Chancellor Scholz and the Lack of Sustainability in German Security Policy

On the 5th of December, German chancellor Olaf Scholz published an article titled „The Global Zeitenwende – How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era“
On the 5th of December, German chancellor Olaf Scholz published an article titled „The Global Zeitenwende – How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era“

By Dr. Andrew Denison (German text)

Germany is a wonderful place to call home. Nowhere else in Europe do so many people live so well. Understandably, Germans often talk about their desire for sustainability or Nachhaltigkeit. Indeed, no country has a greater interest than Germany in sustaining today’s open international order, that is, securing the political, economic, and military dominance enjoyed by the liberal democracies of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Yet Germany’s foreign policy suffers from a lack of sustainability, that is, more of the same will not suffice to secure the order from which Germany so profits. A country as newly populous, rich, and vulnerable as Germany must look at the world in a new way. A sustainable Germany will not only invest more in defense. A sustainable Germany will be clearer about what it wants in tomorrow’s world – and what it needs to get it. What Germany lacks is the willingness to engage in conflict, whether at home or in the world. Too many Germans are too focused on reconciliation instead of confrontation, on peace instead of victory. There is a lack of tragic sensitivity, of the insight that violence can sometimes only be answered with violence.

Strategic Deviations
German strategy on Russia, Ukraine, China, and Iran often deviates often from the western consensus. Had the nations of NATO followed German strategy, all of Ukraine would likely be occupied by Russia; China would have a much easier time exerting military pressure on its neighbors, imprisoning Uighurs, threatening Taiwan, and crushing democracy in Hong Kong; Iran would have been stronger in Syria, closer to Russia and more capable of oppressing opposition.

German strategies have sought to build bridges rather than confronting aggression. Most, though not all Germans still see the country´s role as mediator between the United States (and its more hawkish allies) on the one side, and Russia or China on the other. This is one of the few areas (apart from the desire for a “sovereign Europe”, whatever that might mean) where Berlin and Paris see themselves in similar roles. Other NATO countries criticize this self-chosen role, thinking Germany and France would rather be referees calling fouls than strong players on a strong team that wants to win.

Germany’s mainstream thinking on foreign policy – including its fundamental flaws – finds clear reflection in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent essay in the influential American journal, Foreign Affairs. The Chancellor has much to say about the many things Germany has done for Europe – for which Germany deserves praise. All the same, the essay also sets out objectives that seem unsettlingly unrealistic.

No New Cold War!
Chancellor Scholz titles his article, The Global Zeitenwende. How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era. One can argue about how global Scholz’s announcement of the passing of an era (Zeitenwende) really is. What raises more serious questions is Scholz’s claim to have a recipe for avoiding a new Cold War. The strategic goals Scholz sets out in his article would tend to weaken rather than increase the West’s pressure on Russia and China, make Russia and China believe they could divide the Western alliance. Scholz’s goals would more likely exacerbate than avoid a new Cold War.

Scholz argues for confronting Russia and China, but for doing so without recreating a bipolar confrontation between two blocs. He concludes that while western strength and unity is important, “we must also avoid the temptation to divide the world once again into blocs. This means making every effort to build new partnerships, pragmatically and without ideological blinders.” It would seem the more dangerous „temptation“ would be to believe that one can confront the existential danger posed by Russia and China without “recreating the bipolar confrontation” if only one can avoid “ideological blinders.”

Scholz speaks of a new multipolar order – „new powers have strengthened or re-emerged“. He appears to forget that Western strategy after the Second World War was always geared towards containing and deterring the nuclear-armed multinational empires of Russia and China. If the world is multipolar today, it was so at the time of the Korean War and the Berlin crises, or the Vietnam War and Ostpolitik, or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Tiananmen massacre. Russia’s war against Ukraine and China’s crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, as well as massive rearmament and increasing military provocation of Taiwan and maritime shipping in the South China Sea are evidence of continuity rather than change. No Zeitenwende there.

Scholz claims that Germany aspires to become „a guarantor of European security, just as our allies expect us to be, a bridge builder“, as if the allies‘ expectations were the main reason for opposing future military threats to Germany. Scholz wants Germany to be a „bridge builder“. Well-intentioned, certainly, but Scholz does not make clear what kind of bridge this should be and what role the most important span (Germany) should play, is not clear – especially when Russia and China want to weaken, if not destroy the bridges Germany builds.

Independent in a Multipolar World!
Scholz says, “The central question is this: How can we, as Europeans and as the European Union, remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world?” This begs the question of whether Europe has ever been – in the decades since the end of World War II – an independent actor.
More importantly, Germans should not ignore that the United States is relatively more powerful than it has been for a long time. On the one hand, the US has assembled a coalition the likes of which the world has not seen since the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. (The one with the most friends wins.) On the other hand, Europe, in all its diversity, seems no closer to unity than ever before. China today faces opposition not only from the United States but from much of Europe and Asia, and its form of government seems less viable than ever. Russia and Iran also have problems.

No Competing Blocs!
As misleading as the assumption of a multipolar world is, even worse is the notion that, “Germany and Europe can help defend the rules-based international order without succumbing to the fatalistic view that the world is doomed to once again separate into competing blocs.” Confronting threats from Russia and China without dividing the world into “competing blocs” seems an impossible task.

Avoiding blocs seems particularly difficult if, “a revisionist Russia made it impossible for diplomacy to succeed;” if, “imperialism had returned to Europe;” if, “the world must not let Putin get his way;” if, ”we will not, however, accept the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, poorly disguised by sham referendums. To end this war, Russia must withdraw its troops.” Avoiding bloc formation also becomes difficult when China has, to put it in diplomatic terms, taken a “noticeable turn toward isolation and away from openness.”

Basing the objective of no competing blocs on the idea that, “our experience of being split in half during an ideological and geopolitical contest gives us a particular appreciation of the risks of a new cold war,” is not convincing. Where Scholz sees the “risks” for Germany is unclear: Does he fear escalation and a war or, rather, Germany’s increasing dependence on the United States, higher German defiance spending and fewer opportunities for beneficial trade with the enemy?

Main Provider!
Scholz sees Germany’s role “to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe.” Why he is reluctant to say that Germany will be “the” main European provider of European security is unclear. Germany’s GDP is one quarter larger than that of France or Britain and Germany should invest at least one quarter more in its military, making Germany’s military the best on the continent, the main European provider, and nothing less. This will be all the more important if Germany wants to reduce its dependence on French, British and American nuclear weapons.

Scholz speaks of increasing German defense budgets and ongoing efforts to devise a national security strategy: “This decision marks the starkest change in German security policy since the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955.” Many would argue that the post-Cold War decision to halve German defense spending was the “starkest,” if also least prudent, change in post-war German security policy. The defense budget declined from 2,9 percent of GDP in 1990 to 1,5 percent of GDP in 1995. Whether the German defense budget will double by 2027 remains uncertain.

Have Your Cake – and Eat It Too!
Chancellor Scholz does not speak for all Germans. The country is engaged in a debate about security like nothing since the Euromissile crisis of the early 1980s. Polls show increasing numbers of Germans supporting German leadership and a more confrontational policy toward Russia and China. The opposition CDU and two of three government coalition partners support a much tougher German policy, but the SPD does not. The Chancellor and the defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, do not. Instead, they express faith in avoiding a Cold War, in a Hegelian resolution of contradiction, hoping they can have their Kuchen and eat it too. Unfortunately, no Zeitenwende there.