Europe’s superpower must play a different role
The Luftwaffe is on a spending spree. Over the past six months, the defence ministry in Berlin ordered 35 stealth multirole combat aircraft, otherwise known as F-35 Lightening jets, 60 Chinook tandem rotor heavy-lift helicopters, and another fifteen Typhoon Eurofighters.
In all, the price tag came to around 39 billion pounds. And that’s not all. When Chancellor Olaf Scholz called a special session of Germany’s parliament on 27 February, three days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he announced a special fund worth 88 billion pounds, increasing the annual defence budget to around 70 billion pounds for the next few years.
“We’re doing this not just because Germany is a reliable ally, we’re also doing this for our own safety and security”, said Scholz as he declared a Zeitenwende – a turning point – a watershed moment for how Germany understands her role in Europe and the Western alliance.
Gone are the days of Angela Merkel’s mantra Wandel durch Handel, change through trade, which dominated German foreign policy for much of the 21st century. It secured an endless supply of cheap Russian gas for German industry and made China by far the country’s largest trading partner. Meanwhile, some allies became increasingly irritated at Berlin’s opportunistic attitude towards paying its share of the Western security infrastructure that has provided the very framework of Germany’s economic success. Barack Obama called its government “complacent”, while Donald Trump accused German industry of “building its success on the backs of US taxpayers who pay for American troops.” Ironically, it was Vladimir Putin who finally forced Germany to get serious about building a credible military capability and increase spending on its armed forces to two per cent of GDP – something NATO members committed to nearly a decade ago.
Henning Hoff from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a Berlin think-tank, calls it “the big bang of German foreign and security policy, which is very good news for the future of transatlantic relations as well as for the EU and its ambitions as a geostrategic actor.”
But it’s only one example of how Putin’s imperial ambitions are changing Germany. Thirty-three years after the end of the Cold War, the country is finally being forced to shoulder more responsibility, find a new economic model and redefine its relationship with some of its closest neighbours. All this change is going to cost a lot of money and test some old certainties.
In some respects, the reinvention of Germany has already happened. Gone is the ardent pacifism that defined the post-war generation, which, admittedly, lived under the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation. Yet, even when that threat crumbled along with the Berlin Wall in 1989, sensitive to the national mood, successive German governments remained reticent to invest in defence, let alone commit soldiers to armed conflict. Putin can claim credit for the radical change in public opinion. In particular, the sense of outrage over the suffering of Ukrainians at the hands of the Kremlin feeds the unflustered pragmatism of younger Germans who feel that a country as rich as theirs should carry some of the burden involved in safeguarding global stability and security. Certainly, sending military aid and cash to Kyiv is one of the least controversial issues in German politics these days.
But suddenly having the third largest defence budget in the world requires a new approach to world affairs. Germany must learn to translate its own geostrategic interests into a foreign policy that is backed not just by economic muscle but by military force. Somehow, for the first time since the Second World War, Europe’s largest economy has to come of age and become more assertive as a global player.
“There needs to be a new culture of strategic thinking” is how Hoff puts it. While German diplomats and civil servants are not trained in this way, the war in Ukraine has forced Berlin’s foreign policy community to rapidly come up to speed on global policy issues such as energy and food security. Similarly, foreign secretary Annalena Baerbock of the Greens has made the climate agenda part of her brief for a department she has tasked with working on global policy solutions.
Baerbock also wants to put international human rights at the centre of her foreign policy and that means a new approach to China. President Xi remains unapologetic about the fate of the Uyghurs and has become increasingly confrontational towards the West. In the same way that Germany has depended too much on Russian gas, it is dangerously reliant on trade with China. Over three million jobs depend on it, and there is every reason to assume that sooner or later Beijing will weaponise these ties as Putin did with gas. Economics minister Robert Habeck recently vetoed a deal on national security grounds that would have seen a Chinese company take a stake in Hamburg’s port operator. But even that shows little more than an awareness of the problem. Actual solutions will need to include a structural transformation of the economy, and ideas on how that might be achieved remain elusive.
Germany must learn to translate its own geostrategic interests into a foreign policy that is backed not just by economic muscle but by military force
It’s hard to find anyone in Berlin these days who underestimates the challenges ahead. Back in May, after twelve weeks of fighting in Ukraine, civil servants in the Chancellery and various ministries engaged in some scenario planning based on truly disturbing figures. With gas storage levels at all-time lows after the winter, it was predicted that GDP could suffer a hit of up to twelve per cent. “We were preparing for something cataclysmic”, one participant reported. As if it hadn’t been obvious before, there was a recognition that German prosperity in recent decades had come at a very high price.
As summer draws to a close, gas storage levels are almost 90 per cent, primarily because the Russians – as addicted to our cash as we are to their fossil fuels – continued to pump gas to Europe until the end of August. And more recent predictions forecast a decline in German GDP of just over four per cent. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), this would still represent the biggest economic contraction since reunification.
For now, something of a collective sense of stoicism prevails in Berlin, together with a quiet acknowledgement that the previous trust placed in Putin’s personal integrity – as a leader who would honour international treaties despite his unabashed hatred of the West – was nothing short of wilful blindness. Britain, with its new prime minister and even a new sovereign, should not underestimate the opportunity to reach out and forge new ties post-Brexit. But it shouldn’t dally. German political parties on both the extreme left and the far right, who have called for a “hot winter of mass demonstration and social disobedience”, are still very much a vocal minority. But winter is coming, and it remains to be seen for how long.
John F Jungclaussen is a journalist and historian. He is a contributing editor at Germany’s Die Zeit and regularly writes about Germany and European affairs in the British media