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New Atlanticist February 27, 2022

Experts React: What’s behind Germany’s stunning foreign-policy shift?

By Atlantic Council experts

This past week saw Germany reverse decades of foreign-policy precedent in the face of Russia’s war with Ukraine. First, new Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would block the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia. On Saturday, Scholz promised to arm Ukraine with one thousand anti-tank weapons and five hundred Stinger missiles and lifted restrictions on German weapons being sent to conflict zones by third parties. Finally, in a groundbreaking speech in the German Bundestag, he most notably committed to spending more than 2 percent of his country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the military—meeting a NATO target that Berlin had long lagged. Why did this huge shift happen, and what does it mean for Germany’s future on the world stage? Our Europe Center experts weigh in:

Will the wake-up call last beyond this crisis?

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Germany’s about-face over the last week. Long-held foreign policy norms seem to have evaporated before our eyes. The speech Scholz gave on Sunday would’ve been a surprise a week ago; it would’ve been unthinkable even a month ago. During that speech, he announced that Germany would create a one hundred billion euro military investment fund in its 2022 budget and raise its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP every year going forward. For a comparison, Germany’s entire defense budget was 47 billion euros in 2021. Scholz also mentioned the need to decrease German dependence on Russian energy and the possibility of purchasing F-35 fighter jets from the United States. This follows equally surprising moves earlier in the week with the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s certification process and the decision to supply Ukraine with one thousand anti-tank weapons and five hundred anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. 

Transatlanticists, especially those who watch Germany closely, have reacted in collective awe at these announcements. For years, the United States has pushed Germany to spend more on defense and invest more in its military. Until now, those pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears, much to the chagrin of policymakers in both Washington and Europe. Not just because Germany felt like it didn’t really have to do more, or because it saw itself as a bridge between the West and Russia, or even because its economy and business community are closely tied to Russia. The reticence has gone deeper than that, to the heart of how Germany views itself as a country. German pacifism is a real thing, and it pulsates through German society. Throughout the years, there hasn’t ever been broad public support for a more robust defense posture. And while it is unfortunate that it took a Russian invasion of Ukraine to snap Germany into reality, there’s no denying how meaningful this moment truly is. The hope, however, is that it’s not just a moment—but that this momentum continues well beyond the current crisis. Germany has woken up. Now, it must stay awake.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s Europe Center.

The spending commitment must be coupled with a real defense strategy

What started on Tuesday, with Scholz putting the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 on ice, was followed with the approval of German weapons deliveries to Ukraine on Saturday. By Sunday, it had culminated in what is nothing short of a Zeitenwende, a historical turning point, in German foreign and defense policy: the announcement of a massive one-time re-investment program of one hundred billion euros for the ailing German armed forces and a near-term commitment to boost defense spending above 2 percent of GDP. Gone seems to be the holy trinity of naive German foreign policy totems that drove many of Berlin’s allies to despair for years—a subjugation of strategic interests to commercial gains, embodied by Nord Stream 2; a seemingly blind belief, against all results, in diplomacy and dialogue over more robust forms of engagement; and a reluctance to invest in the hard-power tools for its own security and that of the NATO Alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine seems to have injected more clarity and change into German foreign and defense policy thinking in days than US administrations and governments from Paris to Warsaw could over the better part of a decade. 

Scholz and his coalition government seem to have finally gotten ahead of the curve with Sunday’s announcement. For months, the United States and other NATO allies had to muster significant pressure and shaming to get a reluctant Berlin to do the right thing in the face of Russian escalation, often at the last moment—the suspension of Nord Stream 2 and weapons deliveries to Kyiv included. But the one hundred billion euro investment program, 2 percent defense spending, and a clear commitment to nuclear sharing represents a fundamental shift. It finally stands a chance of putting Germany ahead of the game. Or at least back into the game. 

After days of know-it-all lamentations about previous foreign-policy failures from Germany’s political and journalistic classes in the wake of Wednesday night’s invasion, the coalition government deserves credit for the ambitiousness of the defense package. Not least because it means costly compromise on entrenched positions and political risk for each of the three coalition partners—a farewell to the Social Democrats’ nostalgia for Ostpolitik (rapprochement with Russia), a complete reversal on the military as a tool of German foreign policy for much of the Greens and many Social Democrats, and a massive dent in the Free Democratic Party’s orthodoxy of fiscal discipline. 

But the hardest part starts now. New determination and billions more in defense spending will go to waste if Europe’s largest political and economic power does not learn to define its strategic interests beyond commercial ones, connect these with the tools and resources necessary to pursue them, and translate both into reliable and robust policy toward adversaries and allies. More than missing defense euros and an emaciated military, Germany’s failure in confronting the challenges facing Europe and the NATO Alliance have been due to a lack of a comprehensive strategy, the strategic culture to underpin it, and public awareness to legitimize and sustain it. The implementation of the package announced on Sunday must go hand in hand with steps toward such a comprehensive strategy and public debate. The coalition’s commitment to developing modern Germany’s first-ever national security strategy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do so in the coming months.    

Jörn Fleck is the deputy director of the Europe Center. 

Further reading

Related Experts: Rachel Rizzo and Jörn Fleck

Image: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses an extraordinary session, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, February 27, 2022. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi