Waking a Sleeping Giant: What’s Next for German Security Policy?
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“If the world changes, our politics must change,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock three days after Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And so Berlin changed its politics, announcing defense investments that promise to end decades of Germany lagging behind what allies expected. Yet for Berlin to become a more capable actor in foreign, security, and defense policy, German policymakers and experts now have to urgently focus on issues they have neglected for years: crafting strategy; reforming government bureaucracies; altering the structures and processes of decision-making on foreign, security, and defense policy; and explaining all this to the wider public.
A Revolution in German Security Policy
For now, the German public — and any observers of the country — could be forgiven for feeling whiplash. The change in speed of Berlin policymaking in the last days of February was dizzying. After three days of intense criticism from allies over Germany stalling on sanctions and doubling down on the long-held German taboo against sending weapons into conflict zones, the government not only green-lit the delivery of arms to Ukraine. In an unprecedented address to the German Bundestag on Feb. 27, Chancellor Olaf Scholz also announced additional German troop deployments to NATO’s eastern flank, as well as the creation of a special one-off 100 billion euro ($109 billion) fund for the Bundeswehr and the commitment to spend, from now on, more than 2 percent of GDP on defense every year. Since Germany has the largest economy in Europe, this spending increase will be substantial in absolute terms. Two percent of Germany’s GDP amounts to approximately 75 billion euros in 2022, which is around 25 billion euros more than Berlin had initially planned to spend on defense this year. Subject to parliamentary debate, the new special fund will probably be used to finance a majority of this increase for the next several years (though there is still much uncertainty over the specifics). Having struggled for years to live up to its NATO commitments, Berlin is now prepared to invest enough to become the biggest military spender in Europe and the third biggest in the world.
Scholz also became even more concrete, urging progress on the stalled Future Combat Aircraft System project, announcing a push on the purchase of armed drones, and committing to replace Germany’s outdated Tornado jets to keep the country in NATO’s nuclear-weapons sharing mechanism.
Germans, for all the clichés of boring bureaucrats, are no strangers to major policy shifts. The current speed of decision-making may make some think of the German decision to exit nuclear energy after Fukushima. And the public boost in solidarity for Ukraine recalls the German response to open its borders to the initial influx of Syrian refugees. Some might recall the Kosovo intervention in 1999 as a major turning point just when the Greens entered government for the first time. But there is no historical parallel to this kind of defense policy shift in post-war Germany.
The last big German debate on foreign and defense policy was triggered in 2014 with a speech by then-President Joachim Gauck that called on Germany to take on more responsibility in the world. But the debate in the years that followed stayed abstract. The key political parties refrained from spelling out what that responsibility should entail and Chancellor Angela Merkel largely stayed out of the debate. She showed so little interest in shaping strategy that the country and the world spend months trying to read the tea leaves of her half sentence at a beer tent in 2016 when she said that, after Trump, Europe had to “partly take its fate in our own hands.” She never followed up.
The unfolding changes are different. Scholz took a stance and his government will be held responsible for implementation.
An Uncomfortable Consensus
It is not a natural fit. This major shift in German defense was decided by a government led by a chancellor from the Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally supported Russia-friendly policies, with a foreign minister from the Green party, which has roots in the pacifist movement, and a finance minister from the Free Democratic Party, long committed to tight budgets. Many external observers had worried about what would become of Germany’s defense policy after Angela Merkel’s conservative party, which has long styled itself as the guardian of the German military, was voted out of office in 2021.
The scale and utter brutality of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine popped the balloon of Berlin’s longstanding Russia policy. Its main tenets — the idea of Germany as a mediator between East and West, the hope that economic interdependence would prevent conflict, and the belief that European security could only be achieved with Russia, never against it — no longer hold. For many Germans, the invasion of Ukraine, a two-hour plane ride from Berlin, also upended the illusion that military power was no longer a tool of influence in Europe.
Against these sudden and violent realizations, the new governing coalition delivered. What the governing parties lack in experience they made up for in the flexibility to revise and review longstanding policies and the creativity to get around traditional red lines (e.g., the off-budget fund allowed the liberal Free Democrats to get their anti-debt fiscal extremists on board). The proposed changes were not only supported by the governing coalition, but also largely by the conservative opposition. The hard work, however, is still to come.
Just a few days after Scholz’ speech, the debate among parliamentarians had already shifted to the question of how the 100 billion euro special fund is to be used exactly — with some questioning whether it all needs to go to the Bundeswehr in the first place. The debate risks falling into the same pattern as previous German defense exchanges: The discussion on money will come at the cost of having the necessary conversations about the fundamental structural and cultural shifts that need to happen if Berlin is to use the money effectively and pursue a more coherent foreign and security policy.
The government should focus on four urgent tasks.
Engage the People
First, whatever spending and reforms will come next, they will have to be accompanied by increased efforts to explain foreign and security policy to the wider German public. German defense debates have often been quite abstract, taken place in a niche community, and been dominated by the question of whether or not to spend more money. With the population now more cognizant of major threats and aware that German defense and security actors have major new resources, public scrutiny will rightly increase.
The utter shock that Putin’s aggression has dealt to many Germans will go a long way in ensuring public support for Berlin’s new policy. In the days after Scholz’s speech, national polls showed big majorities in favor of both arms exports to Ukraine and the new defense funding — a complete reversal from previous weeks. This should put an end to German politicians hiding their reluctance to sufficiently fund the Bundeswehr behind the image of a German public somehow inherently too peace-loving to understand and engage with the arguments. Yet the public consensus is fragile. Voters may soon feel the effects of sanctions on Russia on their own wallets. And even if support does hold — the Russian invasion has clearly been unprovoked, Putin is undeniably the aggressor and seemingly disdainful of diplomatic off-ramps — future conflicts may not be as clear-cut. They will require political leadership.
Germany’s governing coalition should spell out that functioning and well-equipped armed forces are a necessary condition for a forward-looking, active German foreign and security policy — and yet not a sufficient one. They have the chance to finally break with the clichés that have dominated the German security policy debate for decades — in which investments in the Bundeswehr (“militarization”) have been pitched against investments in development aid and civilian measures (“peace”) at the cost of debating what precisely should be done with the money. For more substantive debates, the government ought to make the case that investments in the armed forces can go hand in hand with stronger diplomacy; arms control efforts; and strengthening international law, human rights, and civilian efforts to address conflicts and crises.
To make this case and take citizens along on this head-spinning turnaround of German security policy will require more public debate. At a minimum, the governing coalition should realize the longstanding idea of a yearly general debate in parliament on the status of German foreign and security policy. In addition, parliamentarians, relevant ministries such as the Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry, and think-tank experts should redouble efforts to offer formats for dialogue and explanation with the public to discuss foreign and security policy with policymakers.
Strategies for a New Era
Germany’s new national security strategy can foster such discussions. In a serendipitous turn of events, the new government had committed shortly after its election last fall to writing Germany’s first-ever such strategy this year. Simultaneously, German policymakers will contribute to strategy-making in the European Union — which plans to agree on a Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022 — as well as to NATO’s new Strategic Concept, due in the summer.
It is a mammoth task packed with hard questions. What should replace the old German convictions about the tradeoffs of relations with Russia and China? Does more defense spending and a more deliberately strategic approach come with a responsibility to be more present in the Indo-Pacific? And how is a government that only reluctantly committed to keeping Germany in NATO’s nuclear-sharing mechanism going to deal with the looming debate on European nuclear deterrence? What is more, already before the Russian invasion, Germany and the European Union were facing uncertainty over crisis management after the disastrous end of the mission in Afghanistan and doubts over the bloc’s engagement in Mali. These debates will not go away and neither will those conflicts to the south of Europe. The Green foreign minister had planned to focus her time in office on international climate policy. Will securing German energy independence now overshadow these efforts?
The war is also already re-energizing discussions over Europe’s defense architecture. It is demonstrating, once again, the drawbacks of Europe’s almost total dependence on U.S. deterrence, capabilities, and intelligence — a dependence that grows more perilous as U.S. elections draw nearer. The European Union itself and many of its member states are delivering weapon systems to Ukraine, but NATO has clearly taken the lead on Europe’s military response to Russia. Policymakers in Berlin and elsewhere dread thinking what that response would have looked like with a different president in the White House. French President Emmanuel Macron — a big proponent of European “strategic autonomy,” whose country currently holds the E.U. presidency — is once again calling on the bloc to become a more independent defense actor. But even though the current German government is committed to the European Union as a central framework for its technology, economic, and energy policies, it has so far been reluctant to embrace the notion of E.U. strategic autonomy in military terms.
Suddenly, after years of being accused of freeriding on defense, Berlin is likely going to have more diplomatic clout to affect these debates. Still, it would be wise to proceed with humility.
Why humility? The transformation of German politics on defense is a necessary and welcome course-correction, but the world did not suddenly change on Feb. 24. In reality, Berlin had ignored the warnings of its allies for years, as well as the many warnings of Putin himself. While some criticism has in the past unfairly reduced Germany’s Russia policymakers to caricatures of mercantilist Putinversteher, Berlin’s energy relationship with Moscow was much too close — even as Russian disinformation spread, even as Putin oppressed political opposition, even as Russia fostered a civil war in Ukraine, and even as Russia propped up a brutal dictator in Syria at the cost of so many lives and with millions of people forced to flee to Europe and elsewhere.
None of these events prompted a serious reassessment in Berlin of its energy dependence on Russia, despite desperate warnings from its Central and Eastern European allies. Learning from this experience would mean for Berlin to let go of the idea that it has a better understanding of its allies’ security interests and threat levels than they do, and instead listen to its partners’ needs. This goes for Central and Eastern European and Nordic neighbors as well as for Germany’s allies in the Indo-Pacific. (China threatens a revisionist course similar to that pursued by the Kremlin, and Germany’s economic interests in China exceed its interests in Russia.)
Reform the Bureaucracy
While crafting longer-term strategy, German policymakers ought to focus their efforts on how to make sure that the new sums of money are spent effectively. The German armed forces absolutely do need resources — to modernize, to fill huge gaps in equipment, and to be able to provide some planning security for big capability projects, which notoriously get delayed and thus clash with the usual yearly budgetary horizons. But the problem was never just money.
For one, the government will have to agree how to spend it. It has long been a challenge for European governments to decide what they prefer: filling capability gaps fast through off-the-shelf purchases, but at the cost of developing the European defense industry, or investing as much as possible in European capability projects to strengthen the European defense industrial base, but at the cost of long development times. This tension will persist even with more money available. Beyond that, Berlin will be faced with the question of how to balance investments in modernizing and equipping the German armed forces with the funding necessary to fulfill Germany’s pledges to NATO deterrence and — crucially, now — defense policy, and investments in innovative defense-relevant technologies.
But problems run deeper. Germany’s defense procurement agency is notoriously slow, inefficient, and overstretched. Weapons are delivered late and significantly over-budget. The agency’s absorption capacity for large amounts of new money is questionable. Constantly increasing overhead expenses for salaries, operations, and military sites risk consuming large parts of the funds that are indispensable for research, development, and procurement.
The need to get better at spending money does not only concern the Bundeswehr. The German Foreign Office, for example, spends several billion euros a year on conflict prevention and stabilization, more than any other country in the world. Yet the vast majority of funds officially spent on prevention is actually spent after a crisis breaks out, and then in small installments across a large number of conflict countries and regions with minimal chance of real impact.
Reforms across the relevant bureaucracies will be key to improving the way that money translates into better policy. The Bundeswehr, for one, suffers under opaque and administration-heavy decision-making processes. For a start, the numbers of armed forces command staff could be reduced and internal decision-making processes could be shortened. German defense procurement processes need greater prioritization, predictability, and political oversight.
But if the objective is to improve German foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to focus only on defense policy structures. Despite all the calls for a more “strategic” German foreign policy over the past few years, neither experts nor politicians have paid enough attention to the fact that while the German Foreign Office’s budget has doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion euros between 2010 and 2020, the number of diplomats that are supposed to manage the money has increased by only 9 percent in the same period. If the Foreign Office is supposed to help lead Germany’s new role and get better at analysis and crafting strategies, it needs a leadership culture that encourages strategic thinking, more opportunities for diplomats to specialize, more political staff in the embassies, and significant investments in knowledge management and communications.
Create a National Security Council
Beyond improvements to how the money is spent, the national security strategy this year against the backdrop of the Zeitenwende (turning point) announced last week would also be another opportunity to reform the way German foreign and security policy is made. The new coalition missed its chance to reform the national security architecture last fall. Like in previous coalition governments, the party that took over the foreign office (the Greens) worried that a security council would give too much power to the party in the chancellery (the Social Democratic Party). This means that, despite the fundamental shifts in the German role internationally, the increased complexity of security policy, and the myriad actors needed to craft coherent strategy today, Berlin is essentially still relying on the same security architecture it has worked with for decades.
If the governing coalition now wants Germany to take on a larger leadership role in Europe on foreign and security policy, it will have to reopen this debate and finally put in place the structures to translate political will into practical policy. The current crisis showed again why such a structure is needed for short-term crisis reaction and strategic communication. In the first few days after Feb. 24, for example, the foreign minister, the finance minister, and the chancellor made at least three different, partially contradictory, arguments against the SWIFT sanctions before ultimately deciding to support them. Beyond improving short-term crisis reaction, more regular meetings of the relevant cabinet members and a stronger coordination role in the chancellery will be needed to enable long-term strategic planning, common strategic foresight exercises, and coordination on adapting political strategies in conflict countries.
The Enormity of the Task
It is still hard to grasp the magnitude of the changes in German foreign and security policy that occurred in a matter of days, and it will remain to be seen if parliamentarians and the governing coalition can translate the initial announcements into a sustained effort and a new role for Berlin in the world.
Crafting strategy; reforming procurement systems, government bureaucracy, and key decision-making processes; and explaining it all to an anxious public — these tasks will require enormous efforts by policymakers that are simultaneously dealing with the biggest security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. In the days after the 2021 election, when the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the liberals were negotiating their coalition treaty, leading politicians could be heard musing about the need to look to common “projects” to unite the three parties. This may not be what they had in mind, but it is what they have been given.