Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Aug 04, 2021

Time for Straight Talking on German Security

Germany needs to shape its own security context and that starts with its politicians speaking honestly with the public about risks and threats, and taking clear foreign policy stances. 

The Reichstag building in Berlin
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With the parliamentary elections on September 26 in sight, Germany is in campaign mode—usually the time when politicians seek the approval of the voters. Candidates are presenting their ideas about ​​the world, and explaining how they plan to advance and change it. Germany gets fairly close to the ideals of democracy, even if the political reality is full of hollow phrases and mean little tricks. Nonetheless, big questions for the future—like digitalization and climate policy—are debated over the course of German election campaigns.

However, when it comes to international security, there has been comparative silence. More precisely, politicians are not making clear to people just how dangerous Germany’s international environment has become. They tend to use well-practiced clichés: how Germany will “have to take on more responsibility,” because of “increasing great power competition,” how the country faces “rougher seas,” now that absolute guarantees from the United States are “a thing of the past to some extent.”

Underneath this boilerplate is the conviction among a large part of the political class that there are real threats to Germany’s interests and sovereignty, perhaps even to its territory and its citizens’ safety. But even politicians with foreign policy expertise rarely are as outspoken as security experts from academia, the armed forces, and the intelligence community.

Taking Peace and Stability for Granted

The are three reasons for politicians’ comparative silence on security in this election campaign. First, Germany is not in immediate danger. Rather, it faces the systemic risks and threats that will emerge from current conditions. This makes the risks more difficult to speak about, especially to a population that by now takes peace and stability for granted. The biggest threats Germany faces now cannot be, as in the Cold War, summed up in a slogan like “The Russians are Coming!” Very few people believe Germany’s armed forces will be fighting a war on German territory in the foreseeable future (a phrase itself open to interpretation).

But this does not mean today's threats are less specific or even less “classic” than previous ones. What if President Vladmir Putin's Russia acts in the Baltics like it did in Ukraine in 2014? Does NATO have the political will and the military might to force back a Russian attack on allied countries, particularly since Russia has been modernizing its military and advertising its readiness for nuclear escalation? If our NATO allies cannot rely on this, what is our deterrence actually worth? Which is to ask: how fragile is peace in Europe?   

To put it another way: Why is it of crucial significance for Germans to uphold the sovereignty of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians? This question arises directly from the current threat situation. Although the question can be answered clearly and honestly, it does require a broad, systemic view. The danger to Germany's security does not first appear when our borders are under direct threat. If we are worrying about our borders, we already have lost our security.  

This can also be seen in the increasingly overt great power rivalry between China and the United States, which directly affects Germany and Europe. China is using its economic strength to gain political influence in the world. But it is also consistently converting that strength into military capability, in space, on sea, and in cyberspace. China’s ultra-modern, networked military structure is so precisely tailored to US vulnerabilities in the Indo-Pacific that many observers already believe the US would be lucky if an armed regional conflict with China were to end in deadlock, as the odds are constantly improving in Beijing’s favor.

Chinese Ambitions

For both China and the United States, however, competition is not limited to regional rivalry. It encompasses competition over the global order itself. Like Russia, China hopes to split the West, dividing Europe or forcing it to take a neutral position, and thus weakening the US position. Germany cannot help but regard the Chinese strategies as threatening: Chinese state-owned companies are already acquiring direct influence over European strategic and digital infrastructure (its ports and and its 5G network, for example), while the Chinese navy already has more warships in the Mediterranean than France. This is not to say a Chinese invasion is imminent. But Beijing’s strategic moves do give the Chinese Communist Party economic, political, and ultimately military leverage, which it could some day use to influence decisions in the European Council, for example.

Moreover, China’s strategy is scalable, depending on how quickly Beijing can gain access to the European continent. China can use subtle signals to affect the calculations of European interest groups or to openly blackmail governments. Taken to extremes, the strategy could see China gaining all the advantages of an imperial relationship with Europe, without the costs and consequences of old-fashioned conquest. During the Cold War, this was referred to as “Finlandization.”

Economic Stagnation, Curtailed Freedom

The examples of Russia and China demonstrate that the main threat to Germany is of the international order ceasing to be governed by principles of international law, fair trade, self-determination, and human rights. This may sound very abstract, but it has a profound impact on our economy and our lives. If intellectual property loses protection, if trade barriers are erected, if international cooperation becomes less reliable, it will be felt directly in Germany. The result will be economic stagnation followed by curtailed freedom. Germany's best insurance against this is a strong transatlantic alliance and a European Union capable of action, with both working together to protect the zone of freedom. This cannot come about without a strong and committed Germany. This is why it is so important to talk openly about foreign and security policy, and about the threats we face. Even if the situation is complicated.

There is a second reason why top German politicians are not talking about threats. Nobody votes for Cassandra. Responsible security policy has to prepare for worst-case scenarios. But anyone talking about threats is rapidly accused of scaremongering. The idea that a politician is fueling popular fears to further their own political agenda is a serious accusation. In politics, experience suggests that hopeful candidates get elected rather than alarmists. When Ursula von der Leyen—now European Commission president—was German defense minister, she banned the terms “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” from her speeches. She was convinced that Germans had an allergic reaction to this kind of “martial” language, and insisted that the case for responsible security policy should be made using softer vocabulary. Perhaps it is true that we German voters force a particular language on our politicians, and thus get the political language we deserve. There is little doubt, however, that this fear of clarity also leads to an incomplete and distorted picture of reality.

Defense and Deterrence

The third reason for the absence of discussion of security is the consequences of a realistic threat perception would be quite inconvenient. If German security is genuinely threatened by systemic changes, then “business as usual” will simply not be good enough. Renewed effort will be required. For example, European NATO states will have to pay far more for their own defense than before. US power will increasingly be committed to the Indo-Pacific. The US nuclear shield over Europe will likely remain in place; however, more than ever, conventional defense and deterrence will be in the hands of Europeans. In political terms, too, it is increasingly obvious that the US will only defend allies who show a clear desire to defend themselves.

For Germany, Europe’s richest and largest nation, this means that we can no longer afford armed forces that are barely operational—and not appropriate for the size of the tasks that await them. Changing this is in both our own and Europe’s interest. However, the associated costs (and the painful structural reforms they demand) have so far not gained adequate parliamentary support, partly because so few have described clearly enough why Germany needs this change.

It is fair to ask, at this point, whether the confidence of experts who claim that if their particular concern would only be “explained better” to voters, parliamentary majorities and behavioral changes would soon follow, is actually warranted. Talking about military aspects of German security usually provokes strong reservations. The idea—a correct one—that military force should only ever be a last resort has mutated into some very dubious political beliefs. This may be the result of over-successful re-education after two horrific world wars, or of the West’s far-from-successful military campaigns in the last two decades. Awareness of the role of military power in a nation’s self-assertion—including to lend weight to diplomatic initiatives—is now so low in Germany that good arguments for changes in security policy are very unlikely to get through to voters.  

Dangerous “Whataboutery”

Anyone talking about threats and military responses inevitably experiences a triple reaction: denial, defeatism, and moral relativism. Denial, first, does not accept that threats even exist. It says, more or less, “Putin may murder the opposition and seek to violently take over Russia’s backyard, but what do we care?” The obvious connection between our own well-being and other states that support a free international order is simply ignored. At the same time, it is suggested that Germany is a special, unique case. Authoritarian great powers will not become aggressive with us because we are ...  politically malleable? Economically very important? Because basically we would also like to be authoritarian? No one knows. What is certain, however, is that ignorance and appeasement have never been very successful strategies for maintaining sovereignty.

Defeatism does not deny the threats, but regards them like the weather. Security questions are incalculable risks that we are at the mercy of, over which we have no control, and to which we can at best adapt. In this view, great power conflicts about the global order are simply out of Germany's league, since we do not have the means to effectively defend ourselves. At best, we can make little adjustments, expose ourselves as little as possible, and hope that things turn out well. Defeatism and ignorance come from different directions, but end up with the same policy recommendations.

This is often backed up by moral relativism, the “whataboutery” of international politics. We see this especially in supposedly well-informed debates. Typical rhetoric goes something like “Well, sure, China may be expanding its influence, but is that really all that much worse than American imperialism? It’s all the same whether the NSA is spying on us or the Chinese Communist Party. It makes no difference whether Google or Alibaba is messing with our data, whether the Chinese force their products on us or the Americans. And by the way, a century’s worth of history shows that the United States is more violent and more destabilizing than China.”

The argument can seem plausible on the surface, and for this reason it has a paralyzing effect—and nowhere more so than in Germany, which for historical and cultural reasons tends to be risk-averse, nearly always preferring the status quo to the great imponderable variables of change. It remains a fact, however, that moral relativism robs our community of its foundation. For all the errors and imperfections of Western liberal societies, Chinese social scoring is something fundamentally different to the data harvesting by the US National Security state; Chinese state terror against Uighurs and other minorities is not the same as racism in the United States; China Daily is different from Fox News. Anyone unwilling to recognize this disregards the diversity, transparency, and energy with which the open societies of the West attempt to address grievances and come closer to the ideals we claim on our own behalf. If this is not worth standing up for, then what is?   

Politicians’ Megaphones    

Would it be possible to conduct this discussion on a little less fundamental, less ideological level? Not really, since our constitution, with its liberal core, is the ultimate basis of all German security policy. But yes, German security policy can indeed start to get real, as shown by the government's 2016 White Paper on Security Policy (and, ahem, on the Future of Germany’s Armed Forces). This strategy document, which remains in force today, lists the most important threats Germany faces, from transnational terrorism and nuclear proliferation to pandemics and epidemics. Moreover, it suggests how Germany can counteract these threats, from improved early warning systems to more powerful armed forces. The problem is that leading politicians have said far too little about these detailed threat scenarios, too; for this reason, there is has been little momentum to reposition Germany more effectively.

The need for political leadership is a basic constant in any responsible security policy. We need top politicians’ megaphones to help people understand the situation better, to make clear that action is needed now if we are to remain capable of acting in the future. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in this journal recently that the German people could be trusted on security and defense policy, but that politicians needed to be very clear on security and defense policy. A frank description of the risks we face and of our opponents’ apparent motives is not scaremongering. It is simply honesty, and it will inspire trust. 

That trust will include faith in our capacity to guarantee Germany's future security, working together with our partners in the EU and NATO, and our allies around the world. We should seek to shape our own security context, not to evade it or duck our responsibilities. We should not seek icy confrontation with Russia and China, but nevertheless take clear stances on foreign policy. This will earn more respect than endless nuance and finesse; it will promote stability and create scope for cooperation. However, everything must begin with clear, courageous language—at election time and far beyond it.

Patrick Keller is Vice President of the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS). He is writing in a personal capacity.