Oct 19, 2022

What Zeitenwende?

Instead of introvertedly focusing on defense, internationalizing and socializing their country’s transformation will give Germans the best options for action—and drive lasting change, which they must own.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks at weapons during a visit to a military base of the German army Bundeswehr in Bergen, Germany, October 17, 2022.

“Most importantly, one thing is needed in Germany, from all of us, and that is change.” Few would disagree with Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht’s assessment—but there is less consensus on what that change should be.

Defense has dominated Germany’s agenda for reform in response to Russia’s upending of the European security order. The urgent need to plug glaring military capability gaps prompted the special €100 billion fund that hogged the headlines following Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ February 27 speech, which seemed to herald a new approach. Yet, this €100 billion will barely touch the sides of the Bundeswehr’s lacunae and won’t help Germany consistently meet the NATO 2-percent of GDP target in the medium term.

More worryingly still, some German politicians and experts seem to think that the necessary, “fundamental change” has already been made. However, what seem like giant leaps to some of the Berlin bubble are baby steps when viewed from elsewhere. Though happy for any progress, many of Germany’s allies see the government as having done little more than the bare minimum—and done so too slowly and grudgingly. While it has provided some highly effective and appreciated heavy kit when it comes to supporting Ukraine militarily, the outside view remains that Germany has too often been a day late and a Leopard short.

Yet the Scholz government has been long on excuses, many of which collapsed only days or weeks after being made. Bending to peer pressure means reform-minded Germans see a government that moves not at its own strategically-planned pace, but at the speed of shame. This creates a dangerous dynamic that is in nobody’s interest. The pace and content of change are being imposed on Germany from the outside, which is unlikely to lead to a sustainable transformation in the country’s strategic culture, mindset, or posture.

An International Zeitenwende

Thankfully, there is a productive alliance to be formed by outsiders and German reformers who want a genuine transformation that goes far beyond the military and reaches deep into German society.

Leveraging this international nexus means constructively developing common, or at least compatible, visions for regional and global ordering—and complementary contributions to achieving them. Internationalizing the Zeitenwende would properly recognize the thoroughly entangled world in which we all live and prevent another national Sonderweg with harmful effects that extend beyond Germany’s borders.

Internationalization would also be the best way to increase German influence with, rather than at the expense of, partners. Germany will need to listen to allies to win back their trust, especially in Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe—and across the Atlantic. By doing so and by showing they are serious about lasting change, German leaders can again get a fair hearing, which they should use to more clearly articulate the country’s interests and how they plan to pursue them in accordance with common goals and shared values. Showing how Germany will better contribute to winning the systemic competition against autocracies is paramount.

Rather than submerging itself in imagined European or EU interests, Germany needs to stand up and be counted in ways that are both welcomed by its own population and allies alike, and that are recognized by adversaries. Internationalization doesn’t mean a loss of Germany’s identity or the particularity of the transformation of its needs. Rather, it means understanding that such particularity is formed in interaction with others. To be sustainable, its transformation must ultimately be a Zeitenwende “Made in Germany.” This requires a “whole of society” approach that addresses the specificity of the country’s challenges and opportunities.

A Societal Zeitenwende

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is right when she says that while Germany’s forthcoming National Security Strategy should take a “comprehensive” approach, it should not be so broad as to become “totally vague.” Yet, the NSS should not be confused or conflated with the Zeitenwende which, if it is to succeed, must be both wider and deeper, and both comprehensive and coherent. Germany’s transformation must span defense, security, and foreign policy, but also interconnected sectors including energy, climate, economy, trade, as well as digital and social transformation.

The need for this is already clear. Swiftly reducing dependence on Russian hydrocarbons forced policymakers into uncomfortable decisions on nuclear, fossil-fueled, and renewable power sources. These choices have knock-on effects on meeting overarching climate goals and come, in some cases, with the risk of creating new authoritarian dependencies—in the short term for gas supplies and longer-term for rare earths and other critical resources. Rising energy costs for households have not undermined support for Ukraine but many businesses, including flagship firms, must adapt to life without their Russian fix.

Regardless of whether Germany can “continue to do business” as usual with China, a rethink of the basis of German competitiveness is in order. The Zeitenwende creates the opportunity for a long overdue socio-technological transformation, but this will pose further questions for companies, workers, and for politicians as to how the country is structured in socio-economic terms, what kinds of work are viable, and even whether work is the same source of value it once was.

How these questions are answered (and their negative effects absorbed), will impact German authority as the country catches up or falls further behind its more digitally advanced friends and neighbors, including those in the vanguard of responses to Russia’s war. It will also impact on societal cohesion, which is a key determinant of resilience and is affected by the extent to which people see their state and society as offering them the kind of future worth buying into.

Germany: Ready, Willing, and Able?

The German public has generally been ahead of the chancellery on support for Ukraine. Just as among Germany’s allies, there seems to be demand—and support—for the country to play a stronger role more generally. Yet, the transformation needed to do so requires choices that cut across the domestic and the geostrategic and that are likely to raise real schisms that will need to be managed. Doing so will not just be a matter of capabilities, but of attitude and approach. Mustering the necessary societal and political will to act must be accompanied by the readiness and the ability to do so quickly, effectively, and sustainedly.

There have been mixed signs in this regard. On the upside, the “9 Euro Ticket” scheme for public transport (to mitigate the effects of rising fuel prices in a climate friendly way) showed inventive boldness, was quickly conceived, effectively implemented, and popular. Extending the scheme would need better integration and planning but it was nonetheless an example of imaginative flexibility and speedy innovation.

Less encouragingly, the €200 billion special fund for capping energy prices gives a handout to consumers and businesses without addressing structural shortcomings or incentivizing them to move in a strategically advantageous direction. The immediate row the special fund caused with Germany’s European partners shows that it was not adequately considered nor consulted within the European Union. Double the size of the special defense fund and dwarfing the assistance given to Ukraine, seemingly without strategic purpose, it also sends the wrong signals to allies and the German population.

Germany’s challenge in mastering its change is to foster a long-term integrated strategic approach, coordinated with allies, that better identifies national and shared interests and values—and marry it to greater agility in tackling challenges and seizing opportunities. Rather than retreating into discredited conventions or siloed habits, German decisionmakers need the readiness and will to engage with the world in an integrated and “heads-up” fashion. This requires the international and societal extension of the “Zeitenwende of the mind” that Lambrecht called for, but it also needs a Zeitenwende of the mindset.

Benjamin Tallis is a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relation’s (DGAP) Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies and leads the DGAP’s Action Group Zeitenwende project.

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