Germany’s National Security Strategy should aim for more than just a return to the status quo ante but with more money. The Zeitenwende is forcing Germany to reinvent itself as a European security actor.

Shortly after Russia launched its all-out war on Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of the Zeitenwende that is now unfolding. The Russian invasion has shown that it is impossible to integrate the world’s biggest country into the existing European security architecture as a responsible stakeholder. President Vladimir Putin clearly intends to destroy the cooperative security order Europeans once knew. Even if the war in Ukraine ends or becomes a frozen conflict, members of the European Union and NATO will need to prepare for a long-term confrontation with Russia.

Therefore, the Zeitenwende is forcing Germany to reinvent itself as a European security actor in key ways. This shift is especially clear when one recognises that the conflict with Russia is taking place in a geopolitical environment increasingly dominated by the great power competition and systemic rivalry between China and the United States. The emergence of opposing blocs poses an existential challenge for Germany, as its export-oriented economy is highly dependent on functioning globalisation.

At the very least, Germany will need to say goodbye to certain guiding principles to which it has long adhered. These include, above all, the idea of the so-called European peace dividend that made the country see itself primarily as a civilian power, despite its increasing participation in out-of-area military operations. Another such principle centres on the belief in the beneficial and democratising effects of economic interdependence with autocracies such as Russia and China. A massive energy crisis is now showing Germans how dangerous it is to depend on just one actor in a strategically important area: Russia has instrumentalised this dependency as a means of hybrid warfare.

These steps should only be the starting point of a comprehensive process to redefine Germany’s security role in Europe and the world.

In some ways, Germany’s reinvention of its security policy began with the chancellor’s speech in the Bundestag on 27 February 2022. The special fund for the Bundeswehr, the implementation of the target to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, and the decision to buy American F-35 fighter jets amount to a small revolution in German defence policy that, until recently, many observers thought impossible. Nevertheless, these steps should only be the starting point of a comprehensive process to redefine Germany’s security role in Europe and the world.

In view of this, the country’s National Security Strategy should aim for more than just a return to the status quo ante but with more money. It needs to define what Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, can and wants to contribute to European and international security in these new conditions – and how it can achieve this.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock argues that the National Security Strategy should be based on a comprehensive understanding of security. She is right. Previous strategy documents, such as the 2016 White Paper and the 2017 guidelines entitled ‘Preventing Crises, Managing Conflicts, Promoting Peace’, are based on a broad concept of security that encompasses not only politics and the military but also human, economic, and ecological factors. At the same time, such a comprehensive concept risks becoming arbitrary and overstretched. The strategy should not be a Christmas tree. At the launch event for the development of the National Security Strategy at the Federal Foreign Office on 18 March 2022, Baerbock summarised the core challenge of this process: “we need to have a comprehensive understanding of security without it becoming totally vague”.

Accordingly, the main task is to define the priorities of a comprehensive security strategy – at a time when battles reminiscent of the second world war are being fought in eastern Europe, military tensions in the Indo-Pacific are rising, the climate crisis is accelerating, and famines in the global south and the rise of authoritarian leaders threaten Europe’s security. After all, Germany’s capacities and resources – and, as such, its ability to shape events – are limited.

The strategy should adopt a “first things first” approach. Looking at recent events, one can see that Germany is poorly positioned in terms of even the most basic elements of security: without US support, the country would not have been able to evacuate its own citizens and withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan. On the day Russia launched its all-out war on Ukraine, Chief of the German Army Alfons Mais stated that the army was “more or less naked”. If a German brigade is to deploy as part of NATO’s Response Force, it will need to borrow equipment left and right from other parts of the Bundeswehr. All these examples show that Germany has failed to create the basic conditions for a broader and stronger form of security engagement. This is why the National Security Strategy should pursue an approach that addresses these fundamental deficits first – and, at the same time, establishes the greatest possible capacity to act.

Without a functioning and operational Bundeswehr, Germany is not a credible security guarantor. In the context of Russian revisionism, one priority should be to enable the Bundeswehr to play a leading role in NATO’s deterrence and defence arrangements, and to become the backbone of conventional defence in Europe in terms of alliance cohesion. This is particularly important given that it is unclear how much longer the US will be willing to bear the main burden of defending European security.

The idea of European sovereignty should be a guiding principle of the strategy process. Germany’s governing parties made this a part of their coalition agreement. In their interpretation of the concept, European sovereignty is about building and maintaining Europe’s capacity to act independently to protect its interests and values. The goal is to enable Europe to make its own decisions in an interdependent international system – and to enforce them in a more competitive geopolitical environment, even when faced with resistance. The coalition agreement mentions strategically important areas such as energy, health, imports of raw materials, and digital technologies. In all these fields, the aim is to make Germany and Europe less dependent and vulnerable, and to protect critical technology and infrastructure.

This goal accounts for the idea that one can no longer handle crises and conflicts with conventional military power alone. Players such as Russia and China understand that they can use interdependent relationships as a weapon to achieve their geopolitical goals – especially when these relationships are asymmetrical.

If the German government cannot act and make decisions independently of hostile external influence, this will strictly limit its political room for manoeuvre. The protection of Europe’s territorial integrity and the avoidance of critical dependencies on autocratic and militarily aggressive states create the preconditions for Germany to be able to engage globally with issues such as securing people’s livelihoods through climate protection. The pursuit of these aims should be at the centre of the National Security Strategy.

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By Xi Fun