It has been about a year since Chancellor Scholz stood in front of the Bundestag and delivered a speech declaring a Zeitenwende – a watershed era, or historical turning point. He laid out five courses of action that all together would add up to a Zeitenwende: supporting Ukraine entirely, diverting Putin from the path of war through sanctions and other means, preventing the war from spilling over into Europe by standing by NATO’s collective defense agreement, investing in the security of Germany by modernizing the Bundeswehr, and guaranteeing a secure energy supply.
The circumstances under which this speech was given, just three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, were drastically different than circumstances today – there was a real fear that Ukraine might collapse with days or even hours, and that Russia would be at Poland’s doorstep. A year on, as the war has trended towards territorial stalemate, it is clear that Ukraine has fared much better than many analysts had feared at the beginning of the war. Some have argued that Ukraine’s success on the battlefield has slowed the urgency of the Zeitenwende. In reality, the work of the Zeitenwende is ongoing, and no less urgent, and will likely take many years to be implemented fully – some analysts even argue that it will be the work of a generation. Understanding the barriers that the current government faces in implementing the Zeitenwende, and just how fundamental a shift this is for Germany’s foreign policy, is key.
A number of principles have guided Germany since the end of the Second World War, and throughout the Cold War: military restraint and a commitment to pacifism, a belief in economic interdependence and the power of trade to transform (Wandel durch Handel), integration into the western alliance and European integration, and working within alliances when making decisions. The German focus on working within its democratic alliances, in particular, guided its approach to foreign policy, and meant that the country focused more on crisis management and humanitarian operations than collective defense at home. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call, in more ways than one, and has forced the re-evaluation of many of these precepts that are key to the German self-conception.
This re-evaluation has been accompanied by some significant shifts in German public opinion, though commitment to many of these principles remains, and will likely be slow to change.
The most profound shift is the increase in public support for increased military spending. Germany has keptthe defense budget low for decades, which has meant that the German armed forces have been poorly equipped – a policy that large majorities of the German public agreed with. German opposition to militarization, and an accompanying commitment to pacifism, developed quickly after World War II, in response to the country’s own history of aggression, and persisted throughout the Cold War. The degree to which the war in Ukraine has changed German public opinion on defense spending is therefore especially noteworthy, with one survey showing double-digit increases in support for increased spending across all party-aligned voters (except for the AfD, Germany’s far-right party). The willingness of the German public to support rearmament is historically very significant and marks a real shift in how Germans see themselves and the world around them. The government committed 100 billion euros to defense spending – the debt was granted in June 2022, in what was an unprecedented move for the country – and Chancellor Scholz pledged to spend two percent of Germany’s output on defense, bringing the country in line with a long-standing NATO goal. These commitments taken together show that the German government, like the German public, has begun to conceptualize a different role for Germany within Europe and that they recognize the need to focus more resources on collective defense at home. Though the commitments made were a good first step, there has been significant criticism over the past year that this 100 billion euro budget has been underutilized. The new Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, is embracing the challenge of modernizing the Bundeswehr, pushing for a more accelerated timeline when it comes to the special fund and requesting an additional 10 billion euros be added to the fund. This attitude has endeared him to the German public, making him the most popular German politician in a recent poll: 52 percent of the German people are satisfied with his work. Though progress on this front has been slow, the Defense Ministry seems poised to take a new tack under new leadership. The German public support for rearmament also signifies that the public is on board with at least some of the new German vision for its foreign and security policy.
Though German support for rearmament has changed drastically during the war, the culture of military restraint and a deep skepticism towards military intervention remains, and is a challenge that the current government has had to navigate. Days after the war in Ukraine broke out, Germany reversed a decades-long policy against sending weapons to conflict zones and began to deliver weapons to Ukraine. Since last February, the German government has delivered a wide variety of military support to the country: 34 anti-aircraft guns (GEPARDS) and ammunition, 122 border protection vehicles, 60 drone detection systems, three mine clearing systems, 15 armored recovery vehicles (Bergepanzer 2) and 60,000 40mm rounds of ammunition, to name just a few. Overall, Germany ranks third in total bilateral aid provided to Ukraine, after the United States and the United Kingdom (though comparatively, in terms of percent of GDP their commitments represent, they only rank at 14). Despite the robust weapons commitments that Germany has made, German public opinion remains split on the question, with about 45 percent of respondents in one survey agreeing that Germany should be delivering more weapons to the Ukrainian military and 43 percent dissenting. Though the public remains split on weapons delivery, the German government is committed to continuing to deliver weapons to Ukraine, with the Bundestag approving an extra 12 billion euros for military support to Ukraine over the next decade on March 29.
Another survey shows that only 29 percent of respondents agree that Germany should play a military leadership role in Europe, with 68 percent disagreeing. The same survey shows a continuing preference for restraint and diplomatic engagement. 52 percent of respondents to the question of whether Germany should become more strongly involved in international crises expressing a preference for restraint, and 41 percent said Germany should become more strongly involved. It is clear that the German public’s preference for nonaggression and aversion to taking a leading role in European security, has persisted, even as the war in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reshuffle of the European security order. This represents a challenge not only for the German government, but for the international community, which envisions Germany taking on a more leading role in European security. The German government must continue to chart a new course on foreign and security policy while respecting the desires of the German public. The international community should be there to help, while understanding that German leadership might look different than its vision for the country. A critical step in this process, and one on which the government has not yet been able to deliver, is publicly charting a long-term vision for Germany’s foreign and security policy, and laying out its approach to the Zeitenwende in public strategy documents. The long-awaited National Security Strategy, which was supposed to be unveiled at the Munich Security Conference in February, has run into roadblocks over disagreements as to whether there should be a German “National Security Council,” similar to the one in the United States. Getting the government on the same page and releasing strategy documents that more concretely map out next steps for the Zeitenwende, is critical.
The significant foreign policy shift that the German government is trying to accomplish comes along with more changes for German society. One of the biggest changes of the Zeitenwende so far has been Germany’s complete decoupling from Russia for its energy supply. It previously imported about half of its gas and more than a third of its oil from Russia. Germany has sought out a number of alternatives in the intervening year, with the war pushing forward infrastructure plans that otherwise would have taken years, like the installation of floating liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals. The transformation of Germany’s energy policy over the past year has been nothing short of revolutionary, and was accomplished without significant short-term implications for the German economy. The transformation in energy policy has been accomplished through a mixture of forward-thinking green measures, like committing to a quicker buildup of wind and solar energy, and difficult short-term decisions, like postponing parts of the coal phase-out that the government had committed to. Though not officially part of the Zeitenwende, Germany has also welcomed about 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees. Nearly two-thirds of those refugees arrived in the first three months of the war, between March and May 2022.
Many of the goals that the Zeitenwende outlines require a deep shift in the way that Germany, and the German public, sees itself. The war in Ukraine has begun this shift, but for attitudes to become embedded will take longer. As analyst Liana Fix points out, Japan, a country with a similar postwar culture of military restraint, took more than a decade to change that culture. Rearming the Bundewehr and getting Germany to take up the mantle of security leadership in Europe, in particular, will take time. But the German government must also take steps to solidify its commitments, and in particular must take its monetary commitments to security seriously. Spending the 100 million euros that the government has committed to the Bundeswehr, and meeting the 2 percent threshold that NATO has set, is crucial, and will signal to the international community that Germany is ready to step into a new role for the European security order.
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