Mar 09, 2023

The Zeitenwende Beyond Germany

The Baltic States, Central Europe, France, the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all reacted to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine in their own, but often similar ways.

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Netherland's Prime Minister Mark Rutte and France's President Emmanuel Macron attend the Informal EU 27 Summit and Meeting within the European Political Community at Prague Castle, in Prague, Czech Republic, October 7, 2022
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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised expectations by declaring a Zeitenwende for Germany in February 2022 in light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He later raised the stakes by claiming, in an article for Foreign Affairs, that this was part of a “Global Zeitenwende.” In so doing, he seemed to subsume Germany’s past mistakes into a general world historical process, which Scholz purported to offer a way to manage.

Unsurprisingly, this has yet to gain traction beyond Germany. Having firmly put itself in the spotlight, Berlin then complains that it is the subject of excessive attention, which allows others to hide behind it.

Yet, few of the country’s neighbors had—or needed—the kind of wake-up call that Germany got in February 2022. Having responded differently and often faster to Russia’s attack and not having made the same combination of mistakes in the past (as well as having previously tried to shake Germany out of its torpor), many of them understandably object to the global Zeitenwende framing—and the way Scholz proposes to deal with it.

Nonetheless, it is useful to identify key elements of continuity and change in the approaches of some of Germany’s key partners and allies in order that we can all better understand strengths to learn from and weaknesses to address. To this end, a team of contributors from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) offer a comparative look at whether and how key players have responded to the Zeitenwende, undertaken one of their own, or could usefully do so.

The Baltic States

For Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine came as little surprise but brought great concern and elicited a leading response in several ways. Having long warned of the threat posed by Russia’s revanchist imperialism, the Baltic states could feel vindicated but did not rest on their laurels and, instead, sprang into action. They had already provided weapons to Ukraine before February 2022 and quickly upped their support. By January 2023, they were the three largest contributors of aid to Ukraine relative to GDP.

The countries joined NATO together in 2004 and fully appreciated the value of their alliance membership in the face of the Russian threat. Nonetheless, their leaders have consistently advocated for a shift in NATO’s posture in the region, from tripwire to deterrence by denial—arguing that they could be overrun in the event of a Russian attack. The alliance has increased deployments to the region but there are doubts over how sustainable such commitments are, given the force available to allies such as the United Kingdom, even if it is also committed to the region via the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). Other deployments may take time due to local infrastructure constraints as well as limited allied capabilities (e.g., Germany), all of which will need to be addressed in a coherent, integrated fashion in the years to come.

As well as strengthening NATO’s eastern flank, the Baltic states have also been among the strongest advocates for continuously tightened—and properly enforced—European Union sanctions on Russia. Lithuania took a particularly tough stance on this in relation to Kaliningrad, which caused tensions within the European Union. Yet this tough line, taken by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia as well as Foreign Ministers Edgars Rinkevics and Gabrielius Landsbergis, of Latvia and Lithuania respectively, has been combined with strong material support to Ukraine and stirring calls for the West to renew and invigorate its commitment to democratic and liberal values.

Together with Nordic and Central European allies, the Baltic states have been at the forefront of this hard edged “New Idealism,” which has seen them gain influence in European thought leadership. If they are to continue to punch above the weight of their population size, they will need to continue to walk their tough talk. This means remaining committed to ensuring cohesion at home as well as delivering material progress, defending rights and freedoms—and ensuring the defense of NATO as well as Ukraine.

Working out how to make the best use of their new-found leverage is among the nicer challenges that European states have after the last year. This may, however, run into the limits to which the EU’s traditional players are willing to accept polycentric and smaller-state leadership, which in turn raises questions about the changes the Union itself may need. — Benjamin Tallis and Jannik Hartmann


“We have woken up in a different world,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated on February 24, 2022. The awakening after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been less brutal for France, a nuclear power whose armed forces have been regularly deployed in combat operations since the end of World War II. Falling short of a Zeitenwende, two changes are noteworthy, however: The evolution of the purpose of the armed forces and the French perception of Russia.

From a military point of view, it would be exaggerated to talk about a Zeitenwende in France since February 2022. There is a longstanding structural societal consensus that the armed forces are a legitimate foreign policy instrument. Awareness and appreciation for them has been growing in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2015, which was backed up by a budget that increased by 36 percent from 2017 to 2023. The current budget proposal for the years 2024-2030 foresees an increase of more than €100 billion, from €295 billion (for the period 2019-2025) to € 413 billiona sum similar to the German special fund for the armed forces, or Sondervermögen. That this is not considered such a significant change for France points to the two countries’ different starting points.

Yet, despite the rising defense budget, France’s armed forces are struggling to adapt to the shift in strategic priorities. In fact, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has exposed shortcomings comparable to those of Germany’s Bundeswehr: France’s strategic priorities have changed, shifting from counterterrorism missions abroad to territorial defense and high intensity warfare, according to the Strategic Review, which was published in November 2022. And France’s armed forces must face the fact that they are not only unable to deploy tanks or artillery pieces in sufficient numbers, but also that their defense industry is incapable of producing the quantity of weapons and ammunitions necessary to maintain a war effort such as Ukraine’s. Corresponding to only 0.07 percent of its GDP, its aid to Ukraine has been comparatively small. For military equipment, France ranks 8th and trails smaller states such as the Netherlands and non-continental Canada.

Beyond military capability, Germany and France also face similar challenges with regards to their relationship with Russia. Until recently, Gaullist foreign policy considered rapprochement with Russia as a means to strengthen French and European autonomy vis-à-vis the United States. French voices legitimizing Russia’s “sphere of influence” beyond its territorial borders remain audible to this day, and President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on security guarantees for Russia seem to reflect similar thinking.

Yet, more recently, Macron’s foreign policy discourse has notably shifted: Rhetorically backing full victory for Ukraine, talking of the need to rebalance the global order, and upgrading the importance of transatlantic relations in the 2022 Strategic Review, after they had been outshone by the concept of “Strategic Autonomy” in its 2017 incarnation.

France may not need a full-scale Zeitenwende in foreign and security policy, given its considerable military capabilities and willingness to use them—even if, like most European countries, it needs to address significant capability shortfalls. However, France, like Germany, needs to rethink and review its strategic priorities, as well as its relationship to Russia and build new partnerships with Central and Eastern European countries. Recent policy changes and initiatives such as the creation of the European Political Community (EPC) show that Paris has understood the necessity of these changes. It will need to act accordingly, however, to convince its partners that it has undergone a Zeitenwende in its worldview. — Jacob Ross and Kenny Kremer

The Nordic Countries

The Nordic countries have seen one of the most striking changes in institutional termsone that can rightfully be referred to as Zeitenwende. Finland and Sweden officially submitted applications to join NATO in May 2022, ironically demonstrating that Russia had achieved the exact opposite of one of its key strategic aims of reversing the alliance’s enlargement.

This not only ended decades of military non-alignment but alsoand especially for Finlandclearly showed that any danger of antagonizing their neighbor was offset by the security guarantees provided by the alliance. This change in policy was also reflected in public attitudes: 78 percent of Finns now view their NATO membership as positive, up from 26 percent in 2021.

Aside from NATO, many steps were taken in response to Russia’s aggression that would have been unthinkable just a year before. Finland took a lead in proposing to restrict tourist visas for Russian citizens, strengthened its border guard agency, and made plans for building a fence on the Russian border. Finland even reduced its dependency on Russian trade, with imports and exports falling respectively by 28 percent and 44 percent in 2022 from the previous year.

As well as integrating more closely with Western structures, Finland has played a leading rhetorical as well as strong material role in supporting Ukraine, with Prime Minister Sanna Marin becoming a standard-bearer for a tough, values-driven approach to geopolitics that has deep roots but that has found new voice this year. A desire to maintain secrecy over delivery of heavy weapons has caused some confusion with partners after several Finnish parliamentarians had strongly pushed for Germany to permit deliveries of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. This suggests scope for improvement in strategic communication to better leverage Finland’s strengths.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, whose government has sent large quantities of heavy weapons to Kyiv, recently emphasized that the EU should honor its commitment to including EU member candidate Ukraine on merit rather than seeking technocratic excuses not to. This continues the long-held Swedish commitment to greater integration with Ukraine, but shows a willingness to more assertively highlight problems in the EU’s past ways of doing this. Another major new step was that Sweden appointed its first national security adviser as part of a newly formed national security council.

Overall, this mixture of continuity and change is indicative of a wider process of Sweden somewhat reshaping its foreign policy identity, having also recently dropped its commitment to Feminist Foreign Policy, leaving Germany as one of the main overt sponsors of this approach.

Norway, like the other Nordics, has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine in terms of military aid and consistently contributes to NATO’s defense and readiness in Northern and North-Eastern Europe as well as participating in the JEF, alongside the other Nordic countries. Norway also emerged as a key supplier to European states seeking to wean themselves of Russian gas. This led to something of a change as, after making considerable profits, which bolstered the state’s sovereign wealth fund, Norway caved to international pressure and announced that more of this money would be given to Ukraine to aid its survival and reconstruction.

A shift in policy also took place in Denmark, although again not as fundamental in comparison to Finland and Sweden when, in June, Danes voted to reverse their opt-out of the EU’s common defense policy. The U-turn allows Denmark to participate in defense discussions at the EU level and even deploy its armed forces to the bloc’s joint military operations—and, perhaps more significantly, PESCO projects, i.e., those under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation umbrella. This change is also interesting in that it shows the perceived value of EU coordination in defense, especially defense industry matters.  This came at a time when the value of the EU’s mutual defense guarantee (Article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union) had been questioned by Finland and Sweden’s move to join NATO even though they already benefitted from the EU’s pact.

In short, Finland and Sweden’s policy changes are the most pronounced and far-reaching in Europe institutionally, but also represent a complimentary development of longer-standing positions. Yet, other more subtle changes are also afoot in the region including via its alignment with several Central and East European states on a number of issues. This is most obvious on support for Ukraine and the need for a Ukrainian victory but also with regard to watchful attitudes toward EU treaty change and the EPC, the primacy of NATO for defense (and thus on EU positioning) and ties to the UK and US. It will be interesting to see how the tough, values-based approach to geopolitics—and to EU politics—develops after the potentially tricky final ratifications of Sweden and Finland’s NATO application by the autocratic governments in Hungary and Turkey. — Jannik Hartmann and Benjamin Tallis

Central Europe

Few in the Czech, Slovak, or Polish foreign policy communities would be likely to agree that their countries needed to shift policy in the same way that Germany did. After all, their countries (especially Poland) had not only long warned about the Russian threat but, along with the Baltic states, led the European response to Russia’s aggression—including through the timely provision of important material.

Slovakia was an early provider of sophisticated air defense (S-300) and of modern self-propelled artillery (Zuzana-2) to Ukraine and the Czech Republic was the first country to send Main Battle Tanks (MBTs)—both in April 2022. Prague’s lead was quickly followed by Warsaw, which has sent by far the highest number of MBTs (now approaching 300). Having led the charge for delivering Leopard 2s to Ukraine—and being the first country to actually do so—Poland, like Germany, is keen for those countries that pledged to join the coalition to make good on their promises.

The Czech and Slovak support comes despite the fact that neither country previously met the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP. Both have pledged to do so, but governmental chaos in Bratislava puts this in doubt in the latter case. Poland, in contrast, has further accelerated and deepened its ongoing and very substantial rearmament program with major procurements from the US and South Korea (notably, not from Germany). It is projected to not only hit 4 percent of GDP on defense spending in 2023 and beyond but to become one of Europe’s major military powers.

Beyond military issues, Prime Ministers Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland were among the first group of EU leaders to visit Kyiv in March 2022. Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger followed suit—together with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—in April. The countries were also among the first to formally endorse Ukraine’s application for EU membership candidacy status. Together with von der Leyen they were also instrumental in securing Ukraine’s candidacy, over the hesitancy of Berlin and the initial objections of Paris and the Hague.

Before 2022, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were even more dependent on Russian gas than Germany. The Czechs have now almost completely replaced this with other sources. In Slovakia the process has been considerably slower but has prompted plans for a more fundamental change to renewables, in which it is already a regional leader, while keeping its nuclear reactors going and shutting down coal power plants. Poland had to go “cold turkey” after Moscow shut off gas supplies in April 2022. Having been less dependent, Poland quickly found alternatives but its plans for a new nuclear power plant have been challenged by neighboring German states, highlighting a tension in the international energy Zeitenwende.

Along with the Baltic states and Finland, the Czech Republic has been among the most committed rhetorical supporters not only of Ukraine but of liberal, democratic ordering and of a hard-edged, values-based approach to geopolitics. Both Prime Minister Fiala and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky were in the vanguard—and used the platform of their country’s successful EU presidency to good effect. Domestic support for this approach is not rock solid, even if the defeat of populist oligarch Andrej Babis in parliamentary and presidential elections can be seen as a sign of consolidation. Slovakia experienced severe political turbulence following a series of scandals that have taken the wind out of the strong, principled response of the Heger government—and risks the return of the populist (and Russia-sympathetic) former Prime Minister Robert Fico.

While strongly defending liberal ordering in its foreign and security policy, Poland’s government continues to face criticism for domestically undermining liberal rights and freedoms and justifiably remains in the EU’s bad books on rule of law issues. This limits its influence which, with a more consistently liberal approach, would likely be greater—and less easily dismissed. Questions remain in the region, however, as to how much influence Western European capitals would ever be comfortable with Warsaw or Prague wielding.

While Central Europe has been at the forefront of welcoming Ukrainian refugees—Poland has taken the highest absolute number, the Czech Republic the highest per capita—resentment lingers over the region’s role in the 2014-16 migration crisis. A more thoroughgoing change—a true Zeitenwende on migration, including for people from beyond Europe—would dispel this impression which, like other criticisms, has stuck more persistently to the region than to Western European states with similar approaches.

The odd one out has been Hungary. The country remains dependent on Russian energy, has maintained ties to the Putin regime, failed to send weapons to Ukraine, and tried to undermine the united Western response to Russian aggression. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated his illiberal government, which damages the EU and NATO’s democratic reputation. Even though the country has taken in many Ukrainian refugees, regional politicians such as Lipavsky have been damning in their criticism, calling on the country to choose sides and making it clear that they cannot have it both ways. Bringing Hungary back into the European mainstream would really take a Zeitenwende of the most ambitious kind. — Julian Stöckle and Benjamin Tallis

The United Kingdom

Not only has the United Kingdom led the way in providing materiel support to Ukraine, it has done so at crucial moments. Before Russia’s re-invasion, the UK supplied critical equipment, including NLAW anti-tank missiles that proved invaluable in the defense of Kyiv. This built on the military training mission (Operation Orbital 2015-2023) that enhanced Ukraine’s combat effectiveness and resonated with Britain’s traditionally robust rhetorical challenge to President Vladmir Putin. In keeping with this approach, the UK was recently among the first to commit to providing Western-designed Main Battle Tanks (Challenger 2s) and to exploring how to provide fighter jets to Ukraine. 

If this suggests that a Zeitenwende in the UK is unnecessary, it is misleading. The turmoil of the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s very limited room for maneuver all point to a country hitting the limits of its political and economic contradictions. Even if it was not dependent on Russian fossil fuels, London has yet to comprehensively dispel the impression that it indulges (Russian) oligarchs and dirty money. The economic consequences of Brexit are ever-more deeply felt and socio-economic tensions are manifesting themselves in widespread strikes. A large, planned increase in the defense budget has been scrapped and doubts loom over the UK’s armor and air capacities as well as the ground force it can field. 

Despite exercising leadership in the European pillar of NATO—and the JEF initiative with the Baltics, Nordics, and the Netherlands—strategic uncertainty has replaced the bullishness of the 2021 “Integrated Review.” The “Network of Liberty” slogan has been quietly dropped, even if elements of the “Global Britain” approach linger despite unanswered capability questions and unsigned trade deals. Moreover, the projected image of a liberal, global Britain is undermined by the ongoing hostile environment for inward migration (Britain also lagged behind on offering support to Ukrainian refugees) and vestiges of the chauvinistic exceptionalism that contributed to Brexit.

The UK has much to build on, but also much that needs to change. A British Zeitenwende should aim at identifying the UK’s optimal contribution to winning the emerging systemic competition (including by rebalancing the global order to make a fair deal for non-Western states) and equipping the country to do so. Such a process would need to address longstanding contradictions to better align strategic desire and stirring rhetoric with political and economic fundamentals, as well as military and diplomatic capabilities and the country’s strong creative and knowledge economies.

The UK remains an essential partner for the US, as well as for North, Central and Eastern European states, but it could do more to shore up and bring more substance to other key relationships, not least with Germany, France, and the EU institutions. Even if there is a long way to go, there are positive signs and the recent agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol is another step in the right direction. — Benjamin Tallis

The United States

The United States is largely independent of energy imports (except for heavy crude oil) and, given its high defense spending, there was no need for a Zeitenwende in the way the term is most commonly used in Germany. Some parts of the administration, not least President Joe Biden himself, see the war in Ukraine as part of a wider systemic competition with autocratic states, in which democracy needs to be defended. Yet, despite this robust positioning and strong support for Ukraine, there are differing views in Washington on the extent of military support and what it should entail, and the risks of escalation.

However, the US has for years advocated for certain elements of a Zeitenwende in Europe, particularly with regards to energy diversification and increased defense spending (addressing Germany and a few other European allies in particular). Successive US administrations have warned European allies of overreliance on Russia for natural gas and oil, and urged several European allies to meet NATO’s 2-percent goal. Particularly the US Congress regarded Russia as a major threat to European security, and since 2018 the US has provided military aid to Ukraine, for example anti-tank missiles (it had also approved direct commercial sales beforehand).

As a result, the US has been among the leading nations to support Ukraine and is a staunch supporter of the Zeitenwende in Europe. The US has been the largest supplier of weapons to Ukraine (to the value of $30 billion since 2022), and main convener of a group of countries that provide military assistance to Ukraine (Ukraine Defense Contact Group). US government officials have occasionally and diplomatically asked hesitant European partners to provide more military aid to Ukraine.

The war also led to an increase of US arms sales to European allies. For example, the German government has ordered F-35 fighter jets and Poland has purchased Abrams battle tanks and HIMARS rocket launchers from US manufacturers. European efforts for energy diversification will also lead to an increase of US LNG exports to Europe.

In order to show its commitment to European security, the Biden administration has deployed more US troops to NATO’s eastern flank, and strongly supports Sweden and Finland’s membership (also by putting pressure on the Turkish government). In the long run, however, the US will expect that European allies will take on a leadership role in supporting Ukraine and in providing for European security, also as a way to free up the US to do more to counter the perceived threat from China in the Indo-Pacific.

The way in which Europeans respond to American urging to see China as a threat in the context of systemic competition will be the key question. Whether Europeans accept this and act accordingly, or not, will play a significant role in shaping future transatlantic relations, as well as the need for and direction of the ongoing Zeitenwenden in Europe. — Dominik Tolksdorf

Jannik Hartmann is a research assistant at the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe. Kenny Kremer is a research assistant at the DGAP’s France/Franco-German program. Jacob Ross is a research fellow at the DGAP’s France/Frano-german program. Julian Stöckle is a reaserach assistant at the DGAP’s Action Group Zeitenwende. Benjamin Tallis is a senior research fellow at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Futrue of Europe and leads the  “Action Group Zeitenwende.” Dominik Tolksdorf is a research fellow for the United States/transatlantic relations. The authors thank Minna Ålander and Roderick Parkes for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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