Toward a New German Foreign Policy

July 13, 2021

New Defense Realities

At the close of the Merkel era Germany’s armed forces face a wide array of challenges most political parties have not even started to acknowledge, never mind address.

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As in many other policy areas, Germany is moving into the post-Merkel era in defense policy, too. Yes, the CDU/CSU has signed up to meeting the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in the future, something that has eluded German governments so far. And the Greens party congress took an interesting decision lately, when it agreed not to ban the use of armed drones outright, but to explore under which legal frameworks they might be used by the Bundeswehr.

Neither point, however, has much strategic relevance (unlike the explosive question of the future of nuclear deterrence, for example) or addresses the urgently needed structural changes to the way Germany approaches defense policy. One wonders, therefore, how well prepared a post-Merkel government will be to face security realities.

The Return to Alliance Defense

With its largest and longest foreign mission—the Afghanistan deployment—just brought to an end, the Bundeswehr will now likely focus more on deterrence and alliance defense within the NATO framework. This switch has already be reflected in recent national security documents: The 2016 White Paper shifted away from foreign stabilization operations and swung back to alliance defense. Consequently, major armament projects and structures of the armed forces have since been aligned with this primary goal.

Then there is China's rise. Beijing turning into a world power with global geopolitical ambitions is the most significant strategic development of our time and has grave consequences for Germany’s defense policy. Among other things, China links infrastructure and financial support to other countries with the exploitation of their raw materials and the export of Chinese technologies to these countries. As the new administration of US President Joe Biden is taking a more confrontational approach to China, the possibility of a US-Chinese military conflict clearly has consequences for Germany and Europe.

At the same time, Germany cannot ignore Russia's policy of constant confrontation, its ongoing hybrid warfare, and its growing conventional and nuclear arsenal directed against Europe. Because Europe alone cannot muster a sufficient military response, it needs America's military presence in Europe as well as its extended nuclear deterrent.

However, the United States is not in a position to deter Russia and contain China at the same time. Washington is currently reviewing its global posture and is likely to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region while downscaling the overall size. Therefore, Europeans —and Germans in particular—must do much more for transatlantic security. This is all the more significant given the growing evidence of a Russian-Chinese entente, which poses two simultaneous strategic challenges to Western democracies, both in the Euro-Atlantic and in the Indo-Pacific region.

In addition, Germany seems ill-prepared for the new forms of organized violence now routinely employed by others: the cyber-attacks and hybrid warfare that Germany has experienced for a number of years now, waged also against its political institutions like the Bundestag. Disinformation campaigns endanger social cohesion. Thus, the instruments of defense are expanding rapidly to the non-military sphere.

So-called low intensity conflicts last for a long time or become a permanent feature, but do not or rarely cross the threshold into open war. This makes it difficult to determine the appropriate choice of means. The next German government will have to find more definite answers.

The West’s Technological Edge Erodes

This task will turn out to be the harder as the West is losing its technological edge.  Western armed forces built their military superiority on the basis of their technological dominance, an approach often referred to as superiority of quality over quantity.

A wave of new technologies—such as Big Data, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, space-based and hypersonic systems, as well as biotechnological materials—will rapidly find its ways into defense applications over the next two decades. Resulting cyber capabilities, new generations of sensors, autonomous weapons systems, and greatly improved air and missile defenses will have a profound impact on security policy. The same applies to the way armed forces are organized, equipped, and deployed—and to the role nuclear weapons will play and how they are controlled.

China and Russia are already challenging the West’s technological superiority through their own independent innovations in strategically relevant areas of technology. Their growing ability to integrate civilian innovations into defense applications is challenging the effectiveness of NATO’s conventional deterrence and defense capabilities.

This puts the Atlantic alliance and its member states into a double bind: they must continue to build up capabilities for high-intensity warfare, but also keep pace with radical technological change.

Being a Partner

Partners and allies can respond very differently to these challenges, with France and the United Kingdom as telling examples. France has basically three armed forces: one for its foreign missions, one for its alliance contributions in NATO, and its nuclear force. Most of the material has to work in two of these applications. The UK, on the other hand, is pushing ahead with the transformation of its army into a post-modern security service provider. It is focusing on innovation and wants to close vulnerabilities, for example in the field of cyber, in exchange for reducing conventional capabilities. The Bundeswehr’s path will certainly lie somewhere in-between, but the choices made will have an impact on Germany's ability to cooperate with others.

This will also have consequences for future foreign missions. Any future German deployment will always have a geopolitical as well as a systemic conflict component. That is to say, deterrence, defense, and foreign deployments will no longer form separate worlds.

Christian Mölling is Research Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). This article was written as part of the project “Security in Northern Europe,” which DGAP is running jointly with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS).

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