The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 03, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: A Team Power Strategy for Germany

Berlin needs international partners for a successful foreign and security policy. Unfortunately, Germany hasn’t really understood yet what it takes to be a “team power”: five rules to see it win the day.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Finland's Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, President of the European Council Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Alfonso Browne react as Leaders of the European Union (EU) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) pose for a family photo.
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Germany’s ability to choose the right partners, and support them, is the real key to navigating the next decade. Partnership is a prime way of shaping the future. It is a means of resilience to external shocks, of deterring unwanted eventualities, and of creative power when solving global problems and constituting international order.

Germany has had all this delivered on a plate. It is a member of a Western alliance of awesome power and ingrained advantages that can be used as a force for good. Moreover, this Western alliance is being challenged primarily by Russia and China, two regimes that fall helpfully into the latter category of the binary between good and bad. Two regimes that want all the West’s unfair advantages for themselves, without showing any great readiness to share them.

Germany thus enjoys a situation that others across the world’s East and South can only be jealous of—indeed this privileged position is a major source of Germany’s attractiveness in the “Global South”. Yet Germany sometimes seems to view all those advantages as a source of embarrassment. As a Western partner, it drags its feet, it hedges, it shies away from really spelling out how to use that power as a force for good: as a democratic ordering power, regionally and globally. Why, and what can it do to correct that?

Germany Talks About its Partners, Rather Than With Them

Since February 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany has ranked as an unreliable partner—well-meaning, but slow and selfish. One major reason, ironically, is Berlin’s obsession with its partners and what they might be thinking. Germany talks about its closest partners rather than with them. When Germans talk to themselves like this, they emphasize what sets them apart and why they couldn’t possibly act like the others, which often comes across as having more than a hint of condescension. This is a recipe for unilateralism, alliance gridlock, and mutual resentment.

This German government is full of reformers, at least compared to the previous ones. They want to usher in a world that is more equitable, inclusive, and capable of collective action. They also recognize that, to achieve this, Germany will at some stage need to expand its range of partners beyond NATO and the European Union. But there are entrenched divisions about how and when. Some privilege lining up with the global West in a showdown with China and Russia as a precursor to expanding liberal order. Others wish to diversify away from the United States and, while keeping European partners on side, reach out to “the Global South.” The split goes to the top. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock are both change-makers, but they differ in outlook and style—the former is convinced of the need to diversify by a bookish reading of the Global South, the latter is keen to appeal to alliance sentiment.

Five Principles

Both have spoken, implicitly and explicitly, of Germany as a “team power,” without thinking the concept through. The notion of teamplay, when applied to international affairs and alliance-building, encodes certain strategic choices—choices designed to engender unity at home and temporary disarray abroad. If Germany took its vocation as a “team power” seriously, it would see quite clearly who its vital partners are, and what the stakes are in ensuring victory for its side. It would spend less time pontificating about how dangerous and uncertain the world is and instead locate its capability to shape positive outcomes. It would, in short, adhere to the following five principles.

The Prize: Rules-Setting

Both Scholz and Baerbock would probably blanch at thinking of international affairs as a game. The 19th century was the last time that kind of language was used, during “the Great Game.” Germany hardly wants to return to those days of amateurish great power politics, when Europeans competed for control of the Eurasian land mass and, through it, the world. Both Scholz and Baerbock would instead say we have a rules-based international order, designed to deliver prizes for all, and we must protect it by getting buy-in for the UN Charter.

But in using the language of teamplay, both Scholz and Baerbock are nodding to a very different reality: This is once again all about the game, and the players are making the rules up as they go along. The parallel is indeed to the 19th century, a time when people were quite relaxed about the idea that sports did not have fixed rules, where football was a bloody battle and cricket was, well, just not cricket before codification let alone professionalization set in. The prize in the Great Game was to set the rules: Europeans knew that the rest of the world might subsequently beat them at their own game. But it would be playing by European rules. China and the United States today recall this.

Team Sports Are Zero-Sum Games

Most Germans want a world that is peaceful, inclusive, and equitable. Chancellor Scholz, judging by his September 2023 speech to the United Nations, wants to achieve this by reaching out to the world’s losers: He has been making eyes at countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to the victims of modern history who first experienced power politics at the hands of Europeans and are skeptical about the idea that the US offers something different. Scholz is trying to assemble this new, diverse team by signaling that his Germany is aware that other Europeans are imperial nostalgists, the Americans little better, and he will rise above them.

His instinct to play in the Little League is noble—all fuzzy, buzzy principles of teambuilding. But in doing so, forgets that you can only afford to be magnanimous if you have already won. Sadly, the world is still locked in a zero-sum game, one centered around big players. A “World Cup moment” where the global order is up for grabs occurs once or twice every century or so, the winning team takes all and the losers may have to wait generations for a rematch. It can feel cozy to be in a team. But outside, the competition is brutal. If you lose, you lose.

Look Like a Winner

The German chancellor is particularly keen to signal to the “Global South” that he is aware of his team’s past sins—he understands that not everyone across Asia, Africa, or Latin America views a Cold War rerun, let alone a Western victory, with relish. If we have identified the subtext of his speech to the UN correctly, he views the way the West won the Cold War through coups and covert wars as a stain on its reputation. And, judging by his time as finance minister, he feels that the West failed in the post-Cold War era to end its over-representation in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions, and believes he can build a new team by correcting those sins.

Public penance is not, however, the way to attract new team members. Other countries wish to emulate success. And they are perfectly aware that the means of winning may not always be as high-minded as the ends. They know, too, that any club worth joining clings to its privileges—that if Germany and its current teammates gave up seats in global bodies this would be proof only that their recipe for the future was naïve and they could expect no reward. If Germany wishes to attract new partners it must show it has the appetite and capacity to win both in Ukraine and across multiple theaters.

Losing Is a Self-fulfilling Fear

In the eventuality of a second Donald Trump presidency in the US or a President Marine Le Pen in France, Scholz would probably say that the prudent course is still to hedge away from the US or France. He is a believer in “de-risking by diversification.” That means cashing in on Germany’s own slow-and-steady reputation and reaching out to countries craving a source of stability in the world. One suspects the chancellor is secretly itching for a chance to say “I told you so”—a man who prides himself on his intellectual acumen, he has been fiercely criticized for his failure to line up unconditionally behind the US, or forge a tandem with France.

And he may well be proven right, but only because Germans so often makes their gloomy predictions self-fulfilling. Germany very seldom sets out a positive international reform agenda. It uses threats and fears to galvanize itself. It changes the status quo only when this has become utterly ravaged and unsustainable. And it steps up and leads only when it has convinced itself that its partners are incapable. In other words, it works toward a world where the West and its order are doomed. This behavior is hugely damaging to the West’s prospects and it fuels the Germano-skepticism behind Trump and Le Pen. Germany needs to identify the outcomes it wants, and then get together with those who can help deliver it.

Teamplay Is Grand Strategy

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has tried to breath meaning into the term “team power,” perhaps sensing that it appeals at both home and abroad. But if there is take-up domestically for this notion of Germany as a team player, then it is for reasons different than abroad: For German voters, the term seems to take off the hard edges of power—the need to articulate German interests and how to achieve them. This robs this government of a real sense of purpose. And, in its absence, “Team Deutschland” will always mean schlepping 11 ministers to the UN, throwing German resources at a problem in the hope that some of them stick.

Germany talks a lot about “joined-up government” in the international sphere; it was a prime commitment of this coalition government. But this government shies away from what “joined up” really means: the coordination of military, diplomatic, and economic levers for a common purpose. Germany wants to do all the individual elements of grand strategy without actually doing grand strategy. That must end. Grand strategy is about linking means (cash and capabilities) to ends (positive international goals) and thinking about ways (the options and styles for linking them). And it is about creating a strong national narrative for its citizens and potential partners about what Germany stands for and where it is going.

Team power is just another name for a German grand strategy and is the best means of facing an uncertain future.

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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