Did someone say Zeitenwende? Germany’s First National Security Strategy

by Jason Hosner, Georgetown University

With the ever-looming guilt of responsibility for WWII and the Holocaust, the Federal Republic of Germany has traditionally been an ardent proponent of pacifist security policies. Heavily influenced by the West German peace movement, which gained traction in the 1960s and developed significant momentum in response to NATO’s Double Track Decision in 1979, postwar German governments have historically avoided hard security commitments. Instead, Germany has sporadically released white papers which focused on multilateralism, European integration, and the self-defensive nature of the Bundeswehr. 

Russia’s war against Ukraine has prompted Berlin to reconsider its traditional security posture. In keeping with the Zeitenwende (turning point), which Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, the German government released the country’s first-ever national security strategy (NSS) on June 14. The document intends to officially recognize Germany’s security responsibilities in Europe, and on the world stage, and commits the government to pursuing a security strategy that is Wehrhaft (robust), resilient, sustainable and focused on integrated security. While the document’s goals are certainly admirable, and its publication signifies an important shift in German strategic culture, the paper blatantly omits policy regarding China and fails to address the looming question of how the laid-out policies will be funded.  

Vague Ambition with Blatant Omissions 

With the release of this document, Berlin has officially recognized the imperative responsibility that Germany—the country with the biggest economy and largest population in Europe—has in setting the tone for European security. The NSS is grounded in the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) committing the country to a security strategy which “promotes peace in a unified Europe.” The paper also underlines the continued German commitment to various collective defense agreements i.e., NATO’s Article 5, the EU’s Article 42, and Article 4 of the Aachen Treaty with France as well as Germany’s interest in “consolidating the transatlantic alliance and our close partnership based on mutual trust with the United States of America.” However, when it comes to tackling impending geopolitical threats the document’s language is largely aspirational, remains vague when it comes to outlining resolute military strategy, and is overall ambiguous with its policy on China.  

For now, Germany’s NSS considers China “a partner, competitor, and systemic rival.”  China is, in fact, Germany’s most valuable trading partner, with an estimated 298.9 billion euros traded between the two countries in 2022 (exports and imports) and nearly half of all German automobiles produced each year being sold in the Chinese market. At the same time, China is pursuing its own geopolitical interests at a pace in which Germany is not. The fact that the NSS doesn’t even mention the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Africa, the struggle for control of the Arctic, or Chinese influence on the global semiconductor supply chain is astounding and a missed opportunity for Germany to take an unequivocal stance. Even more surprising is the complete omission of policy regarding Taiwan—the country doesn’t come up in the 74-page document. These omissions seem to be intentional, with the coalition government in Berlin having released a separate China-specific strategy in July of 2023, thus decoupling the topic from the NSS.

Perhaps this decision was due to a lack of cohesion within the government—the Greens have a seemingly more hawkish stance towards Beijing and the SPD is more open to cooperation with the communist government. Although one could ask if this is a mistake because Germany’s acute economic interdependence on China, together with its lack of conclusive security policy, leaves the country vulnerable to malign Chinese influence. What’s more, it might send an irresolute signal to Beijing.   

Germany is understandably consumed by the war in Ukraine, but when it comes to its economic relationship with China, it should be mindful of not falling back to archetypical Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) policies as it did with Russia. In that case, Berlin’s lack of strategic foresight and deterrence left the German economy vulnerable to Russian weaponized interdependence. The invasion of Ukraine and the German decision for a sudden and quick decoupling from Russian energy sources in 2022 ended up being an immense strain on the nation’s economy and it led to sky-rocketing energy prices and the most severe inflation Germany has experienced since WWII. The German mainstream now agrees that it was a mistake for the country to be so economically dependent on Moscow. So why is the German government now so hesitant in addressing its current economic dependence on Beijing? 

Germany together with the U.S. should consider a joint approach when it comes to China. The U.S. policy on China is clear, it intends to invest in domestic strengths, align with allies and partners, and “compete responsibly in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence, and global governance domains.”  If Germany is truly committed to consolidating the transatlantic alliance it must clearly position itself with the U.S. and cannot allow China to drive a wedge between Berlin and Washington.

Big Plans, Small Budget

The German NSS intends to lay out an all-encompassing strategy and considers various threats, many outside of the realm of the traditional understanding of hard security. This modern approach to security is a good idea. Security threats of the twenty-first century range from geopolitical conflicts, global warming, the migration crisis, pandemics, and the threat of interruption to global supply chains. All the above is considered in the German strategy, albeit the policies laid out in the document require a lot of money and the current government is at odds on how these bills will be paid. 

Let’s examine Germany’s pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on NATO defense, a commitment made by all members in 2014. Germany has yet to this day been able to fulfill the 2 percent commitment and experts forecast it will likely make it to just below 2 percent of GDP by 2027. In 2022, in keeping with the Zeitenwende, and with the intent of Germany finally reaching its NATO commitment and beefing-up the Bundeswehr, the German government set aside a special 100-billion-euro budget especially for defense spending. Berlin has used this budget to send military aid, including Leopard tanks, to Ukraine, but it has been relatively slow to spend the rest. The German government is admittedly bureaucratic, and its coalition government has a hard time agreeing on decisions. For one, there are continual fights, especially between the Greens and the FDP, over budgetary spending. While the Greens have often advocated for increasing tax revenues, the FDP holds to the Schuldenbremse (debt brake) for dear life. While bickering in Berlin continues, some experts believe that the 100-billion-euro budget has been reduced to roughly 87-billion due to inflation.

The Bundeswehr is currently in a notoriously desperate situation. The NSS sets out to “make the Bundeswehr one of the most effective conventional armed forces in Europe in the coming years, one that is able to respond and act rapidly at all times.” This is necessary, and the government is certainly setting the right tone, but it has no financially viable plan to achieve its goals. It’s as if they’ve set the dinner table but can’t afford the food. Furthermore, given the budgetary disputes in Berlin, and the immense price for the country’s generous social welfare benefits and the costs associated with the European Green Transition, it is highly unlikely that the government will be able to find a way to pay for the technology which is desperately needed to modernize the Bundeswehr. Almost ironically the NSS recognizes these challenges but provides absolutely no solutions “given the considerable demands on our public finances at present, we will strive to implement this Strategy at no additional cost to the overall federal budget.” Well, as they say in German: Na dann, Prost Mahlzeit!

Jason Hosner is pursuing an MA in German and European Studies with a certificate in Diplomatic Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His research interests are in foreign policy, security, and public diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic. Jason is a Fulbright Scholar and has a BA from Southern Illinois University and a BS from the Hochschule Niederrhein. This blog post reflects his personal opinion.