Picture : German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine. Russia has attempted to sow division within the western alliance © Kay Nietfeld/dpa

When Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, German chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a “dark day for Europe”. When the first Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border, the still fresh country leader saw his government facing the ruins of its weeks-long peace efforts, including bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The first foreign policy shock of the new German government stirred Berlin mightily, and triggered a fiery debate on future security policies on the European continent. To all appearances, a paradigm shift seems to be emerging between the Rhine and the Oder that breaks with the basic guidelines governing  German foreign policy since the Second World War – with potentially massive implications for the security policy of Europe and NATO. 

You know that a massive upheaval is underway in Germany when the head of government makes an official statement in the Bundestag. Unlike in many Western countries, German chancellors are traditionally considered quite attention-shy. Therefore, Scholz’s government statement on 27 February felt all the more worrying to many. “We are experiencing a turn of the times. And that means: the world afterwards is no longer the same as the world before,” explained the most powerful man in the state, declaring Germany’s reluctance to supply arms to Ukraine and its hesitancy to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia to be over. In addition, Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, shall be upgraded massively in the coming years. Known for its notorious material and abrasion problems, the army shall be equipped and fully modernized with a special fund of 100 billion euros in the 2022 budget. Details of the planned purchases, which are known so far, include 35 US-made F-35 fighters and 15 Eurofighter jets. At the same time, the army’s procurement is supposed to be massively accelerated and known gaps for operations on land and sea shall be closed.

In German media coverage, the Bundeswehr has so far mainly been the subject of jokes about rusty helicopters or reports about neo-Nazi networks among soldiers, far less respected by the public – let alone celebrated at parades – than in some Western partner states. The fact that Germany had consistently ignored NATO’s 2% of GDP target for military spending over the past decades was also met with little to no resistance from the major political parties. After the Russian attack on Ukraine, a majority of two-thirds of Germans expressed to be in favour of huge rearmament for the first time. Even the radical right and left parties in the German parliament, which had previously expressed a multitude of pro-Putin, were relatively restrained in their agitation due to internal divergences.

A bumpy process of de-pacification

This broad approval for the most massive German rearmament plans in many decades is not only an unusual phenomenon in contemporary German history, but breaks with the country’s guidelines of foreign policy since the Second World War. After the experiences of the Third Reich, in which many Germans became perpetrators of atrocious crimes within the various Nazi military and paramilitary institutions, the rearmament of the Bundeswehr in the 1950s was met with strong resistance. As a “defense army”, the new army was designed to require the approval of the German parliament for mandates and its deployment inside the country was banned, with the exception of humanitarian aid in the case of natural disasters. The sight of uniformed soldiers with machine guns, as can now be observed in many European capitals today, still triggers unease for many Germans today.

Summarized in the slogan of the Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt “War must never again emanate from German soil”, the German army, although part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 1955, did not participate in any foreign missions for the first decades after its foundation. It was another Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, during whose seven-year chancellorship the Bundeswehr participated in its first major foreign operations in the wake of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The controversial participation of Germany in the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 was the first time since 1945 German troops were deployed outside of the country. A following kinetic military operation in Kosovo in 1998 reinforced the idea of a geopolitical rebirth.The Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Joschka Fischer, declared that Germany’s commitment to never repeat the mistakes of its past also includes intervening in cases of ethnic warfare and imminent genocides.

Since then, German political leaders envisioned a more active role in the country’s military cooperation and the Bundeswehr is currently (as of March 2022) active in 16 foreign military operations within the framework of NATO, EU or UN missions. The recent German history, however, alternated between steps forward and following pushbacks like the refusal, alongside several other NATO countries, to participate in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the abstention in the UN Security Council over a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011. In addition, the rising amount of international commitments and expressions of taking on more responsibility in international peace-keeping was constantly colliding with reports of the desolate state of the Bundeswehr and Germany’s partial limitation to logistical support. Ironically, this paradox might be resolved under the leadership of Olaf Scholz, yet another Social Democratic chancellor.

And so, we come to the current situation. Until this point, there was a slow-paced step-by-step attempt to re-join the international security architecture and commit on an international level. That the strategic turn has happened now, is not a coincidence but the culmination of a process that has been reshaping the German strategic position for decades. Putin, aiming to weaken Europe in a classical divide et impera (divide and conquer) tactics, involuntarily became the determining catalyst of Germany’s geopolitical rebirth. To spark this change, Germany needed a foreign threat trying to undermine the international order.

Indeed, the strategic shift has major consequences for Franco-German and transatlantic relations. Providing economic and military security, the US and France have been Germany’s two pillars of national security since 1945. The relationship between Germany and the United States is of vital importance. This makes any move away from NATO very difficult for Germany and has in the past already caused tensions with its European partners, most notably France. The strategic shift will most definitely shift the relations with its two strategic partners and reshape European and Transatlantic security relations.

New impulses for the Franco-German Couple

While Germany and France compete for influence and power in Europe in general, both support the liberal rules-based international order and are committed allies of the United States. Until now, the division of power was clear: France is the dominant military power in continental Europe, and Germany is the economic pillar of the EU. Especially after the Brexit and subsequent withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, France remained the sole major power with a credible military to protect Europe. The massive budget increase and the resulting military build-up of the German army now challenges this power division and could allow Germany to take the overall leadership in the EU. While France may feel threatened by this loss of influence, in reality, two factors overshadow French alarmism.

On the one hand, France has been demanding for years that Germany further commits to the military field. Thus, rejecting German military build-up would not only contradict French ambition for a European defense project but also prove counterproductive for the security in Europe. With Russia ramming into the EU’s Eastern flank, France cannot and probably will not afford to put its concerns about military competition before the stability and security in Europe. On the other side, there is the point of whether Germany achieves its goal or not. France not only has the nuclear advantage but also possesses an aircraft carrier which allows it to exert its power globally. German rearmament would not change this power imbalance but could give Germany a greater role in Europe. Still, there is no guarantee for this. Should Germany aim to take the lead in the EU, but fail to do so, the damage to the security in Europe would be devastating. Thus, blocking this endeavor from a French point of view is also playing against its own hand. In general, French-German relations will benefit from this strategic turn as both countries can convergently move towards a European defense initiative and guarantee the integrity of Europe. While France would have to accept a new military player in Europe, it could fulfill its long-awaited regional goals. Germany could finally rise as a committed partner in Europe and take its responsibilities seriously as Europe’s largest economy.

Germany’s NATO graduation

Transatlantic relations between Germany and the US will also experience a radical change. As stated before, Germany has a vital and almost ontological relationship with the US. In 2016 this relationship became threatened after the election of Donald Trump. The whole European defense strategy based on the transatlantic alliance was already shaking, and Trump seemed committed to further withdrawing US support from Europe. Thus, the strategic turn can help Berlin ease some of the US security concerns regarding Europe and Germany. Washington has been claiming for a long time that Germany does not p(l)ay its part in NATO. While Trump became famous with his “Angela, Angela, you have to pay your bill”, the reality was more complex. The 2% of the GDP military spending target is in the end exactly what it is: a target. So, there is no obligation for NATO countries to commit to this spending. The US though uses its role as security guarantor as leverage over its European partners to increase military spending. Still, like in every economic investment, it is not only the quantity that matters but also the quality. Spending this money on outdated or inappropriate equipment will not lead to a mighty Germany. But also, the claim that Germany is not paying enough to NATO is incorrect. The only actual obligation to pay in NATO is the support of the common NATO budget for the NATO HQ and the NATO forces. From 2021 to 2024, Germany will pay for 16.34% of NATO’s budget. This sum is not only the same as the US but also higher than its obligatory spending. Obviously, this alone does not radically change Germany’s stance in NATO, but combining the administrative NATO spending with the targeted 2% of the GDP military spending aims to signal German commitment to NATO and transatlantic security.

Scholz’s strategic turn and military build-up could finally solve this problem and lead to closer cooperation between Germany and the US in NATO. With Germany, France, and the UK representing strong pillars of NATO in Europe, the US could allow a European defense and focus its efforts on countering the rise of China. Generally, the German strategic shift will have considerable consequences for European and transatlantic relations. Thus, it should not be considered a minor change but a game-changing moment in German foreign policy. Still, it is important to assess whether Germany manages to maintain its impulse in the long run. More importantly, we shall see if Germany can use the new resources to effectively shift from a crippled supporter to a shaping actor.

Authors

  • Marcel Müller is a first year Master’s student in International Governance and Diplomacy with a focus on Asian Studies at Sciences Po. Besides Paris, academic and professional stays have already taken him to Toulouse, Berlin and Brussels. Originally from Germany, his main regions of interest include the European Union and East Asia with a focus on Chinese foreign policy.

  • Fabian-Lucas Romero Meraner is a first-year Master’s student in International Security with a focus on Asian Studies at Sciences Po. During his Bachelor in History at the University of Vienna, he specialized in Russian History and International History. Today, his main regions of interest include Russia and East Asia, especially in geopolitics and modern warfare.