “business as usual” continue to prevail. What is lacking is a new strategy that challenges and overcomes the old. The National Security Strategy does not yet achieve this; it is essentially a status report.

Lucky Deutschland

For decades, Germany had the geopolitical good fortune of having to do very little with regard to foreign and security policy. It benefited from the US-led regional and global order—a framework within which the Germans could largely concentrate on increasing and distributing economic wealth. However, this very framework is now under attack from powerful forces, and the US is no longer prepared to pay the increasing costs of managing this order largely on its own.

Germany has both the interest and the opportunity to play a significant role in maintaining and developing this order, as a key power in Europe, similar to Japan in Asia. However, while Japan is repositioning itself strategically and responding to the challenges posed by the Zeitenwende, Germany is still hesitating.

Ulrich Speck is a foreign policy analyst and strategist based in Heidelberg; he writes a weekly column for Neue Zürcher Zeitung.