Making the Sea Change Real: What Germany and Allies Can Do


Not only is Germany’s heralded “sea change” — or Zeitenwende — on defense policy not the revolution it seemed back in early March, this isn’t even the first revolution that wasn’t. Despite recent claims to the contrary, it does not seem as though Germany’s security and defense policies are undergoing a revolution, but rather an evolution. At worst, Berlin’s words and deeds since Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ announcement of a Zeitenwende will turn into a post-Munich-Consensus déjà vu. That is to say, Germany has already promised once before to assume a greater responsibility in European, transatlantic, and international security matters in 2014 following the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea. In the years following this self-proclaimed interest in stepping up burden-sharing efforts, Germany efforts proved lackluster. If it allows the Zeitenwende to run a similar course as the Munich Consensus, Germany risks missing a rare window of opportunity to set in motion long-overdue steps to overhaul the country’s security and defense outlook sustainably and permanently. Most importantly, this requires nurturing a strategic culture in Germany’s public discourse, and now is the right moment to do so. Germany’s allies and partners should persistently pressure Berlin’s policymakers to turn Zeitenwende into a lasting change lest the current momentum withers away.

Avoiding Déjà Vu

Scholz announced that Germany “will now — year after year — invest more than 2 percent of our gross domestic product in our defense,” after years of prodding and inaction. But Germany intends to reach that goal using the 100 billion euro special fund that was announced by Scholz to be a “special fund for the Bundeswehr for necessary investments and armament projects.” Consequently, estimates suggest that the fund will run dry by 2025. There has been no talk about what will happen afterwards. That does not sound like the current coalition government plans to abide by its 2 percent commitment beyond its period in office.



So, why is it important to point out that what the current German government has decided and announced since the beginning of Russia’s renewed war against Ukraine isn’t all that new and revolutionary? Because of an episode in very recent history that is quite reminiscent to Berlin’s alleged Zeitenwende today, which ought to serve as a cautionary tale lest Germany does not live up to its self-imposed and self-proclaimed responsibilities, again. Three concerted speeches delivered at the Munich Security Conference in 2014 became known as the Munich Consensus and were interpreted as a commitment to finally turn the tide in Germany’s security and defense affairs. Ursula von der Leyen, then the defense minister, Federal President Joachim Gauck, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared that it was high time for Germany to assume greater responsibility in European, transatlantic, and international security and defense matters. In the following years, Germany did deliver indeed. Berlin was and still is a shaping force in configuring NATO’s short and long-term reassurance and deterrence measures in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Other areas of additional activities included, but were not limited to, deploying troops to Mali and providing diplomatic resources for the Normandy format. Thus, for a while it appeared as though Germany not only talked the talk but walked the walk: the Munich Consensus seemed alive and kicking. Yet, upon closer examination, Berlin did move, but not far enough — most likely because the required political will was lacking. After all, then-chancellor Angela Merkel did not deliver any of the three speeches that laid out the Munich Consensus.

Germany Wasn’t Ready Yet

Why did these nationally and internationally hailed promises fail to meet expectations? The answer is quite simple and straightforward — and so are the remedies. Contrary to common pronouncements from policymakers at the time, Germany was neither truly ready nor willing to assume more responsibility and offer leadership. The reason for that can be partly attributed to German millennials, who are increasingly assuming political power, not knowing how to think strategically or even valuing strategic thought itself. I would argue that the problem runs even deeper and is not limited to the generation of millennials. Many of Germany’s 21st-century decision-makers and parliamentarians — most prominently Scholz himself — belong to a pre-millennial generation born during the Cold War. And yet, they have not been particularly suited to thinking about security and defense in strategic terms. Examples undergirding their myopic and oftentimes misleading approaches to Germany’s defense matters are abundant. To name just a few: approving the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine instigated by Moscow, Germany’s reluctance to meet NATO’s 2 percent spending goal after having agreed to it multiple times, and a general and multi-partisan failure to invest sustainably in Germany’s armed forces. Though all of those faulty decisions have either been overturned or are supposedly in the process of being corrected, results are either outstanding (in the case of Germany’s military investments) or are no safeguard against the country’s elites repeating similar mistakes in the future (in the case of Berlin’s political overtures towards Moscow disguised as a “private sector project” to transport Russian gas to Germany).

What to Do Differently This Time Around

One critical step to ensure Germany finally walks the talk this time around is for the country, initiated by its political elites, to foster a strategic culture. Such a culture can be defined as “a number of shared beliefs, norms and ideas within a given society that generate specific expectations about the respective community’s preferences and actions in security and defense policy.” Chief among the steps to work toward are regular debates about all matters security and defense in the public sphere. Instigating and contributing to discussions about which priorities Germany ought to pursue and why and with which means (including armed forces as a last resort) should not be limited to politicians. Lawmakers undoubtedly should be front and center in leading the debates, as they are the ones who ultimately bear responsibility for deciding how to spend taxpayer funds, including on defense, as well as sending soldiers into harm’s way. Nevertheless, other stakeholders in the realm of security and defense matters, including staffers of think tanks, political foundations, and other members of civil society at large must dare to converse with the wider population about topics that concern Germany’s national security. Part of the mandate of political foundations is indeed to engage with the public in all parts of Germany, not just in the “Berlin bubble.” Think tankers should be encouraged to not only appear in the media but also to take part in outreach activities with the broader public to share and discuss their research results. That way, discussions about security and defense will not be limited to the expert community.

Though those topics can be complex at times, this is no excuse for shying away from engagement, especially not with interest and advocacy groups that view security and defense issues with a general sense of skepticism (e.g., members of pacifist groups, who have traditionally had a strong and public voice in Germany).

Especially those who are uncertain or outright opposed to the necessity of armed forces and the use of military force as a very last resort ought to be engaged more frequently and vividly by politicians and other stakeholders in Germany’s strategic scene, for example, in the framework of cross-community discussions. Such conversations could include bringing together members of church groups and peace activists on the one hand and representatives of the defense industry or policymakers in order to discuss the legitimacy and utility of weapons deliveries, for example.

Ending the Taboo of Military Power as Part of Germany’s Security and Defense Toolbox

Admittedly, cultivating regular and open discussions about these topics is a generational and daunting task, so quick changes ought not to be expected, regardless of whether Germany’s chancellor proclaims a Zeitenwende. While polls in the early days of the war against Ukraine showed that the bulk of Germans supported the government’s course of action vis-à-vis Kyiv (including weapons deliveries) and even endorsed increased defense spending, it is far too early to assess whether those numbers only captured an atmospheric picture which will fade once the war is out of the headlines, or whether the German mindset has truly changed overnight. A real and lasting change can only come about with a transformation of a people’s mindset — and the craftiest strategies and most plausible set of ambitions will not alter how the majority of German society views its country’s security and defense policies and Berlin’s place in Europe and the world.

After all, in a democracy, it is the population’s will that must be carried out by its elected lawmakers. A broad dialogue about the end goals of Zeitenwende and how to measure them ought to go hand-in-hand with a reflection on past errors in Germany’s Russia policy as well as faulty assumptions upheld by the country’s security and defense elites. Another more far-reaching step would involve familiarizing society at large at a relatively young age with all things security and defense. One group of people who should be charged more frequently with that job, among others, are the so-called Jugendoffiziere (youth officers) of the Bundeswehr. While they are trained soldiers, their job is partly to engage with teachers educating children and teenagers from middle through high school on all matters related to security and defense. Youth officers are specifically tasked to think and talk about the role of the armed forces critically: Recruiting is explicitly not a task of theirs, according to the German Armed Forces. Essentially, theirs is a job of political education laid down in law. While the concept and practice of youth officers goes back to the late 1950s, their presence in schools is constantly criticized by some societal groups such as the German Education Union and groups associated with Germany’s peace movement in particular. A recent suggestion by Germany’s current minister of education to send youth officers to schools to help students (in concert with their teachers) make sense of the war in Ukraine and its repercussions for Germany and Europe was met with heavy criticism from the education union. Claiming the proposal to be “misplaced,” one of their board members argued that especially younger children could be “further unsettled by officers in uniform coming to their schools.” That reaction alone, in combination with a general rejection of those particular members of the armed forces, underpins the need to contemplate inviting “citizens in uniform” to schools on a more regular basis. Students should be offered the unique opportunity to engage with members of the armed forces critically and learn how to think about security and defense at large. Only by starting to end the taboo on intellectual engagement with the military — and its tasks and limitations — can German society begin to foster something akin to a strategic culture. That is by no means to suggest an idealization of the Bundeswehr or uncritical dealing with the political tasks military means can and should achieve. Thus, including other outside actors in educating students, such as political foundations of different political stripes, for example, is also crucial in fostering the discourse. Institutions which place their main focus on peace research can bring valuable insights to the debate table as well. In addition, think tankers should be encouraged and enabled to engage with the wider public, for example as guest lecturers at universities to share and discuss their research.

However, that peace and security must oftentimes be backed up with military means is something the majority of Germans must learn urgently. Hence, the need to offer the unique perspective of youth officers.

With a Little Help From Germany’s Friends

A self-centered dialogue about the necessity of armed force in general and concrete policy failures in relation to Russia’s current aggression in particular, however, risks inviting Germans to do something they are really good at and keen on, and that is navel-gazing. To prevent prolonged inward-looking discussions without considering the outside world, Germany’s allies and partners should step in. As a country deeply embedded in multinational structures and actions, Germany needs to be reaffirmed by its allies and partners that the country is on the right path to live up to its promise to execute a real sea change in its security and defense approach. Back in 2014, Germany needed its allies and partners’ reassurance to contribute to NATO’s reassurance, too – and it worked, at least for some time and to a certain degree. Germany agreed to head one of NATO’s multinational battlegroups along the Eastern flank, for example.

Regularly pointing out in public and behind closed doors what Germany needs to become better at surely will be uncomfortable at times. Being reprimanded for not delivering as promised isn’t enjoyable, after all. Yet, the alternative, falling back on old habits and routines as could be witnessed in the past, is not a viable option. Thus, Berlin’s allies and partners should, if necessary, bring up the painful subject of falling short of expectations and promises. One avenue to ensure close examination of whether or not Germany delivers what it has pledged is for Berlin’s allies to be closely consulted on the formulation of Germany’s first-ever national security strategy, set to be published in early 2023. This way, Berlin’s partners would be able to observe the implementation of the promised sea change and at the same time ensure the country streamlines its national security and defense goals and priorities with its closest allies. Similarly, allies — represented by members of civil society in addition to defense officials and parliamentarians — should be invited to more closely engage with the German public to raise awareness of Germany’s important role in Euro-Atlantic security and defense. To that end, giving lectures and setting up town hall meetings with citizens of Germany’s allies could offer a good starting point. Including representatives of the Baltic states would be especially useful and urgent at the moment, vulnerable as they are to Russian military pressure. For one, Germany has been a leading nation of one of the original four multinational battle groups installed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in response to Russia’s aggression in 2014. Yet, Germany’s engagement in Lithuania is hardly known to the wider German public, despite the Bundeswehr having been stationed there since 2017.

What’s more, being involved in the process of drawing up Germany’s national security strategy offers the country’s closest transatlantic allies and European partners another opportunity: nudging Berlin’s policymakers to assume more of a leadership role than they currently do, especially with regard to maintaining unity within NATO on matters concerning the alliance’s long-term deterrence and defense posture. Again, 2014 and the ensuing years serve as a positive example of Germany’s allies encouraging the country to dare to offer and assume more leadership in contributing more seriously and robustly to transatlantic security.

Working towards the establishment of a strategic debate and culture and counting on Berlin’s closest allies and partners to measure deeds against the “sea change” rhetoric offer a way forward. With these safeguards, it is more likely that Germany will not stumble into a post-2014 scenario in which the country misses the opportunity to coherently and sustainably assume more responsibility in the realm of security and defense — for itself as much as for European and transatlantic security.



Aylin Matlé, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the German Council on Foreign Relation’s Security and Defense Program. Her research areas include German security and defense policies as well as Euro-Atlantic security and defense matters. The views expressed here are hers alone. You can find her on Twitter at @AylinMatle.

Image: German NATO soldiers via Flickr user NATO