Apr 03, 2023

The Zeitenwende Is Here, It’s Just Unevenly Distributed

At first it meant a “historical shift” that happened to Germany, now the term "Zeitenwende" is widely used to describe the country’s much-needed foreign and security policy rethink. Much has changed already, but important questions remain open.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany March 22, 2023.
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Is the Zeitenwende a “fundamental change”? The birth of a new German power? A teenage dream, a “mere buzzword” or, worse, just “bullshit”?

How Germany—and its allies—eventually answer this question will have major ramifications for the country’s image, influence, and place in the world. More than a year after Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ “turning point” speech, evaluation of the Zeitenwende remains contested. But while the window of opportunity to make real change is narrowing, it is still possible to salvage transformation from inertia.

The Zeitenwende Speech

In February 2022, Scholz declared that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a “watershed moment” in European history (in one of Zeitenwende’s many, inadequate English translations). In this initial framing, the Zeitenwende was, therefore, something that was happening to Germans and other Europeans—not least Ukrainians.

Yet, Scholz’ speech also outlined the need for a major change of approach—and measures to achieve it. Out with the old complacent disdain for military means and, facing a potential Russian threat to Germany, in with a new embrace of hard power and the development of a tougher, more clear-eyed worldview to match. This turned the response to the Zeitenwende into a task—something for Germany to do—which, somewhat confusingly, has also come to be known as the Zeitenwende.

The key aspects of this Zeitenwende noted in the speech were: support to Ukraine; a commitment to diversify energy supplies and remove dependency on Russian gas; a wider shift in Russia policy as part of a changed approach to dealing with authoritarian states and the threats they pose to peace and democracy; and a commensurate bolstering of Germany’s role in the European Union and NATO; anchored by the special €100 billion fund to strengthen the Bundeswehr.

A Wider Importance

Despite the initial focus on the defense fund, the scope of the Zeitenwende quickly expanded. It soon came to include the impact of Germany’s shifting energy mix on its climate policy as well as its economic competitiveness and the wider viability of the country’s economic model. This has particularly been the case given Germany’s market and resource dependencies on authoritarian states, particularly China, but also its hesitant approach to digitalization and technological change.

Of course, many of these questions and challenges are relevant for other democracies, not least a good number of Germany’s allies. Scholz alluded to this when declaring a “Global Zeitenwende,” though this seemed to submerge Germany’s particular shortcomings in a more general world historical process, which would deflect the attention that Berlin had called upon itself.

With this in mind, there are several dimensions against which to evaluate the Zeitenwende. The focus here is very much on Germany, even if many of the issues apply, albeit to varying degrees and in differing constellations, to other countries as well and there is considerable scope for mutual learning.

How to Judge a Zeitenwende

The broad approach, across linked policy fields, is widely shared and will be reflected in the “integrated security” approach of the forthcoming (delayed) National Security Strategy—Germany’s first. Across the range of policy fields, however, there are at least four dimensions to consider:

First, ambition: Does the Zeitenwende go far enough? What are the pros and cons, the risks and opportunities of being more or less bold? Second, depth: Is the change becoming sufficiently rooted—politically and with the public—to be sustainable? Third, speed: Is the change being made fast enough, did necessary steps happen quickly enough—and over what timeframe should it be judged? Fourth, international awareness: Is the Zeitenwende being conducted with, rather than in defiance or ignorance of, partners and allies and will it be recognized by them as well as by adversaries?

Taking an indicative, rather than exhaustive, run through several of the key policy areas shows the Zeitenwende to be real, although imbalanced and still insufficient.

Support for Ukraine

This is an area in which the Scholz government and its supporters point to how far the country has come over the last year. Germany has not only become the second biggest supporter of Ukraine (after the United States) in terms of the value of its financial and military contributions but has moved from sending the infamous 5,000 helmets to sending heavy weapons including MARS 270 MLRS, Pzh-2000 Howitzers, IRIS-T air defense systems and, eventually, 18 Leopard 2A6 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). It has also been reported that Berlin is setting aside the funds to increase support and sustain it over the coming years, suggesting there is depth to German support, which is popular and crosses party lines.

Yet, it is important to consider not only what Germany has provided, but also when and in what circumstances it has been sent—and whether it is sufficient. Experts who praise the absolute contribution concede that Germany is still not moving at the speed of relevance—even if it may no longer be moving at the “speed of shame,” which saw it respond only to extreme pressure from allies and pushed into decisions it appeared not to want to take. The cost of this slowness and reluctance must be measured in Ukrainian lives.

The frictions over the tank coalition point to ongoing difficulties in relations with allies, which Berlin would do well to resolve rather than inflame. The targeting of Russian nuclear blackmail at Germany suggests that the purported mindset change has yet to be fully recognized. Still more concerningly, while the chancellery has repeatedly said it will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” it has not specified what the goal is—and thus “as long as it takes” begs the question: to achieve what?

The impressive new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has said that Ukraine should win, which would mean restoring its 1991 borders, but this has not been echoed by Scholz or his key advisors. Such reticence from the very top leaves the impression of caution rather than ambition or speed in this aspect of the Zeitenwende.

Bolstering Germany’s Defense

Nor are things moving anywhere near fast enough in the rebuilding and retooling of the Bundeswehr which, at the current pace, may take half a century. Ponderous parliamentary approval and outdated procurement procedures, inadequate for peacetime let alone wartime, have hindered the ordering of vital equipment and meant little of the special fund was spent or even committed in 2022. It is also widely—as well as officially—acknowledged that even this money will be nowhere near enough to fill the Bundeswehr’s gaps. This aspect of the Zeitenwende currently lacks ambition and does not support the chancellery’s claims that Germany will be a key guarantor of European security.

A lack of ambition to grasp the nettle and make the reforms in government, especially at the defense ministry and in the procurement system, throw doubt on the sustainability of change. So, too, does the perception that Germany is no longer directly threatened (thanks to Ukraine’s blunting and repelling of Russia’s advance). Voices praising the virtue of slowness as a sign of deep democracy do not go down well with allies who have shown themselves able to take decisions more quickly and who see a more urgent need to shore up deterrence against autocracies, in the interest of all democracies.

In moving to provide a large, capable ground force at the heart of NATO, Poland’s rapid re-armament suggests it is already doing what Germany still only claims it wants to do. For all the statements of intent from Scholz and the purposeful approach of Pistorius, the suspicion remains that Germany is still lagging in doing even the minimum to bolster its own defense and that of its allies.

Diversification of Energy Supply

German leaders have rightly trumpeted the rapid construction of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminals that allowed alternate sources to be tapped. Scholz has gone as far as declaring this to signal a “flexible and unbureaucratic … ‘new German speed’” (Deutschlandgeschwindigkeit) at the World Economic Forum and elsewhere, even if this ignores the fact that it was Moscow cutting supplies that forced Germany off Russian gas in quite such a hurry. Moreover, some of the sources for LNG—most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia—suggest that Germany has swapped one authoritarian dependency for others.

The new German pride also ignores the implications for its climate policy of this change, which, combined with rigidly continuing to decommission Germany’s nuclear power plants, pushed the country back to coal and triggered high-profile protests. While Scholz pledges to accelerate the move to renewables, Germany’s last minute spanner in the works of the EU’s agreed strategy to end the sale of combustion engine cars by 2035 raised questions about the country’s commitment to fighting climate change. It also potentially undercuts Berlin’s commitments to green as well as geopolitically-clean energy, and the current coalition’s ability to endure its major differences on these issues.

The row over engines has irritated many of Berlin’s partners who see it as once again pursuing a “Germany first” approach, as it did when creating a €200 billion energy price subsidy fund for its own firms and consumers at the expense of neighbors.

(Economic) Approach to Authoritarian States

This impression also endures when it comes to the country’s wider economic approach beyond Russia with which ties have been considerably cut or, at least temporarily, suspended. The concerns of high-profile and influential businesses, which are not only highly dependent on the Chinese market but are actively investing in it, seem to take precedence over geopolitical concerns.

But is Germany merely being prudent by not trying to do too much too soon? Would going cold turkey on China, having just done so on Russian energy, not only be self-harming but practically impossible? This may be the case, though taking such an approach hardly smacks of the “new German speed,” which Scholz claimed would be “the benchmark for the transformation of the economy as a whole.”

Velocity aside, even the direction of travel is troubling. A Chinese-owned firm was only prevented from buying chip manufacturer Elmos after public and political outcry and the sale of a significant stake in the Hamburg port terminal to COSCO, a Chinese giant, was being pushed through by the chancellery over the objections of six ministries and the intelligence services.

This attitude seems to tally with the priority of avoiding a new cold war with China. In geopolitics, far from enacting a Zeitenwende at a new German speed, Scholz seems determined to cling to the world of yesterday: to preserve as much as possible of the system of globalization and free trade, as well as the institutions that facilitated this; to restore the previous “rules-based order” (imbalanced and inequitable as it was) and even to “come back” to the “peace order that worked” with Russia.

With such statements, the chancellery has not compellingly dispelled the impression that it takes a great power view that sees Russia but overlooks Central and Eastern Europe. Its approach also seems to overlook questions about for whom these past orders worked—and for whom they did not—and thus what needs to be jettisoned, retained, reformed, or renewed.

All of this points to the implications of undertaking change in such an inconsistent way. The Zeitenwende isn’t “bullshit” nor “a mere buzzword” but neither is it yet a “fundamental change.” Rather, it is a policy adjustment in some areas noted above and a course correction in others—in some cases enacted slowly but with greater depth, in others quicker but perhaps less sustainably.

To paraphrase William Gibson’s famous remark about the future, the Zeitenwende is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. 

Geostrategic Choices and Germany’s Identity

The difficulties that this unevenness has caused for Germany, not least in relation to its partners for whom Berlin’s seeming inconsistency and unpredictability is infuriating, points to the major unfinished business of the Zeitenwende, if that is what the change is truly to become. This revolves around geostrategic choices, which Germany cannot put off for much longer, with regard to the nature of its power, leadership, values, interests, and geopolitical vision, as well as how these are accepted by others—or not. In other words, it is about Germany’s identity as an international actor.

The soon-to-be released National Security Strategy will show how Germany’s government sees some of these issues and is trying to position the country. Yet, the strategy is no silver bullet—not the end, but rather the beginning of a process. How, and indeed whether, the country walks its talk and how it otherwise conducts itself will be more important in shaping the perceptions of allies, partners, and adversaries.

What Kind of Power Does Germany Want to Be?

There has been much talk about what kind of “power” Germany seeks to—or can—become: a newly “leading power” (Führungsmacht) reflecting its population size and economic weight, though this is not the preference of many Germans; a return to being a “lean-on power” (Anlehnungsmacht) a reliable ally that supports and facilitates others without leading; or more recently a “bridging power” owing to its central location and supposedly middle ground position in EU and NATO affairs. While the last option is currently en vogue, it reflects a rather optimistic view of Germany’s standing in relation to various EU fault lines and how it is seen by allies.

Where Germany does have a point of difference is not only in its size and geographic location but in its institutional, and economic interconnectedness, making it, almost by default, a “keystone” power upon which others must depend —and even if it is not proactive or able to mediate it should be reliable and well-aligned. This multi-dimensional interconnection has often allowed Germany to hide behind others while still exerting influence—for example in how it has shaped the EU in ways that serve its own economy and large firms extremely well. To leverage this going forward it would need to combine being a keystone power with being a “team power,” or to coin a phrase: a Mannschaftsmacht.

Being a “team power” would entail changing the way that Germany has consistently couched, not to say hidden, its own interests in wider “European” interests—even if many European partners may not have shared them, including in dealings with Russia. Such “leadership in denial” has created an impression of Germany as an often mute and rather unaccountable power which, as the scrutiny and pressure of the last year has shown, is no longer a viable option. Nor is simply repeating that Germany will not “go it alone” when, too often, it has done just that. When it hasn’t, it has paid too much attention to great powers, only willing to follow the United States, rather than cede leadership to those with ideas or capabilities that complement its own.

If Germany now seeks to be a different kind of leader, it too will need to be followed. The question of who would follow Berlin is an open one given the damage done to its credibility in recent years. Yet, as some Central Europeans have noted, if Germany is willing to listen and to take account of their concerns and their own visions, in ways it has not done in recent times, then they would be willing to let Germany lead. Indeed, the pressure on Germany is in part a recognition of the value of having the country on side, of knowing what a difference it could make, were it pulling in the same direction.

There is also the question, however, of what that direction would be. Contrary to common myth within the country, Germany has not been reluctant to pursue its perceived interests, but it has been reticent to sufficiently articulate and avow its interests or set out a clear and compelling vision for foreign policy that links them to its professed values. Neither values nor “national” interests are ever only or narrowly national, of course, but should be formulated and calculated in the same way they are genuinely constituted—with allies and partners and against adversaries and rivals. Identifying commonalities and differences is a key part of this process.

All of this relates to how Germany sees itself, as well as how it sees Europe and the world—and its role in them—as well as how this is seen by others, especially its key allies and partners. The rhetoric of transformation—and the changes that have been made—have raised expectations. Yet, the unevenness in speed, ambition, depth, and, particularly, awareness of and coordination with partners on the Zeitenwende have caused uncertainty about the delivery of change but also about Germany’s future direction—about the Germany they can expect to deal with.

Which Germany, Which Europe, Which World?

The ways that Germany seeks to exercise power and leadership, as well as whom it follows and how it formulates, calculates, and communicates its interests and their relation to values, will go some way to answering these questions. There are, however, other aspects of Germany’s outlook that will also significantly affect relations with partners. These round out the country’s vision of and for itself, but also of and for Europe, and how this relates to Germany’s worldview more generally.

These are big issues, but the most important aspects include the following. When it comes to Germany itself, questions remain as to the respective roles and relative importance given in policymaking to the German people, the Mittelstand (small and medium-sized enterprises), and large multinational companies, among other actors. Also, key will be the attitude Germany takes toward de-bureaucratization, digitalization, and technological change (where it lags) and how committed its government and key stakeholders are to modernizing their country to face the future, rather than clinging to what many still see as successful approaches of the past.

How Germany weighs different understandings and visions of Europe in its policymaking and posture will also factor heavily. Does it still look primarily to an EU driven by a “Franco-German motor,” however spluttering this has seemed recently, or will it look more to the Central and East European (CEE) states, which have taken the lead on Ukraine and with which it cumulatively trades to a far greater extent than France (or, indeed, China). It will be in dealing with CEE in particular that a change of approach to Europe would anyway be required—reckoning with the EU that its partners experience rather than the one Germany imagines itself to have built.

In NATO, Germany will need to demonstrably do more to contribute proportionately to its size and economic weight. This will be accompanied by ongoing public debate about the relative merits of hard power and pacifism, with the government needing to continue its advocacy of the former. Nonetheless, how Germany maximizes its complementarity with allies across theaters—deterring authoritarians and protecting democratic commons in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, as well as crisis management in Africa and other tasks will indicate its prioritization. So too will be the ways Berlin takes account of Polish, French, British, and other armament programs and force configurations—and how seriously it is seen to take the concerns of smaller states over defending democratic ordering by force if necessary.

Then there is the question of Europe’s strategic positioning more generally. While “strategic autonomy” (as first envisioned by French President Emmanuel Macron) may be dead, the questions that led to it being proposed are still very much alive. Germany’s approach to China and to preserving or curtailing the type of globalization and its institutions that dominated in the past two decades will say much about where it stands, especially given the concerns that Berlin is repeating mistakes it made with Russia.

While many in Northern as well as in Central and Eastern Europe have pushed for a stronger embrace of the systemic competition between democracies and autocracies, Germany like some of Europe’s other larger powers has equivocated, seeking to avert a new Cold War and trying to find a “third way” between the US and China. Trying to muddle through in the middle is unlikely to be viable as push comes to geopolitical shove.

Allies, especially the US will increasingly demand clarity – and support. Sooner rather than later, this will also mean either remaking liberal institutions and modes of ordering to serve democracies or trying to make existing institutions work for all in a more competitive world where authoritarian regimes use them for illiberal purpose. Clearly choosing sides would also make it more difficult to mollify undemocratic regimes while not alienating their populations who may well want to live in democracy and freedom, now or in future.

Doubling down on systemic competition may raise questions about the sources of German prosperity but failing to do so would raise questions about the sources of German security—which would likely impact on both values and prosperity in the medium and long-term.

Whichever world Germany decides it wants, it does not have all the time in world to decide. With partners growing impatient and the world stubbornly moving at its own pace, rather than Deutschlandgeschwindigkeit, the time to make the most of the Zeitenwende is now. More clarity is urgently needed on vision, role, and communication, as is consistency and coherence in implementation, if this welcome though still nascent change is to become the genuine transformation that Germany and its partners need.

Benjamin Tallis is a senior research fellow at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe and leads the  “Action Group Zeitenwende.” He thanks Julian Stöckle and Jannik Hartmann who provided research assistance for this article.

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