Don’t Let Zeitenwende Get Derailed


Days after the invasion of Ukraine, recently elected Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced major changes in German defense and energy policy, signaling a profound change in how Europe’s largest economy views its role in the world. The policy, dubbed Zeitenwende, was a direct rebuke of Berlin’s previous approach towards Russia. However, Zeitenwende risks being derailed, Germany’s neighbors are losing faith in Berlin, and Scholz’s trip to Beijing has raised concerns in Europe and Washington that Germany has yet to follow through on the lessons of Zeitenwende.

Chancellor Scholz’s trip to Beijing was scrutinized in Europe and in the United States as a test case for Germany’s stated ambition to transform its foreign and defense policy. The concept of Zeitenwende was meant to be a course correction after years of tight economic ties with Russia. “The times,” Scholz declared in a special address to the Bundestag in February, “are changing,” and after years of neglect Germany increased defense spending, made changes to its energy policy, and ushered in a new, more adversarial approach to Russia.  

Zeitenwende has since morphed into a catch-all term and shorthand jargon for analysts inside and outside Germany to describe whatever policy change they want to see from Berlin. This goes beyond Berlin’s response to the Russian invasion to now include a more assertive German China policy. But any initial hope in Europe that Germany would take on a leadership role in Europe appears to be fading — and this presents a problem for the United States. 



The intra-European distrust should worry policymakers in Washington as it makes a stronger European role in efforts to support Ukraine less likely. Many Europeans hope that President Biden will continue to assume a leadership role and to defend the European continent from further Russian aggression. However, the current level of U.S. involvement in European security and the significantly lower level of support to Ukraine by Europeans in comparison is not sustainable. And for better or for worse, Germany is key to a geopolitical and more self-reliant Europe, which can protect its citizens, defend its territory, and stabilize its neighborhood. This also includes applying the lessons learned from Germany’s past Russia mistakes to China policy. But the Scholz government risks losing sight of necessary changes, Zeitenwende risks losing momentum, and Berlin risks losing credibility in Europe. Washington should encourage Germany more resolutely than it has done so far to assume a leadership role on  Ukraine and to recalibrate its China policy.

A Laundry List of Disappointments

Germany’s neighbors have a long list of grievances about Germany’s economic, energy, and security and defense policies. The German chancellor’s trip to Beijing has suggested to some of Germany’s allies that Berlin will prioritize economic self-interest even if its choices run afoul of its allies, and expose Germany to economic coercion from external powers.

The visit to China has coincided with a continuous economic downturn in Europe and, as explained in the War on the Rocks podcast Winter in Europe, high energy costs, both of which are linked to the war in Ukraine. The crisis has exacerbated European concerns about whether Berlin is acting in the interest of other European Union member states. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Germany was “isolating itself” on the energy crisis, and Berlin and Paris postponed a planned cabinet meeting because of disagreements over energy and defense. Germany’s relations with Poland are strained, as demonstrated by Warsaw’s demand of 1.3 trillion euros in reparations for Nazi war crimes in World War II. Berlin’s critics in Central and Eastern Europe are growing increasingly bitter on Germany’s Ukraine policy. The Latvian deputy prime minister recently even questioned if Germany could be trusted to defend its NATO allies: “We are ready to die. Are you?

This resentment is making it increasingly unlikely that European countries would follow German leadership in future. On the economic front, Berlin’s determination to pursue a business-first relationship with Beijing is becoming more controversial. Chancellor Scholz allowed Chinese investments in the Hamburg harbor ahead of his first trip to Beijing against the explicit advice of several federal ministries — his Green and Liberal coalition partners take a much more hawkish approach on China than the SPD-led chancellery and worry about undue Chinese influence in Europe. Many Europeans, while not as critical towards China as the United States, are also worried that Berlin is looking out for its own business interests, rather than looking to shape a joint European China policy.

The European concern about German economic policy also extends to energy markets. Berlin has made a serious effort to wean itself off Russian energy imports. However, to mitigate the fallout for its own citizens in light of skyrocketing prices, Berlin has relied on a 200 billion euro subsidy to keep domestic energy prices down, which European countries view as distorting competition in the single market and undermining European solidarity. Berlin agreed to a compromise over a European cap on gas prices, which aims to cool the market, to relieve its neighbors’ burden only after immense pressure from its E.U. allies.

Berlin has also been hesitant to step up heavy weapons deliveries to Ukraine, such as infantry fighting vehicles or battle tanks, saying that it does not want to be the first country to provide western tanks. The chancellery is wary of escalation with Russia and has sought to calibrate its weapons deliveries to Kyiv. This position is contested within Germany’s coalition government and at odds with Germany’s eastern neighbors, who would like to see more German support to help Ukraine conduct successful counteroffensives.   

Germany’s investment in its own defense has also become a source of concern, inside the country and among its allies. Germany’s promise to use a special 100 billion euro fund to finally increase its defense spending to NATO’s 2 percent share of GDP goal is quickly losing its luster. Even though 100 billon euros is roughly twice what Germany planned to spend annually, it is becoming likely that the money will not be sufficient to undertake the needed modernization and expansion of the German armed forces. Instead, the money will need to be spent on equipment to meet pre-existing commitments under NATO defense planning. This includes plugging long-standing capability and equipment holes in areas like clothing and protective gear, communication equipment, and the aircraft needed to continue German participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.  

Beyond this, Germany’s procurement processes are infamously slow and inefficient and are preventing the new money from being spent quickly. Also, the special fund recently had to be adjusted for inflation. And there are no guarantees that Berlin will keep up the increased spending effort in the next legislative period. Meanwhile, conversation in NATO has moved on to contemplating a new 3 percent of GDP defense spending target — soon, even spending 2 percent may not win Berlin any prizes.

It’s Not All Bleak

Observers are quick to declare the failure of Zeitenwende, but Germans until very recently held on to the belief that military power was obsolete in Europe. German citizens and policymakers have been receptive to the logic underpinning Zeitenwende, and accept the necessity of spending more on defense and on energy. However, they reject the idea of Berlin taking on a military leadership role in Europe.

To succeed with the monumental shift, as one of us argued in these pages, German policymakers and experts should urgently focus on issues they had 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. Slowly, some of these changes are taking place, and it is encouraging that there is now a lively public debate on security and defense policy.

But for Germany’s neighbors, the changes are coming too little too late. They don’t trust that the steps taken by Berlin in the months since the beginning of the war signal a broader change in the German government’s foreign and security policy. They worry that Berlin may not be able to follow through on the changes Zeitenwende promised on Russia, and they are concerned that it may not want to change much with regard to China. 

When Berlin does attempt to lead, for instance with its recent proposal for a “European sky shield  jointly acquire air and missile defense systems from Germany, Israel, and the U.S., others refuse to follow:  France complains  that it was not consulted on the initiative, and  American systems, rather than going with a European option. Poland has also not joined Berlin’s initiative. 

This is very different from the trust and support that Germany enjoyed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when both France and Poland followed Germany’s leadership in crisis management and sanctions policy, and Berlin was perceived as acting in the interest of the greater (European) good, instead of narrowly following its own interests. German leadership in Europe — accepted by its neighbors — is possible. 

What Can Washington Do?

Despite these bureaucratic and political challenges, no other European country carries the same political and economic weight. Berlin is a natural partner for Washington, especially since the White House shares some of the chancellery’s concerns about escalation in Ukraine. Washington would benefit if Berlin was able to play a credible leadership role in Europe and lead by example — on arms deliveries to Ukraine, on securing Europe against further Russian aggression, and on recalibrating Europe’s relationship with China.

The Biden administration has been very careful to avoid public disagreements with European allies, and not to put public pressure on Germany specifically. The U.S. government is conscious that this could well backfire in Berlin, where many are still sensitive about the criticism during the Trump years. But the gap between European and U.S. support for Ukraine is growing. A recent report suggested the United States is as of October committing nearly twice as much to Ukraine as the European Union institutions and its member states. The temptation in the United States may be to name and shame individual allies, especially now that there is a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. 

It is smart not to single out Germany for its shortcomings, but there is some space for gentle but explicit nudging from Washington to help firm up the commitment to Zeitenwende. The United States should express its public support for a European initiative to deliver German-made Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine, which Kyiv covets. 13 European countries have them, so there is an ample supply of spare parts for Ukraine to source. Explicit backing from Washington for an initiative that prioritizes acting in lockstep with European allies would relieve Germany from the fear that it has to shoulder the escalation risks of tank deliveries alone, and that Berlin would put its head above the parapet with such a step. Instead, Germany’s allies could signal that such an initiative would show long-awaited German leadership in Europe, all while acting together instead of going it alone.

The United States should also encourage Germany to take on a leadership role in the debate on security guarantees for Ukraine. The recently published Yermak-Rasmussen report on security guarantees tries to square the circle of giving Ukraine security guarantees which are strong enough to deter Russia and defend Ukraine in the future but below the article five commitments reserved exclusively for NATO members. Germany could play a leading role on two issues in particular: allocating reconstruction funds to rebuild Ukraine’s defense industrial base, and offering technology transfer and regular training together with the E.U. military training mission. This training should continue even if at some point in the future a ceasefire is agreed upon, in order to prepare Ukraine for a potential renewed Russian attack.

These efforts should go hand in hand with a German leadership role in planning the eventual reconstruction of Ukraine. The Ukraine reconstruction conference hosted in Berlin was an important step, but ultimately, the E.U. will have to clarify where the financial means for reconstruction will come from. This is likely to reopen the debate about joint debt in response to Ukraine’s reconstruction needs and the energy crisis, something which Berlin and other frugal European countries such as the Netherlands staunchly refuse. Olaf Scholz — back when still finance minister — called it a “Hamiltonian moment” when Berlin agreed to the first ever joint borrowing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The war against Ukraine is a historic crisis of similar proportion, and it requires similarly resolute efforts.  

On China policy, Berlin is currently working on a new strategy towards Beijing in parallel to its first ever National Security Strategy, and its friends can spur it on along the way. Washington could offer a regular, structured dialogue on China to the German chancellery (where key decisions on China are taken) to discuss the different threat perceptions and priorities in the United States and Berlin. The dispute over China’s investment in the Hamburg port was unhelpful, and the exchange between Berlin and Washington must go beyond stern words on individual decisions. There is also a European dimension to Germany’s China policy. So far, the E.U.’s joint stance on China is all words, no actions. Even if a European approach is less critical of Beijing than D.C. would like it to be, it is more sustainable in the long term than if all of Washington’s transatlantic allies ventured to Beijing to negotiate by themselves. Washington should welcome it if Berlin focused on fostering a joint European policy on China.

The multiple crises that Europe is currently faced with provide plenty of opportunities for Germany to lead the way on crucial policy issues rather than wait to be pushed. The Biden administration can help ensure European unity does not hinge on U.S. leadership. The former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikoriski reiterated his famous 2011 statement that he fears German inaction more than German power. For those in favor of a strong Europe, capable of operating alongside the United States, ensuring Zeitenwende is a success should be a priority. The Biden administration should make sure that when Berlin is finally ready to lead, Europe will still follow.



Sophia Besch is a fellow in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Her twitter handle is @sophiabesch.

Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. Her twitter handle is @lianafix.

Image: German Federal Government