Berlin Cable

Jan 04, 2023

Germany’s National Security Strategy Is in Limbo

The chancellery and the finance ministry have put the brakes on the process that was supposed to lead to the publication of Germany’s first-ever National Security Strategy in early February. Olaf Scholz seems to have written one alone already.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz walks with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock as he arrives at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, Germany July 18, 2022.
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The Bismarcks (well, some of them) are after Annalena Baerbock.

When it became known in December that the German foreign minister had renamed a meeting room in her ministry previously known as the “Bismarck Room” as “Hall of German Unity,” right-wing tabloid BILD saw a chance to kick up a fuss. It declared a “Bismarck earthquake” (“Bismarck-Beben”) and went on to quote Alexander von Bismarck, a great nephew of the 19th century “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, who orchestrated the foundation of the German Empire in 1871.

Bismarck heavily criticized Baerbock: “We, the Bismarck family, are outraged and deeply saddened seeing how our own history and that of our own country is treated.” Baerbock’s decision had followed an internal vote at Germany’s foreign ministry, the Auswaertige Amt, in which a majority of today’s diplomats had opted for a name change, arguing that Bismarck was an anti-democrat, colonialist, and a denier of women’s rights (Germany only saw general suffrage with the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918/19). However, the Bismarcks were having none of that. Alexander von Bismarck criticized Baerbock as a “moralizing foreign minister” who had “failed her office,” treating “many other countries negatively” and “turning the history of her own country on its head.”

Baerbock responded in her own way, traveling to Nigeria two days later to return 21 “Benin bronzes” looted by British soldiers in 1897 (the year before Otto von Bismarck’s death) which consequently found their way into museums in Germany. And in another historical twist, it was pointed out that while Bismarck founded the Auswaertige Amt, he never set foot in the room in question, as the original building had been reduced to rubble along with Adolf Hitler’s “Third Reich.” Today’s foreign ministry is using a building which was constructed during the Nazi era for Germany’s central bank, the Reichsbank, and later taken over by the East German Communists (SED). The former "Bismarck room" was where the SED Politburo used to meet.

Strategy on Hold

While the wrath of BILD and the Bismarcks will do little to unsettle Germany’s Green foreign minister and most popular member of the cabinet headed by Social Democrat (SPD) Chancellor Olaf Scholz, another government move that took place before Christmas just might.

On December 19, the process of writing a “National Security Strategy” for modern Germany was put on hold by the chancellery and the finance ministry, the latter led by Christian Lindner, the leader of the third coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). At a meeting at state secretary (junior minister) level, Scholz’ and Lindner’s representatives pointed to 30 passages in the draft text (by all accounts a rather lengthy document based on a rather wide definition of “security”), put in square brackets, that were still controversial. One participant called the text, prepared by Baerbock’s ministry, “a collection of material” (“Materialsammlung”) rather than a strategy.

Now the process is taking a “consultation and coordination pause,” according to news magazine DER SPIEGEL, and is unlikely to conclude in time for the Munich Security Conference, which starts on February 17. The German Foreign Office had hoped to present it there in some form to international audiences.

Baerbock’s ministry has been taken aback by the unforeseen opposition to a process which is already behind schedule (“During the first year of the new federal government, we will present an encompassing National Security Strategy,” the coalition agreement from December 2021 says); some Greens think Scholz and Lindner are acting out of wounded pride because of Baerbock’s popularity.

A Question of Power

In fact, the new “Nationale Sicherheitsstrategie” (a term translated literally from the US National Security Strategy, which leaves room for what it will be exactly: a foreign policy doctrine? A security strategy? A foundational document of some sort?) poses the question of who determines Germany’s foreign, European, and security policy. This, by constitutional law and convention, is the chancellor, who, according to Article 65 of the German Constitution, “determines the guidelines of government policy” (“bestimmt die Richtlinien der Politik”).

And Scholz has made clear already that he does not want to be bound by a detailed document with a Green-led ministry in the lead, especially when it comes to China, but also in a more general way (in fact, the passages on China are the most controversial in the draft document.)

In a way, one can read Scholz’ current article for Foreign Affairs, “The Global Zeitenwende,” as “his” National Security Strategy. And as things stand at present and the way coalition politics are likely to work out, the “National Security Strategy” eventually adopted by the German government will probably read and sound quite similar, give or take a couple of added pages on how national security starts at home, “societal resilience,” or “fighting money laundering” (Lindner’s way of putting his stamp on it, too).

Scholz’ New World

In the article, Scholz declares Germany’s intention of becoming “the guarantor of European security” (very ambitious for a non-nuclear power), “a bridge builder within the European Union” (rather than a leader?), and “an advocate for multilateral solutions to global problem” (as during the Angela Merkel era). His declared aim is to avoid a world that separates “into competing blocs” and “risks a new cold war.” For Scholz, the “central question” is: “How can we, as Europeans and as the European Union, remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world?”

His answers are: greater German defense efforts, diversifying energy supplies (Germany has learned to live without Russian coal, oil, and gas in record time) while going green, and enlarging, consolidating, and reforming the EU—the very “antithesis” to Putin’s “imperialistic and autocratic kleptocracy.” Indeed, Scholz is strong on condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression (“imperialism has returned to Europe”), also promising that the perpetrators of Russian war crimes will be brought to justice. He is also strong on helping Ukraine (“Germany will sustain its efforts to support Ukraine for as long as necessary”).

When it comes to China, however, the chancellor is a little less clear. He “does not subscribe to the view” that a new cold war is approaching, pitting the US against China. Rather, an exceptional phase of globalization is ending, Scholz writes; during this era, the United States became the “world’s decisive power—a role it will retain in the 21st century.” However, China, too, became a global player—which, according to the chancellor, does not warrant “isolating Beijing or curbing cooperation,” at least not as long as it does not claim hegemony in Asia and beyond, “as no country is the backyard of any other.”

And lastly, while the US, the EU, and China adapt to globalization’s new phase, it is for Berlin and Brussels to seek new partnerships and broaden existing ones with countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, while broadening what has traditionally been called “the West”—something Scholz has already practiced during Germany’s G7 presidency in 2022.

A Blind Spot: China

While Scholz acknowledged as recently as last November that “As China changes, the way that we deal with China must change, too,” and has also come out in support of reducing existing dependencies, it seems that the chancellor continues to hope he will be able to skirt the key questions of how to deal with a China that may well follow Russia’s path and openly break international rules (it has come close). In his Foreign Affairs article he writes that it is “Putin and others” who are working to undermine open, democratic systems, without explicitly referring to China. And while the commitments to the United States and the Franco-German relationship are there—“vital” for Euro-Atlantic security the former, the ever-closer cooperation between Paris and Berlin “a mission”—there is little in terms of what Germany will offer to its closest allies.

In a way it is somewhat reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck and his “game with the five balls”—Europe’s great powers at the time, which he cooperated and sought treaties with to isolate France, but never getting too close to any one of them. It’s a recipe for a Germany in limbo, just like where Germany’s would-be National Security Strategy is right now.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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