Not so much Zeitenwende as progressive puffery: Germany’s first national security strategy is long on modish clichés and short on military thinking

Two Leopard 2 main battle tanks and a Puma infantry armoured fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)


Not since Willy Brandt’s 1970s Ostpolitik has a German geopolitical term made such waves as Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende. Amidst the shock and horror of Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine last year, the Chancellor stood up in the Bundestag only three days into the war to explain how Putin’s aggression was a “historical turning point” – a Zeitenwende – for everyone, but especially for Germany which was now committing to cutting its dependence on Russian gas, supplying arms to Ukraine and ramping up defence spending. 

Here was the abrupt end – and reversal – of the venerable German foreign policy tradition of engaging and working with Moscow, primarily for mutual diplomatic and economic benefit. What Brandt started with Ostpolitik, and Angela Merkel took to historic heights – see her crusade in favour of Nord Stream 2 – Scholz brought back full circle to a hard logic reminiscent of the first half of the Cold War when defence against the Soviet threat was the key issue in the West.

Yet the Zeitenwende, with its military emphasis, is supposed to be more than a throwback to the recent past. Today the Bundesrepublik occupies a different position in Europe and the world than post-WW2 West Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall unchained German power: reunification generally restored Deutschland to its Bismarckian geopolitical mass at the heart of Europe, while the euro has ensured its financial domination of the continent like never before. 

Coupled with this amount of economic heft, any question of serious German rearmament becomes a very radical proposition. So when Olaf Scholz wrote in Foreign Affairs last December that “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security”, he created great expectations about the Zeitenwende national security strategy – Germany’s first – that his government had been working on since the Russian invasion. 

But instead of the roar of the German military machine shifting back into gear, the eagerly awaited document produced hardly more than a pipsqueak.  What was supposed to be the blueprint for a vast defence transformation of Europe’s premier power at a time of war turned out to be 74 pages of clichés, fluff and inventories of known German policy positions. Adopting the fashionable framework of “integrated security” – where everything from civilian capabilities in crisis prevention to climate and social inequality now sits on the same strategic continuum with Defence issues – the paper manages to avoid making any clear policy commitments, let alone signalling any shifts commensurate with the Zeitenwende moment. 

Even on the focal question of defence spending there is only a vague statement about allocating 2 per cent of GDP “as an average over a multi-year period”, including the 100 billion euro special fund for defence announced by Scholz last year, which was supposed to come on top of the core defence budget. Instead, the strategy gives a great deal of attention to the German defence industry – emphasising it several times and insisting that its “competitiveness…is crucial and must be improved”. 

This zeal for the German defence-industrial complex is not surprising, but paired with the lacklustre interest in a real military build-up – far from, say, what Japan is doing now – it suggests that nothing fundamental is truly changing in Berlin’s defence outlook.

Even some of the key sinews of 21st century power, i.e. science and technology R&D – which countries like Britain have made a pillar of their approach to national security – only get a passing mention, way down the line, in the German document. And on the “tiny” issue of Ukraine there is just one solitary paragraph which is used not to convey some new resolve to see Kyiv win and Russia lose, but instead to caution against escalation by warning about the war “spreading to neighbouring countries”. 

What does come across very strongly in this strategy and steals the limelight is not, therefore, some hard-nosed realpolitik – or even “mere” policy realism – commensurate with the Zeitenwende rhetoric drama so well staged by the speechwriters in Berlin, but a suite of liberal-progressive ideological priorities distinctly irrelevant to the great security issues at stake. 

We hear of first-order German strategic concerns like fighting poverty and hunger, of eliminating “discriminatory power structures” around the world, of fostering “diversity”, promoting a “socially just” green transformation – but also of how “regulated immigration enriches Germany”, and of course how “unlawful” content on the Internet “needs to be identified and deleted even more rapidly”, with the culprits “held criminally responsible”.

Published by the Foreign Office rather than the Ministry of Defence – further evidence of the misalignments in German thinking on national security – the “strategy” therefore bears all the hallmarks of the country’s Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, whose flagship initiative so far has been a separate new “feminist foreign policy” concept, released in March 2023. The feminist theme itself comes to the fore repeatedly in the national security strategy, including in relation to the “feminist development policy” which anchors Berlin’s activities in the field of foreign aid.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Zeitenwende revolution in German policy announced to such great effect by Olaf Scholz in February 2022 would be more show than substance almost a year and a half later, as evidenced by this new strategy paper. The Federal Republic has built its post-Cold War supremacy in Europe precisely on avoiding a leadership role on defence – instead focusing attention and resources on expanding its economic power, including by partnering with Moscow and Beijing – and free-riding on American security guarantees. 

There is therefore great political resistance in Germany to an expensive change of course; but there is something more. When a country does not use its military and strategic intellectual muscles for long periods of time, they tend to atrophy. This, together with the distorting effects of introducing progressive ideology in strategic policy, also helps explain why Berlin’s national security strategy has undershot the mark. 

But then again, looking back at history, this may be no bad thing – when it comes to German defence, we should be careful what we wish for.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London, and a Fellow at the Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C.