A National Security Strategy for Germany that Works
The new German government has set itself the task of developing a national security strategy in 2022. The timeframe is tight, but this could be an advantage.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
There was both great jubilation and awe in the foreign policy community when Germany’s new coalition partners pledged to present a national security strategy (NSS) within a year.
After the botched start in view of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and after Sunday’s turnaround in terms of spending an extra €100 billion on defense as well as henceforth meeting NATO’s 2-percent goal, the German government can thus reorganize its security policy in terms of narrative, content, and practice. But it is precisely Germany's current lurching course that raises doubts about whether such a strategy is the solution. There is concern that Berlin will fall back into a state of paralysis or return to old patterns of conducting foreign policy action. Moreover, there is little time to develop a meaningful document.
An Abundance of Strategies
There are different ways of looking at strategy. There are the purists: they see strategy as the analysis of threats and opportunities, the derivation of goals, and of the means to implement them. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe strategies are unnecessary because they demand commitments from policymakers that limit their freedom of action.
In documents such as security strategies, governments provide policy statements that, at best, serve four functions:
They provide direction: The federal government presents its assessment of the international security situation, prioritizes threats, defines a geographic focus, sets tasks, clarifies the role of partners, and allocates resources.
Second, they are an opportunity to consolidate and codify previous positioning, such as the assessment of Russia and China in the coalition agreement.
Third, while they are being drafted, strategy papers provide an opportunity to explain and discuss security policy in public and to establish a legitimate basis: when and why it makes sense, whether it is necessary for Germany to become involved, and with whom and how.
Fourth, as a tool and yardstick for Germany's partners: The NSS is a building block for creating a resilient and reliable vision for the future that signals how Germany intends to organize security with partners and what it will contribute itself. Yet, it can also highlight silence on obvious questions from our partners, or a lack of seriousness.
In the end, the most important thing about a strategy is how serious it is. In other words, you better mean it—in the context of the current Russia crisis Germany’s new government has, within a very short time, almost used up the trust it had been given in international politics and raised the German geopolitical question again. Yes, Germany regained credibility when it stopped the pipeline Nord Stream 2 right after Putin declared the independence of the separatist regions Donetsk and Luhansk on 22 February 2022, even before the EU launched its sanction package. But many allies still wonder what Berlin is willing to do for Europe's security?
Europe looks to Germany, however, not because of its moral claim in security policy, but in spite of it. Its economic power cannot be ignored, and many European states are dependent on Berlin for security.
A strategy is always a product of its time and political circumstances. The following factors characterize the federal government's room for maneuver.
Political commitment: The NSS allows security policy challenges to be addressed that the coalition agreement only touches on vaguely. Moreover, a strategy can deliver on a key promise of German security policy that the coalition agreement has failed to live up to: to make policy coherent, or at least more coherent. The coalition agreement is not just a wish list that an NSS can make use of. It is also a self-commitment. This goes beyond the government and includes the parliamentary groups of the governing parties. Hence, the NSS also binds members of the Bundestag; at the same time, they can use it to remind the government of its commitment and—where necessary—hold it to its promises.
This first NSS is an initial attempt under difficult conditions. But there are predecessors that can serve as reference points, so-called white papers. The last one was drafted in 2014 and 2015, in response to the long-term change in the security environment following the Arab Spring, the financial and euro crises, and the security order crisis caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014. The white paper “On German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr”, eventually published in 2016, reflects these changes and defines challenges in the non-military domain, but at the same time emphasizes the return of collective defense. It is noteworthy that it was written as a result of an extensive consultation process by the German government.
In contrast, work on the first NSS is beginning in an even more difficult situation, in the most dangerous decade for Europe in terms of security policy since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the German government had initially maneuvered itself into a security policy crisis, also in relation to its partners in the European Union and NATO. It is now working hard to improve it standing, with the early cancellation of Nord Stream 2 having had a highly symbolic impact. But this crisis risk being long.
In addition, Berlin will agree to two key EU and NATO documents before the NSS is published. In the EU, the Strategic Compass and in NATO, the Strategic Concept. Both outline the security policy framework within which the respective organizations and their members intend to operate together into the 2030s. Germany generally adopts the provisions coming from the EU and NATO and integrates them in national documents.
The 2021 coalition agreement has not only committed the new government to an NSS. It also states that "we actively seek dialogue with citizens on the challenges of international politics." It would make sense to take the drafting of the NSS as a starting point for this security policy dialogue. This is particularly important and necessary in Germany. Important, because there is a need for a better understanding among the population about the risks and threats Germany faces. Necessary, because Germany's political system distributes influence very diversely. In countries that are governed centrally, such as France and the United Kingdom, there is a general consensus on security policy whereas, in Germany, policy can only be put into practice if the various forces in society beyond the parties—associations and churches, for example—support it or, at least, do not block it.
The 2016 white paper had 22 months to mature. Only 11 months remain for the NSS. Therefore, the document's ambitions must be adapted to the timeframe. More complex analyses, as well as the democratic discussion process, must be moved to a later extended phase of strategy implementation, for which the NSS is only the prelude.
Under the conditions mentioned above, two factors will determine the quality of the NSS: the process and the ambition. The limited time and resources available suggest choosing one out of the follow ideal type approaches rather than trying to meet all the demands:
The Conservative Approach
If a conservative approach were applied, the ministries would with great routine compile text modules on central topics in the traditional bureaucratic way of doing things. Applicable principles and goals would remain as already formulated in the coalition agreement, for example. EU and NATO documents would be additional reference points. Germany would adopt the analyses described in them, because they are coordinated and because it can be sure of the goodwill of its partners. However, this would not create any new or specifically national goals.
Innovations would be superficial: e.g., a national security council without special responsibilities, an initiative for more interdepartmental action without mandatory targets, the rededication of ongoing armaments and defense projects to brand-new EU and NATO policy initiatives. The essential goal would be to deliver a solid document on time that coalition parties and the Bundestag would accept without much criticism. The result could be a very short, handy document in which the government would spell out only a few important and largely consensual points, providing the basis for a kind of government program.
The advantage of this approach is that it does not force any political impositions that could disturb the peace within the coalition. It also creates a great deal of flexibility in regard to implementation; for example when it comes to ad hoc opportunities for cooperation. Implementation should also be easy to agree on. The disadvantage is that this would probably widen the gap between risks and options for action. Also, difficult issues such as arms exports could simply be moved to the next document level, that is, postponed. The strategy would not explore new areas of security or new policy approaches.
The Ambitious Approach
A higher level of ambition for German security policy is necessary because, although there is a certain amount of commitment, it is not sufficient in all areas, for example in civil crisis prevention and stabilization, but also in defense.
Greater ambition is best expressed by building on existing benchmarks. A simple but highly symbolic step could be to increase existing targets, such as the quota for development cooperation. The 3-percent target (calling for a 3 percent GDP contribution for comprehensive security rather than individual budgets) from the coalition agreement could hence be implemented in the short term. In addition, it could be ambitious to establish new organizational structures, such as a civilian corps for stabilization. A third form of ambition would be to include a new set of issues in the strategy, such as energy security, security policy in dealing with China, or governance in the area of critical technologies.
The advantage would be: Germany would signal activity and its willingness to find responses to challenges. An expansion of topics could be seen as a more comprehensive policy, an increase in spending as a contribution to fair burden-sharing or a special commitment. The disadvantage is that high costs make approval less likely. Berlin's credibility could suffer quickly if it does not deliver.
The Balanced Approach
Germany faces the challenge of once again broadening its approach to security to include new policy areas, particularly technology and homeland security. Effective changes will inevitably affect the current structure of government agencies and political power.
This approach would start with a blank sheet of paper and, without regard to existing responses and instruments, would initially assess only the risks and threats. From this, necessary means would be derived, along with probable suggestions for new definitions of responsibilities, and maybe also legislative changes. Geographically and functionally, this strategy would be very broad. In addition to citizens and institutions, it would perhaps declare universal norms and global public goods worthy of protection, but it would also identify concrete tools and means. Strong political commitment would be required to get this message across to bureaucrats and society.
The advantage of this strategy would be a realistic and comprehensive mapping of the risks and necessary tools. Moreover, outdated black-and-white concepts such as war and peace could be replaced with more appropriate ones, describing the new dynamics of modern conflicts and setting out how Germany would act in a more preventive, coordinated, comprehensive, and continuous manner. It would be possible to link internal and external security, as would be overcoming the dichotomous separation of military and civilian means.
Disadvantage: The approach could be overly complex and thus difficult to implement. New cuts are likely to be met with a lot of resistance from institutions. In terms of time, this approach is unlikely to be implemented within a year. During such a reorganization, there would be a risk of partial political gridlock.
The Realistic Approach
A realistic approach would not focus on interests and goals, but would emphasize the means available today and in the future and, thus, the achievability of security policy goals. This line would be contrasted with an assessment of which risks and threats can be dealt with effectively using these tools. Such an inventory would provide a solid basis for decision-making. Where the minimum level of security cannot be guaranteed (critical infrastructure protection, military defense), additional resources and tools must be made available or objectives have to be redefined. To demonstrate the political will for implementation, flagship projects would build on current initiatives. For example, the Framework Nation Concept could be further developed, according to which Germany cooperates closely on a military basis with smaller countries in Europe and uses such integration to empower them and itself.
The advantage of this approach is that it creates clarity as to what ambitions Germany can pursue now and in the foreseeable future. It also makes a sustained political commitment possible, rather than short-term proposals. This would also underline credibility and justify to partners both what Germany is doing and what it is not doing. Disadvantage: Some may not favor such clarity, because Germany would possibly have to admit that it is able, or willing, to do far less than it has so far believed itself capable of. This would allow for a debate about Germany's role in the world.
This approach may be challenging in terms of time. But because only a solid inventory of the potential for action allows a realistic discussion of Germany's security policy ambitions, an NSS should present this list as part of the implementation process.
Do It Better and Do It Right!
The joy of having an NSS could quickly be followed by disillusionment, because the timeframe forces the government to produce a quick and rather selective document, instead of leaving room for a necessary comprehensive debate. This can have advantages because the government limits itself to what is feasible and most important—or to what is simplest, and puts consensus-building first. In that case, however, it will probably be a document that is not very visionary or appropriate to the comprehensive problems of German security policy.
Still, the paper is only the first step in changing the practice of security policy in Germany. There is a need for a more far-reaching engagement with the NSS and a larger-scale nationally- and internationally-led security policy process. With regard to the NSS, the German government should enter into dialogue with policymakers and society during the drafting process and also once the strategy is complete. This exchange should already be moving toward a new goal: an update of the NSS at the beginning of the next legislative period. The German government will be able to promote its version of the NSS, and at the same time this will create space and also motivation and possibility for engagement—the preparation of the update. In parallel, the government should conduct an audit of its security policy capability to develop an evidence- and capability-based strategy in the next legislature.
A national security strategy will only have a long-term impact and be able to contribute to the security policy debate if it is a building block of a larger ongoing security policy debate. It will become possible if the government, parties, and parliament overcome rehearsed arguments and reflexes and, instead, have to explain and justify positions, whether in a security policy week in the Bundestag or in citizens' forums. A security policy appropriate to the challenges faced can only emerge if civil society understands, accepts and, in the best-case scenario, supports it.
Claudia Major is head of the international security research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Christian Mölling is research director and head of the security and defense program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).