Jan 16, 2024

Germany Needs a Strategy—Grand and Democratic

German leaders have long been reluctant to discuss, let alone set, grand strategy. Now, with the world in flux and the old ways no longer working, Berlin needs to step up and clearly lay out what it wants—and how it plans to get it.

The sun rises behind Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, April 1, 2020.

Grand strategy, often surrounded by controversy, is really quite straightforward—at least in theory. It is strategic in that it is the way a government chooses to get to where it wants its country to go: to reach an objective or desired state. It is “grand” in two ways: It encompasses all policy fields (not just military) and has a vision that goes beyond war to the kind of peace, the kind of regional or world order, or the kind of situation that is desired beyond mere victory or survival.  

Grand strategy is thus - in theory - simply the way in which a state seeks to marshal its resources—all the sources of power at its disposal including its alliances—in the service of achieving its mid to long-term objectives or vision. But despite this seeming simplicity, good grand strategy requires the courage to embrace complexity.

A Complex Concept

This is, first, because different international relations schools structure the correct conceptualization of grand strategy in different, often mutually exclusive, ways. Realists see states’ strategic decisions in a manner largely determined by either human nature or the structure of the international system. They predominantly assign agency to major (“great”) powers focused on curbing the flawed instincts of (states)people trying to secure survival or pursue primacy in an anarchic world. 

Liberalism’s broader church, by contrast, has focused on the possibilities of cooperation. At times, liberals have prioritized normative goals including “making a world safe for democracy”  (the famous phrase by former US President Woodrow Wilson), post-World War II liberal internationalism, and post-Cold War neoconservative attempts to impose democracy by force. In its other, more bloodless forms, liberalism has focused on institutionalism and its possibilities for global stability (including via submerged hegemony), but paid less attention to values.

Second, those different conceptualizations foster ambiguity about whether grand strategy can serve the cause of good or whether it will necessarily do harm. Germany, with its particular history, is the obvious example of how the handling of geopolitics, power, and strategic interests comes with great responsibility. The evil use to which the Nazis put these concepts goes a long way to explaining why they are still approached with distrust in the German context.  

Yet, outside Germany, the historical picture is more ambiguous. For example, former US President Ronald Reagan administration’s combination of “Peace Through Strength” and “Quiet Diplomacy” may raise the hackles of those naturally suspicious of grand strategy. Nonetheless, this approach doubtless contributed to the end of the Cold War and stepping back from the nuclear brink—even if it was followed by a period of hubristic (liberal) hegemony.

Third, the relations between the subjects and objects of grand strategy are complex. Realists view grand strategy mainly from a state-centric perspective. Others, including many liberals, argue that it should provide a framework of identification for not only the state but the nation or society, although conflation between the three is commonplace (as seen in most uses of the term “the national interest”).

For grand strategy’s implementation to be successful but also sustainable, a state’s visions must be inherent to society rather than imposed on it as a result of elite consensus formed behind closed doors. This shift requires an understanding of different societal perspectives and consistently asking: for whom is this strategy, and by whom, as well as what for? While analysis mainly centers on those who shape grand strategy, it is also important to reflect who is on the receiving end of it—or is excluded from its positive visions. Further questions are, therefore: with whom, without whom,and against whom?

These questions offer space for a more inclusive and democratically sustainable approach to grand strategy for liberal democracies—including those like Germany, which have historical reason to be suspicious and which find themselves strategielos (“without a strategy”) at just the wrong time.

Berlin’s Strategic Void

Germany hasn’t had a true grand strategy for decades, having relied largely on a tenuous (and risky) geoeconomic approach that side-lined geopolitical concerns over hard power. The last two years have seen the definitive unravelling of the “convergence wager”—a lazy reading of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” that saw (neo-)liberal economics as automatically spreading liberal politics. Manifested in Germany’s “Wandel durch Handel” (“change through trade”) approach, this sought to harness the economic opportunities of a globalized world, but paid little attention to the threats it fostered.

There are various other factors, however, that made German approaches of the past inefficient. One is that international institutions, such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, are often not fit for purpose. Some member states pick and choose where to engage while others instrumentalize these supposedly liberal institutions for illiberal purposes, leaving them powerless to deal with malign great powers, such as Russia, trying to move borders by force.

Meanwhile, the perceived helplessness of government in the face of global challenges, including migration, helps drive the rise of right-wing populism that seeks, unrealistically, to shut the world out. The Scholz government’s recent budget crises (which many allies see as manufactured) and its unwillingness to face new geopolitical realities have seen Berlin indulge in false economies on support for Ukraine and defense investment. Feelings of helplessness coincide with hopelessness over the future and pessimistic assessments of Germany and its allies’ ability to order the world in their interest, which encourages a vicious cycle of narrow-minded short-termism.

Berlin’s foot-dragging style, already the modus vivendi during the era of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, is undermining those partners in Washington and Paris who bet on it, fueling Germano-skepticism. Other allies, in Europe’s north and east, who either acted quicker on the wake-up call of February 24, 2022, or who did not need one, are moving ahead at pace. Berlin risks being left behind if it continues to rest on its (sometimes imagined) laurels of domestic political stability and tries ever harder to cling to a rapidly disappearing (international) status quo.

The result is that both Germany’s domestic politics and key international relationships are becoming gridlocked because there is no shared sense of purpose. And the current leadership is making things worse rather than better. Instead of identifying external goals and then marshalling internal resources and international partners to pursue them, the Scholz chancellery uses external shocks and pressures to temporarily unlock domestic political stalemates while stumbling from deal to deal with its partners, as pressing issues arise and changing tack goes from being impossible to inevitable.

Viewed another way, however, the obvious unsuitability of these old ways presents an opportunity to think grand strategy afresh. And Germany needs to: Its history, geography, size, and economic strength alone would be reason enough—and recent mistakes, multidimensional conflicts, and systemic challenges add to this necessity. Unless we wish to hasten the autoimmunity advocated in some quarters of Western societies, an unstrategic approach is not an option.

Germany’s Opportunity

Developing and adopting a grand strategy allows a government to pursue its international goals more coherently and forcefully. Actually implementing values and acting on commitments strengthens legitimacy. Simply put, good powers should not leave the field to bad actors. Contrary to critics’ claims, grand strategy can be a force for good because it empowers actors who strive to be such a force.  

The Zeitenwende in German foreign policy thinking, therefore, should have addressed this strategic vacuum—but it has not. The country’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) did not offer a vision for the world Germany wants to see in the future or how it can help build it.

However, what the NSS did offer was a reasonable description of the plural challenges that Germany faces, linking them through the concept of “Integrated Security”—a call for joined-up policy that is a good start for thinking about German grand strategy. Where it failed was in prioritizing between these challenges—and commensurate opportunities—and allocating resources to deal with them on that basis. The NSS also failed to outline compelling ways to align the roles of government, military, business, and civil society actors—let alone individuals—in achieving a common vision and did not address the obstacles to such alignment.

Now, Germany’s political class must use the expanded horizons of possibility that the Zeitenwende has opened up to drive the strategic discussion to where it needs to be. Having a clear vision of how to end Russia’s war—the shock (to Germany) that opened up this space for thinking and doing differently—and for Europe and the world after the war is the primary task, but a grand strategy will need to cast its net wider.

As budgetary constraints (manufactured or otherwise) start to bite, prioritization becomes imperative, but the government needs a guide to clearly distinguish between the savings it needs to make and those it cannot afford to. That requires a clear purpose: an objective around which German society can cohere, and from which a grand strategy can arise that can become the lodestar for government decision-making.

Agreeing on the kind of objective that can endure across parliaments and administrations will not necessarily be easy. But it does not need it be prohibitively difficult, either. It is, after all, about cutting through to the core of what matters. And, on that, there is still much that Germans agree on between themselves and with their allies. A basic, although suitably ambitious objective of “making a world safe for democracy in which free societies can thrive” could serve as a conversation starter.

The objective can then drive discussion on the strategy to achieve it. This will require political leadership—after all, to give meaning to its international presence, Germany must learn to not only identify but also communicate its interests and the means with which it is willing to defend them—both externally, to friends and foes alike, and internally, to German voters.

Yet, this process should not be unidirectional. Unlike other countries with stronger, backroom strategic traditions (such as the United Kingdom and France, which have also got much wrong in recent years), Germany’s lack of a particular strategic legacy can help it reinvent how grand strategy is made—and make it more legitimate in the process.

Previously, German politicians have too often used citizens’ attitudes as an excuse not to act. Research that looks beyond the surface, however, suggests that Germans are in fact not indifferent to geopolitics and geoeconomics, as long as they understand the implications of different geopolitical choices. Grand strategic thinking could help Germans grasp these trade-offs, better formulate their (long-term) preferences, and offer politicians a useful framework to explain and implement them.

The Strategic Debates Germany Needs

By taking grand strategy out of the backrooms and into the open, Germany can productively open up the by whom?question—making the strategy that emerges less likely to serve only the needs of particular sections of society or industry, which would help clarify some aspects of the for whom? question. It would also overtly put Germans in the company of their peers around the world who live in free societies (or who aspire to) and who wish to see democracies prosper.

That clearly answers also a part of the with whom? question. Germany’s grand strategy should be formulated with allies clearly in mind in terms of common values, calculation of interests, and how to make approaches to pursing and protecting them complementary. The old principle of “never alone,” which had too often become “never at all,” can be re-animated to guide how Germany contributes most as a team player in order to get the most out of being part of the team. The with and for whom? questions also combine in the ways that Germany seeks to increase the attractive power of its own society and those of its allies, to bring more countries and people around the world closer to its own way of doing things.

The against whom? question will also be relatively clearly answered by the choice of objective—in this case, those who threaten democracies and hinder the progress of free societies; most obviously, aggressive autocratic states. The question of without whom? is trickier and relates to prioritization. In this discussion it is essential that the perfect not be allowed to become the enemy of the good.

Selective uses of the past can no longer dominate the discussion. Principles such as “never again” must continue to play a role in a new foreign policy identity, but an open-minded and frank conversation is needed about what it is that cannot be repeated. Is it war as such or the kind of genocidal imperialism and expansionist dictatorship that Russia is engaging in? This should lead to consideration of what Germany should do, in accordance with its interests but also its values, when the former (war) is needed to stop the latter (genocide or imperial expansion).

Yet even this requires discussion of priorities as Germany cannot act everywhere and has more influence in some situations than others. It is important that such discussions do not let the inability to act everywhere, or the recognition that some conflicts are more consequential for Germany than others, cloud the legitimacy of acting where it is most in line with Germany’s interests and values and equipping itself with both the capabilities and mindset to do so.

Toward a Strategy: German, Democratic, and Grand

As in other liberal democracies, serious debate will be needed over how to be resolute on the liberal values Germans cleave to, while being realistic about the role of hard power—and the dangers of overstretch and militaristic hubris (not one of Germany’s problems at present). Strategically pursuing values and interests is, nonetheless, precisely in line with the objective of securing democracy and helping freedom thrive. Moreover, it should resonate in a country that has a “parliamentary army” comprised of “citizens in uniform.”

Germans and their government should now seek to put that military, along with its other sources of power, privilege, and prosperity, to better and clearer purpose by exploring together how to develop a democratic grand strategy that has a clear vision for not only defending against threats but shows how to get Germany where it needs to go to seize the opportunities of a better future. Pursuing the debates started here can help ensure that it is democratic, but it also needs to be sufficiently grand.

Although it was Russia’s war that has made this necessary discussion possible, for Germany’s strategy to be grand it should have a vision of ends that extends beyond war to the kind of peace, the kind of order that is desired and properly assessing the threats to that objective. This means addressing not only geopolitical but, at a minimum, geoeconomic, ecological, and technological transitions as well as doing so in an integrated manner—and developing the means to match. This is what is meant by grand strategy—and by developing one democratically, Germany can push the strategic field forward, doing good while doing well for its people and its allies.

Leonie Stamm, Jacob Ross, Jan Stöckmann, Julian Stöckle, Jannik Hartmann, Niklas Hintermayer, Aylin Matlé, and Nicolas Teterchen contributed to this article, as members of the new DGAP “Grand Strategy Group.”

Roderick Parkes is Director of the DGAP’s research institute.

Florence Schimmel is Research Follow at the DGAP’s Center for Security and Defense.

Benjamin Tallis is Senior Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe and leads its “Action Group Zeitenwende” project.

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