Opportunities and Pitfalls - A US perspective on Germany's Zeitenwende

President Biden's transatlantic instincts provide Germany with a window of opportunity to rethink its role in the world. But it must accelerate its Zeitenwende or risk a backlash during the 2024 U.S. election season, argues Rachel Rizzo.

Last February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz set expectations sky-high with his now-coined “Zeitenwende” speech after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The speech heralded a new era in German security and defense policy, with many taken aback by just how lofty Scholz’s aspirations were, namely, revitalizing the Bundeswehr with a $100 billion Euro fund and finally reaching two percent of GDP defense spending.  Other goals included building the next generation of combat aircraft and tanks in Europe, rapidly building new LNG terminals, and weaning Germany off Russian energy. Since then, the war has dragged on and the Zeitenwende speech has taken on a life of its own.


Today, the term has become a stand-in for a much broader feeling that, as the largest economy in Europe, and the fourth largest economy in the world, Germany’s must rethink its role in the world. Specifically, it must be more forward-leaning, take its military commitments more seriously, and do more as a leader to shape European foreign and defense policy on the world stage. As Germany starts to realize this new responsibility and as the US heads into the 2024 election season, both sides should be aware of potential pitfalls going forward.

President Biden has put the relationship with Berlin at the center of his Europe policy

For US president Joe Biden, repairing the relationship with Europe was a centerpiece of his foreign policy goals as he came into office, with the US-German relationship at or very near the center of that broader goal. His approach toward Germany after (and even in the immediate lead-up to) the Russian invasion clearly demonstrated his commitment to the relationship. During Olaf Scholz’s first visit to Washington in early February 2022, Biden stood next to him and praised him even as he was being attacked for taking a “head in the sand” approach to Russia (at this point, Germany had not yet suspended certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.) The Biden Administration has also been patient with Germany’s reticence to commit heavy weapons to the war in Ukraine, eventually agreeing to send M1 Abrams tanks (against the wishes of high-level US defense officials) as cover so that Germany could, as the saying goes, “release the Leopards.” The Administration has also been quiet on Germany’s relationship with China, specifically, on Scholz’s November trip to Beijing with a business delegation in tow and its decision to allow Chinese shipping giant COSCO to buy a stake in one of the Port of Hamburg’s terminals. To outside observers in the US, these examples demonstrate German fecklessness, unseriousness, and unwillingness to play the leadership role it should be playing. Scratch just below the surface in many US policymaking circles, especially on Capitol Hill, and you’ll find a sense of frustration. Questions like “why can’t Germany do more?” and “Why can’t it move faster?” and “why won’t it lead?” abound.

At the same time, there seems to be a lack of appreciation in the United States of just how big of a mindset shift the Zeitenwende is for Germany. Policymakers and experts (especially those who don’t focus specifically Germany) must understand that this is not just about Germany spending more on defense or revitalizing its military or weaning itself off Russian energy—issues that are important, to be sure. This is about Germany as a country shifting its mindset in terms of the role that it plays both within Europe and on the global stage. Germany deserves both credit for what its accomplished thus far, understanding for how difficult this moment truly is, and above all, patience. The major shifts that the US is looking for won’t happen overnight, they probably won’t even happen in the next few years. But it seems as though changes are afoot, and that’s a good thing.

Germany is in danger of becoming a major talking point in the 2024 election season and beyond

Germany, on the other hand, must be clearly aware of how its ability (or inability) to meet its goals could end up being a major talking point heading into the 2024 election season and beyond. The Zeitenwende issue could serve as a proxy for deeper ills afflicting the US-European relationship—like European overreliance on US security guarantees. If there’s a sense that Germany lacks urgency, the Republican presidential candidates, as well as various Congressional candidates around the country, will sniff this out, exploit it, and weaponize it. Americans listening to campaign messaging will find themselves being angry at Germany and Europe but not understanding why. If this happens, it will be too late. Germany must avoid a situation where it becomes a political football in a polarized America, and right now, we’re teetering on the brink.

In some circles, “Germany bashing” has already taken hold. Senator JD Vance, for example, tweeted on March 3 that “Germany's conduct in this war is disgraceful, and it's insulting to our voters that too many Republicans go along with it. All of their promises have materialized into manure. Why do American taxpayers subsidize idiotic German energy policy and weak defense policy? A mystery.” In response to another JD Vance tweet attacking German defense spending, Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted from his personal account, “The US is being taken advantage of by our NATO allies. When we consistently meet & exceed our defense obligations while they don’t—but they know they can rely on us to defend them anyway—it starts to appear that we’re indirectly subsidizing their non-defense spending priorities.” If Germany-bashing becomes a mainstream pollical issue, various grievances will all be centered around Germany’s (not Brussels’) inability to meet its commitments.

Germany must realize that President Joe Biden is the most Transatlanticist president Europe has seen in some time, and the honeymoon may soon be over. Even for Biden, it will become more and more politically difficult to defend Germany, especially if it fails to meet its 2% of GDP defense goals, fails to revitalize the Bundeswehr into the fighting force that Europe needs, and fails to play the leadership role that it must play. There is much to be done, and quickly. There is no time to waste.  




Rachel Rizzo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Her research focuses on European security, NATO, and the transatlantic relationship.



All opinions expressed in this piece are solely the author's and can in no way be associated with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung e.V.

New German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, right, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shake hands prior to a meeting at the Defence Ministry in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

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