There has been some self-congratulatory satisfaction going around in Berlin in recent days. German diplomacy the way German Chancellor Olaf Scholz prefers it—a softly-softly approach when it comes to the thornier international issues—seems to have paid off.
Exhibit A is the recent G20 Bali summit meeting. The language used in the final declaration was surprisingly strong, “deploring” Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine “in the strongest terms” and demanding a complete withdrawal of Russian forces, albeit by using the diplomatic “trick” of quoting from the corresponding United Nations resolution. “Most members,” the G20 made clear, condemned the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin had skipped the meeting at the last minute and sent tired-looking Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov instead. (As if to display the Putin regime’s bottomless hypocrisy, Lavrov showed himself on social media putting the final touches to his usual diatribes against the decadent West wearing a Basquiat-T-Shirt and an Apple watch.) Russia was left isolated, in danger of becoming an outcast.
Exhibit B is the semi-success of Scholz’ much criticized (including by this column) solo visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in person, which preceded the G20 summit. Scholz and his team managed to get Xi to agree to a statement that said that both leaders “jointly oppose the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons.” This, after the very strong warnings that the US Biden administration earlier sent to Russian counterparts that the Kremlin ordering the use of a nuclear weapon of any kind would have “catastrophic consequences” seem to have much reduced again the chance of Russia going nuclear in Ukraine (the danger of the Putin regime manufacturing a nuclear catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, occupied by Russian troops, persists, however).
What lies behind the satisfaction is that the overall aim of Berlin remains to avoid a “The West vs. the Rest” world; one in which the G7 states—bound not only by the common interest of keeping the planet running economically as well as environmentally, like the G20, but also by their shared values like democracy and the rule of law—wrangling with the likes of China, India, and of course Russia. Also, it would be simply unrealistic, Scholz said around the time of the Bali summit, to expect countries like India or Indonesia to choose sides.
That would be particularly true in a bipolar world in which the United States confronted China. Consequently, there was relief ahead of the Bali summit that US President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, who had their first in-person meeting since Biden became president two years ago, went well and lifted the global mood. “The Second Cold War has been postponed,” Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper declared on its front page; the article’s author, foreign policy expert Stefan Kornelius, went so far as to suggest the two weeks spanning Scholz’ Beijing visit and the G20 summit could mark an historic turning point.
That would be nice, of course. However, there are some indications that things are more likely to turn out differently.
Having stopped Russia talking about using nuclear weapons to get what it wants in Ukraine is certainly a good thing. It is doubtful, however, that Beijing will do much else to put pressure on Putin to end the war quickly. If anything, the opposite is more likely. As the German Marshall Fund’s Andrew Small pointed out, it cost Xi little to condemn the war and nuclear threats in a general way. Nor does it amount to a commitment to end Beijing’s de-facto pro-Russian “neutrality.”
In fact, the more Russia weakens itself by trying to achieve at least some of its war aims in Ukraine, the more likely it ends up as China’s junior partner in a world that, from the perspective of the leadership in Beijing, is an ultimate struggle with the United States and its allies for supremacy. (Interestingly, in his speech to the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, Xi did not mention Russia or a “multi-polar world”—the reference point of the Sino-Russian “no limits” alliance back in February—but framed world affairs in “China vs. the US” terms.) Also, the protests now erupting in China against Xi’s misguided zero-COVID strategy will likely mean the Chinese leaders will be busy dealing with domestic issues.
Meanwhile, Russia is laying the groundwork for a long war. It is continuing its vicious attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with the aim of making Ukraine uninhabitable and causing a refugee wave, which in turn would put pressure on Western capitals to lean on Kyiv to offer terms. The latter part of this equation is highly unlikely to work, like almost everything in Russia’s war. But by resetting its internal structures, putting technocrats in charge, essentially setting up a war economy and getting more missiles, drones, and ammunition shipped in from Iran, there is little doubt that Putin will pursue this strategy to the hilt.
The US midterm elections, meanwhile, held some unwelcome lessons for Europe and especially Germany. Yes, the “red wave” never materialized. The results were close, however, and much suggests that next election cycle will return a Senate controlled by the Republicans. Whether it will also return a President Donald Trump to the White House has become somewhat less likely, but the administration following Biden’s current one will push for both much greater European efforts to assist Ukraine in fighting back Russia and to safeguard the continent’s security. A Republican president will certainly, as Majda Ruge and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations suggest, force Europe to take sides, quoting one Republican strategist as saying, “Anyone who thinks they can stay neutral in this fight [between China and the United States] is just nuts.”
The only convincing counter-argument Berlin would then be able to make would be to point out how far it has come with the military element of its famed Zeitenwende, the “historic turning point” Scholz declared three days of the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On that front, however, it is likely to draw a blank.
The horrible truth is that Germany’s armed forces aren’t in any better shape than nine months ago. If anything, they are worse off, given the passing on of weapons system to Ukraine or allies. The government has not spent a single euro of the €100 billion special fund for its armed forces so far. Contrary to Scholz' promise, Germany will not spend 2 percent of GDP on defense this year or next. The wheels of its military bureaucracy are still turning far too slowly. Even the Bundeswehr units Germany regularly sends on deployment are not getting the required gear. The extent of military support for Ukraine is still not corresponding with Germany’s economic strength (or leadership pretensions), and is certainly not strategic enough.
Therefore, if the Scholz government really wants to drive its own path, it needs to vastly accelerate its defense efforts. The fact that a crisis meeting with the heads of defense companies is scheduled for Monday (November 28) at the chancellery to try and solve the dramatic shortages in ammunition production is a sign that things can no longer be put on the backburner. (However, it’s not a “summit” as initially reported, but a meeting at “officials’ level.”)
However, with Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht in charge, the dramatic changes now urgently needed are unlikely to happen. It is therefore not inconceivable that Scholz will also realize that, and send his Social Democrats’ (SPD) party “can do” co-chairman, Lars Klingbeil, to the defense ministry to replace Lambrecht and sort things out. That would be the best present Germany could give itself this Christmas time.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.