Apr 11, 2024

What Germany Can Learn from Japan’s Zeitenwende

Germany’s "historic turn" in security affairs still has much potential. Chancellor Olaf Scholz should look to Japan’s example to realize it.

Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Olaf Scholz and Prime minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida attend an honor guard welcoming ceremony at the Prime Minister's official residence on March 18, 2023, in Tokyo, Japan.
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Two years after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Zeitenwende speech to the German Bundestag, the “historic turning point” that Scholz had outlined in which Germany would take on a more assertive role in security has only partially emerged. From the continued failure of the Bundeswehr, the German military, to improve its readiness to the slowing talks on defense cooperation with regional allies or to agree on long-term financing, including for the “Lithuania brigade” Germany will deploy to the Baltic state, the Scholz government finds itself in the awkward position of underdelivering on its ambitious goals. 

However, Germany could take some lessons from Japan in the reorientation of its own security posture, given its similar historic aversion to militarism after World War II. Germany should push to develop more security frameworks across Europe and elsewhere, just as Japan has done with its success in forging security partnerships with allies in the Indo-Pacific and further abroad. Japan’s relative successes in delivering on the objectives of its own strategic paradigm shift, especially in institutionalizing these partnerships, offers key lessons for achieving the Zeitenwende.

Anchored in US-led Alliances

From the 1970s to the 2010s, the foreign policy of both West (and later united) Germany and Japan converged on the notion that promoting trade with potential adversaries would reduce risks of future wars. Both countries adopted cautious approaches to rearmament after World War II, had restrictions on the extent of their rearmament due to Articles 26 and 9 of their respective constitutions that prohibited wars of aggression, and pursued membership within larger US-led alliances. However, Germany’s rearmament was under a multilateral (NATO) instead of bilateral alliance, and Japan’s Article 9 outright renounced “war as a sovereign right” and prohibited the maintenance of any military forces and “other war potential,” which is why Japan maintains the “Self-Defense Forces” instead of a formal military. 

These US-led security structures were the impetus for Japan’s “Yoshida doctrine,” which suggested Japan should rely primarily on its economic influence for soft power, and for the formation of the “strategic partnership” between a reunited Germany and a post-Soviet Russia, in which Germany came to rely upon Russian fossil fuel imports for most of its energy needs. In the former case, Japan pursued the Yoshida doctrine while maintaining a pacifist foreign policy until the Gulf War, when it provided financial support for the coalition forces, although it continued to maintain a very small military. In the latter case, following German reunification and the conclusion of the Cold War, Germany heavily neglected its defense spending, leaving the Bundeswehr in a visibly poor shape. Both Japan and Germany continued to emphasize their trading prowess even as they started to recalibrate their security postures following increasing Russian and Chinese belligerence between 2008 and 2022.

Divergent Reactions to Russia’s War

Where Germany’s foreign policy differs from Japan’s after February 2022 is the way in which Germany has faced regular difficulties in maintaining good relations with allies. Germany has repeatedly clashed with other NATO members on providing military aid to Ukraine, such as its initial reluctance to provide Leopard II tanks, in addition to its commitment to increase its military expenditures to 2 percent, as per the 2014 NATO pledge. While Germany is expected to achieve the spending goal this year, experts have warned that there remains a future gap in defense spending

Complicating matters is how Germany’s increased military expenditures have faced some domestic resistance, which has caused further uncertainty on Germany’s military spending from NATO allies. Even Germany’s planned deployment of military forces in Lithuania to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank against Russia, described as the “lighthouse project” of the Zeitenwende, has received domestic criticism for lacking a clear plan of deployment with their Leopard II tanks and a long-term funding strategy to keep them in position. Consequently, while Germany remains firmly committed to the transatlantic alliance, what that entails in practice continues to be a source of contention between Germany and its allies. 

In contrast, Japan has actively worked to boost relations with potential regional allies and develop new comprehensive defense frameworks. Under its National Security Strategy (NSS) published in December 2022, Japan prioritized deepening defense collaboration with the United States and developing security frameworks with other US allies. This drove Japan’s participation in the Camp David Summit in August 2023, at which Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio joined South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden to outline trilateral partnership principles

While Japan and South Korea were already technically allies due to their mutual bilateral alliances with the United States, Japan-South Korea relations were previously marked by diplomatic spats, limiting avenues of cooperation. Japan’s outreach to South Korea marks both a mutual decision to improve relations and security collaboration (especially in terms of developing alliance interoperability) and a decisive move to institutionalize such cooperation. Kishida has further proposed an amendment to Article 9 that would explicitly permit the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and a new “emergency situation article” outlining how Japan could react to an emerging military crisis. 

During Kishida’s visit to Washington in April 2024, the United States and Japan jointly announced multiple bilateral and multilateral strategic cooperation agreements as well. The latter category includes growing Japan’s potential partnership with AUKUS on AI, cybersecurity, and other emerging technologies under the alliance’s second pillar, developing a Japan-US-Australia joint air defense network, holding Japan-US-UK joint military exercises from 2025, among others. In fact, such is the extent of Japan’s increasingly deep alliance with the United States that these commitments were part of a staggering 70 civilian and security agreements that emerged from this state visit.

Forging Security Partnerships

Like Japan, Germany should prioritize bolstering existing security partnerships and aim to develop new ones as part of the Zeitenwende. To begin with, Germany should strengthen its existing commitments and military integration under NATO and EU defense policies to become the “backbone of defense in Europe,” even if the Bundeswehr’s continued problems with preparedness and financial support are overcome. 

Some of Scholz’ existing proposals, if successfully acted upon, would be substantial progress on this front, especially if they were institutionalized in some way. For instance, Germany could model its programs upon the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), which aims to strengthen European air and missile defenses by jointly procuring interoperable defense systems. Although France has expressed some opposition to the ESSI because a few ESSI systems are built in the US and Israel, the most crucial outcome is that all systems would work in tandem with other NATO and EU air and missile defense systems. An extension of the ESSI could likewise be toward satellite defenses, as space is increasingly emerging as a domain of warfare. 

Drawing upon Japan’s emphasis on security-related outreach beyond its home region, Germany could seek out new partners outside of its existing alliance structures as well, especially in the Indo-Pacific. In a December 2022 essay outlining the Zeitenwende, Scholz emphasizes the risks of Chinese aggression across the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. With a revanchist Russia as a preeminent threat and with limited expeditionary capability in the Indo-Pacific, Germany is unable to “pivot to Asia” like the US. Nevertheless, Germany still has a role to play in the region, especially if the US becomes more isolationist under a future presidential administration. 

This could take the form of building security partnerships with Indo-Pacific states, including on conducting joint military exercises, improving interoperability and cybersecurity practices, and developing “two-plus-two” foreign and defense ministerial dialogues. In this vein, the announcement of German deployments in the Indo-Pacific in 2024 are a step in the right direction. Also, Germany and Japan have actually already begun working together across all these realms, including a new acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA) that would ease joint exercises and interoperability between the two. Both would mutually benefit from collaborating on the development of military technologies as well, especially as both countries work to bolster their military preparedness.

Germany could develop similar cooperative frameworks with other potential Indo-Pacific allies as well. These could involve South Korea, with which Germany already has agreements on intelligence-sharing and defense industrial supply chain cooperation; Taiwan, with which Germany supports expanding relations under the One-China framework; and Australia, with which Germany has conducted jungle warfare and amphibious training exercises, sometimes alongside the United States and Japan as well.

Finding Consensus

To be sure, there are limits to what Germany can learn from Japan. The comparison between the two can only go so far even though both had similar experiences with disarmament after 1945. An important distinction between the two is that Japan was pushed to seek new security partnerships due to its earlier reliance on its bilateral alliance with the United States, whereas Germany had the benefit of participating in a multilateral alliance and is accordingly not as reliant on one single security partner. 

Moreover, in an ironic similarity with Germany, Japan has faced issues with military spending, and will not reach its own equivalent 2 percent of GDP spent on military expenditures until 2027. Compounding Japan’s troubles further is that, despite Kishida’s relative successes in foreign policy, his premiership remains one of the most unpopular in Japan’s recent history, leading to constant speculation about snap elections this year. Thus, there is a high probability that his successor, who may take power sooner than later, may not share the same foreign policy priorities. 

Nevertheless, where Japan has succeeded so far is in deliberating and finding consensus with allies, an approach that will be vital for the Zeitenwende’s success in the short to medium term. Yet, to cement this accomplishment in the long term, the other approach Germany should adopt from Japan is the institutionalization of new cooperation partnerships. This will be a decisive step toward Germany’s new place in upholding the rules-based international order.  

Francis Shin is Research Assistant in the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.