Apr 05, 2023

No Time to Lose: How Germany’s Zeitenwende in Defense Can Succeed

Germany has promised to fundamentally change its approach to defense and security. Yet, the policy so far lacks drive, focus, and strategy. Here are some proposals to turn the Zeitenwende into a success.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands with German soldiers in front of a Marder vehicle during a visit to a military base of the German army Bundeswehr in Bergen, Germany, October 17, 2022.
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered widely shared beliefs in Germany about war and peace; and about Germany’s role when it comes to preventing the former and preserving the latter. Since February 2022, politicians and society have been arguing about the past, present, and future of Germany’s security and defense policy. But the initial urgency to fundamentally change German policy, which had been felt acutely during the early days of the war, seems to have lost momentum. The implementation of the Zeitenwende, the historic turning point, especially in defense, is progressing slowly, and seemingly without a concise roadmap.

For many European states, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine since 2014 and particularly since February 2022 has been an external turning point. It has fundamentally changed the conditions under which they organize their security and defense posture.

For Germany, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked not only an external, but most notably an internal, domestic turning point. Looking back on how Germany previously went about its defense reveals the entire scope of the required change ahead, and the constraints Germany is facing now. After the end of the Cold War, Germany no longer felt threatened militarily. It considered itself to be “surrounded by friends” and was convinced that it had learned the right lessons of history—conflicts are better solved by diplomacy than by military means. By the same token, the mantra that economic cooperation and interdependence prevent conflict was also repeated ad infinitum over the years.

As a result, Berlin felt little urgency to invest in its military and only reluctantly engaged in the various military operations of the post-Cold War period, mainly driven by the imperative to support its allies. Participating in the military training mission in Mali for example, Germany followed France’s wishes. It would be an overstatement to claim that Germany did not take threats seriously during those years, but it focused more on the risks of migration, climate change fallouts, and the threats to economic growth. Security threats of a military nature remained mostly a blind spot.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has now debunked previous assumptions. With the advent of a new era, Germany suddenly felt forced to (re)act, not (only) because it wanted to be a good ally and do its partners a favor, but because it truly felt threatened.

For Berlin has understood this war as an attack not only on Ukraine’s sovereignty, but on core constituents that make up Germany and Europe: that is, as an attack on the security order, the European Union, on a rules-based international order; an attack on Germany’s success model. It is this impression of a comprehensive, profound, existentially threatening failure that influenced the Zeitenwende speech that Chancellor Olaf Scholz made on February 27, 2022.

The term, meaning a historic turning point, quickly went viral: Many international partners and national actors, from industry to parliament, hoped that Germany would learn its lesson and would from now on live up to expectations by taking the lead to shape the new European security order. After all, what a new order would look like depends largely on Germany’s commitment to play a part in it—or perhaps the lack of doing so.

Disruptive, Unwanted, Pressured

Three elements characterize Germany’s ongoing Zeitenwende: It’s a disruptive change, not one that Germany would have deliberately chosen or induced. Second, there is a clear cut between the “before” and the “after”: The Russian invasion brought an end to a cooperative security order that included Russia (“Sicherheit mit Russland,” as the German phrase goes) and heralded one in which Germany and Europe must organize security against Russia (“Sicherheit vor Russland,” as the German Social Democrats, or SPD, recently put it in a position paper). And third, the German government perceived this war (at least in the early days) as an existential threat to Germany itself: Security and defense policy are no longer simply a matter of solidarity, but a question of Germany’s own security. Russia’s revisionist approach is a fundamental challenge; it has fundamentally questioned Berlin’s foreign policy recipes and its traditional way of seeing and doing things in all policy areas, from trade to defense.

This led to the announcement of a series of decisions that were previously almost unthinkable: supplying weapons to Ukraine when traditional policy interdicted such deliveries to “ regions of conflict”; setting up a special fund worth €100 billion for major military procurement projects; raising defense spending to 2 percent and more of GDP.

Defense at the Very Core

This fundamental change requires adjustments in all policy fields far beyond the military and defense realm. It applies, for example, to energy policy, where the most prominent keywords are diversification and green transformation.  Yet Germany’s success in achieving the announced changes will mainly depend on its ability to live up to the transition in the most controversial and highly complex field of defense.

Four elements explain why this is key: First, there is the military support for Ukraine that determines the course of the war; Kyiv largely depends on the West’s commitment to provide military resources. Second, the war refocused attention on the disastrous state of the German armed forces. The goal the government has set is for the Bundeswehr to become the strongest force in Europe—a highly ambitious aim. Third, the use of force and military means remains highly controversial in German domestic debates. Arguably, it is the Achilles’ heel for Germany’s Zeitenwende on military policy. Fourth, there are the expectations of allies: Most, if not all, of Germany’s NATO allies and EU partners accord paramount importance to defense policy.

Scholz has formulated an agenda built on three major pillars for the “defense Zeitenwende:” reorganizing the Bundeswehr, improving European defense, and supporting Ukraine. Subsequently, the German government has spelled out these goals in more detail: Germany is to become Europe’s leading military power, European armaments cooperation is to be strengthened, and Ukraine is to be supported with what it needs and for as long as it needs it.  

Germany now has the biggest task ahead of it, namely to implement these ambitions. Some changes can be initiated in the short term, e.g., the increase of defense expenditure or the launch of new procurement projects, such as buying the F 35 aircraft to sustain Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence. Others will take longer, such as the reform of planning and procurement processes and a change of mentality and Germany’s strategic culture more generally.

Tragedy of the Zeitenwende

If the Zeitenwende is to succeed, a unique cultural change has to follow suit, a “mental Zeitenwende.” Turning the tide cannot simply mean “business as usual, but with more money.” It requires a completely new grammar so that Germany can assert itself in a confrontational security order in Europe and worldwide. Part of this is to recognize the role of military power as a shaping factor. Russia is using it. Germany is also using it—to prevent Moscow from establishing a security order according to Russian ideas. Still, Berlin is far from assuming the role of a guarantor of Europe’s freedom, not only using its economic power, but also military means.

The developments of the past 13 months reveal that Germany is currently in a phase that may indeed pave the way for a complete overhaul, if it were not for the old ideas and routines that persevere and seemingly remain attractive to many in Germany. After February 24, 2022 Germany found itself abruptly confronted with a much greater set of options for its defense policy. The government dropped previous taboos, such as delivering arms to “regions of conflict.” The main reason for the new course was that the old one no longer held up in the face of reality.

The sudden collapse of beliefs that were once assumed to be ironclad also shows how brittle and unsustainable German security policy really was. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political leaders and German society have started to engage in debates about strategic questions to which Berlin must find new answers. There is a real possibility that these debates could change the strategic culture in Germany.

The backlog of decisions and the fragmentation of the domestic security landscape and competences underline the need for an institutional and organizational reconfiguration. At the top of the list is a clear definition of who is responsible for what. But this point is barely making it into the broader debate right now. Even the crucial question of whether to set up a National Security Council or similar structures (the German government has now opted against in the forthcoming National Security Strategy) is getting little public attention and remains a niche topic.

Money and Ambition

Germany has invested, or at least earmarked, considerable resources in a very short time for the Zeitenwende in the areas of climate, energy, and defense—about €300 billion so far. What sounds impressive is, realistically speaking, not enough: It’s a generational task not only to restructure, but in a first step to simply fill the gaps in the German armed forces.

Compared to German policy before Russia’s war of aggression, the decisions taken by the German government since February 2022 are revolutionary. In addition to the special fund for the Bundeswehr, these include extensive arms deliveries to Ukraine, including self-propelled howitzers, the IRIS-T air defense system, main battle tanks, as well as substantial contributions to NATO’s deterrence and defense posture, such as the increased presence in Lithuania. In all three areas of the Zeitenwende (Bundeswehr, European defense, support to Ukraine), the German government has made remarkable progress.

Having said this, measured against the situation in Ukraine and the country’s needs, Germany’s own goals for the Bundeswehr, its commitments to partners, and the self-proclaimed leadership in European defense, this is too little. Germany’s politicians raised expectations, for example by announcing leadership ambitions—epitomized in the speech by then Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in September 2022 or by Chancellor Scholz in Prague a month earlier. These ambitions have not yet been met—despite it being the right time to do so. The current German coalition government could make a historic difference that would define Germany’s image and shape its agenda-setting power for decades to come. It is unclear, though, whether all political parties of the coalition have the will to seize this opportunity.

The debate about whether or not to deliver Western-made main battle tanks to Ukraine lasted from April 2022 to January 2023—that is emblematic of Berlin’s current indecisiveness: Germany still has a hard time not only taking the lead, but also making up its mind, thereby making it difficult for partners to support German policies as well as to make their own choices.

It does not seem to be strategic reasoning that convinces the government to act, but rather pressure from allies and the public. A long-term systematic plan for military and industrial support seems to be lacking, one from which German actions could be derived and justified. Military support appears to be guided by what is politically acceptable in Germany, rather than by what Ukraine needs to achieve its goal of liberating its own territory.

The situation is not much better when it comes to implementing commitments vis-à-vis partners. Germany is increasing its defense spending but did not reach the promised 2 percent goal in 2022, nor will it do so in the future in a sustainable way. Instead, the government has frozen the regular defense budget at its current level of about €50 billion. Only with the one-off special fund of €100 billion (which is outside the regular budget) will it be possible to reach the 2 percent-mark, and even then, only for the coming two years. Once the special fund’s moneys are spent, a growing gap of at least €20 billion opens up and raises the question of how Berlin will honor its NATO commitments in future.

At the current stage, there is no financial planning that anchors the long-term increase in the regular defense budget. The €100 billion, , will only plug the worst gaps within the Bundeswehr. But how will the rising costs of maintenance, major procurements, and more exercises be financed? Meanwhile, much suggests that NATO allies will agree on an even higher commitment at the 2023 Vilnius summit: Spending 2 percent of GDP on defense will then probably be seen as the baseline, not the standard target. Here, too, the German government risks running behind developments rather than shaping them.

The same applies when it comes to reforming the Bundeswehr, most notably its planning and procurement structures and processes. Here, far-reaching reforms have not yet been launched. Trapped in a regulatory and bureaucratic frenzy, everything is done by the book, but the result is not greater defense capability.

It’s obvious that these processes and procedures are no longer appropriate in the face of a war just two hours’ flight from Berlin. Germany lacks a coherent armaments policy that links industry, the Bundeswehr, and the political sphere, providing equipment and the ability to cooperate seamlessly with partners. The operational readiness of the Bundeswehr remains critical, as revealed by the problems regarding the Puma infantry fighting vehicle at the end of 2022. That is not surprising 12 months into a transformation process; reforms take time. What is surprising, however, is that there doesn’t even seem to be a rudimentary plan to fix the situation.

The End of Linear Security Policies

To shape the future European security order, Germany must prepare for drastic changes, far beyond the military realm. On the one hand, there are more and more surprises in what essentially is a profoundly fast-changing environment; on the other hand, the government itself has explicitly declared Germany’s own security assessment to be outdated. The focus must now be on putting the right mix of instruments at Berlin’s—and Europe’s—disposal.

Germany needs to ensure its security in a context of systemic conflict. This requires rapid and comprehensive action as well as the ability to proactively influence the fallout of megatrends. This is not something that Germany has excelled in to date, neither in its institutional set-up nor in its political orientation. As a result, it will have to reshape its entire policy model, an undertaking that goes beyond classic foreign or security policy. Here, the challenges encountered in addressing the energy crisis and its knock-on effects on climate policy are indicative of what to expect.

The challenge is to overcome the traditional German model in which policy is conducted in a linear way, according to existing procedures and structures. Germany needs to recognize that its environment is undergoing disruptive change—and that the old tools are no longer useful. The appropriate response to this new reality should enable Germany to manage or prevent any disruptions.

This means overcoming the reactive policy model that primarily responds to external shocks as well as developing and implementing a policy concept that ensures the ability to act in times of disruptive change. The Zeitenwende will conclude when Germany acquires the tools to act in four areas: the ability to assess; to cooperate; to compete and manage conflicts; and to prevent undesired developments.

It is not about the one or the other isolated policy field. is it about playing off different elements of security policy against each other, civilian crisis prevention against deterrence or peace policy against defense. It is precisely this “ideological” focus that has prevented effective policymaking in Germany in the past, whether in energy, climate, or defense matters.

Needless to say, the ugly duckling of defense policy will still have to weather the storm in order to be accepted into the family of “good policy.” To be able to do so, three points require realignment: What can defense contribute to the overall security policy? How must defense therefore be organized on a national scale and with partners? And how, as a result, should Germany adapt its armaments policy? The National Security Strategy, expected in the coming weeks, will provide an initial response. Government documents alone, however, will not change Germany's security policy. Rather, it will be the practical way of doing what it takes to protect Germany against existential threats and risks, that will hopefully prove that Germany got it right

Let’s hope that Germany does not become lost in an eternal Zeitenwende.

Claudia Major is Head of the International Security Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Christian Mölling is Research Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Research Institute and heads its Center for Security and Defense.

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