HAMBURG – The ground is fundamentally shifting in Europe. Beyond the horror of watching the war in Ukraine unfold, there is a sense of insecurity that reaches deeper into the immediate and more distant past. As the post-Cold War order is challenged by Russia, Germany is — as so often — confronted with questions about its own identity and understanding of itself.
After some embarrassing handwringing Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, presented a stunning turn-around in a speech to the Bundestag, the German federal parliament, abandoning fundamental tenets of military thinking and strategy like the principle not to deliver weapons into areas of conflict, the idea of a reduced German army and the concept of military restraint, combined with the belief that trade is the best guarantee for peace.
Scholz promised to raise the level of military spending to 2 per cent of GDP, as required by Nato but never fulfilled by Germany — presently it is about 1.2 per cent. He vowed to establish a special military budget (“Sondervermögen”) of €100bn anchored in the German constitution. And Germany will supply anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. In tone the speech was stern; in substance it marked a new period in German, and thus European, history.
What has come to light, in Germany and beyond, are the failures of the 1990s to understand both history and the future. There was a collective failure to use the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to develop a new concept for a security architecture in Europe, one that would move constructively beyond the doctrine of Nato as conceived to counter one threat and one threat only: an attack by the Soviet Union.
Thirty years later Nato can be seen both as part of the solution and part of the problem. The argument can be made that without Nato, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states would face a similar threat to Ukraine and that a Ukraine within Nato would not have been invaded. The argument can also be made that limitations in Nato’s strategy and presence are laid open by the ascent of Russia, from its entry into the Syrian war in 2014 up to its second invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Scholz’s speech was particularly relevant in this context: he opened up Germany to a new military future in Europe, taking on more responsibility for the security architecture and possibly advancing more profound changes in the way the continent acts vis-à-vis Russia. At the same time, he turned backwards to rely on and reinforce thinking that dates back to the 90s and is part of the present problem.
In many ways, the move was typical of Scholz: wait a long time, some would say too long, before taking a position, and then advance some measure of public spending that might or might not lack a thorough or new strategic perspective. It also opened a rift, not much perceived in the frenzy of the moment, between Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) on the one hand and Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, and Robert Habeck, the minister for the economy and environment, both of the Greens, on the other.
In several respects, the Greens — and the party’s members, long derided as lacking experience in matters of war and peace — hold the key to a truly new approach to German foreign policy, one that would embrace the complexity of the security challenges of the moment and the next decades. The war that Russia is waging against Ukraine is a war of the 20th century, with oil and gas as central elements. In the 21st century, geopolitics will be energy politics and will be about sustainable energy. Both Baerbock and Habeck show that they have understood this change.
As the Green candidate for chancellor, running against Scholz, Baerbock campaigned on the promise of a more value-driven foreign policy, offering a much harsher condemnation and warning of a Russian threat early in the campaign. She laid bare the contradictions of German thinking about energy and security, in particular the reliance on Russian oil and gas. The construction of the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, long supported by the SPD and Scholz, who called it a “commercial project”, is a testament to the conflicted position of German social democracy.
These conflicts are older than the “end of history”, the moment and illusion of liberal democracy’s triumph after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For a long time the SPD was stuck in older patterns of thought that go back to the chancellor Willy Brandt and his “Ostpolitik” of the 1960s and 1970s — the idea that peace is not a result of aggression or confrontation, but of time, trade and a tentative support for reform and civil right movements. One could argue that it actually worked.
This thinking is still present in German society and discourse, in public opinion as well as private discussions. The question of war is one of identity in this country; the opposition to war mixes genuine reflection about the German past with a more pragmatic approach that still sees business and trade as the best way to avoid conflicts — or to profit from them. So-called “Russlandversteher”, a derogatory term for advocates of a more lenient line towards Russia, were vocal in late-night talk shows. It did not help either that the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder was acting as a main lobbyist of the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom.
The conservatives, to be fair, did not fare much better. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former defence minister of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s party, was most explicit about this, in a strange self-accusation that sounded like a confession of sorts. “I’m so angry at ourselves for our historical failure,” she wrote on Twitter. “After Georgia, Crimea and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin.” She went on: “We have forgotten the lesson of [former chancellors] Schmidt and Kohl that negotiation always comes first, but we have to be militarily strong enough to make non-negotiation not an option for the other side.”
This addressed a wider mood in the country, which abolished compulsory military service for all young men in 2011. The German army, the Bundeswehr, has been a constant source of scandals in the last few years — lacking the right equipment, producing compromised contracts with consultants, wasting a lot of the €40bn to €50bn it receives every year. The harsh statement of one retired Nato general was that the German army would not withstand an onslaught of Russian forces.
The vacuum created by Germany is thus both strategic and military, a lack of willingness to step up to the role it needs to take because of its size and, one could argue, its history. But this, of course, is the deepest level of hesitancy about staying out of the fray for most of the last decades, even if the German army was participating in conflicts in Mali or Afghanistan, mostly through humanitarian missions, leaving the actual fighting to others.
And this is where the Greens enter the scene, once again. It was the foreign minister of the time, Joschka Fischer of the Greens, who shocked Germany into entering the war in the Balkans alongside Nato in 1999, one of the major ruptures in the country’s post-war history. Now, again, it is a Green foreign minister who is responsible for guiding Germans’ response to this aggression.
At the age of 41, Baerbock is of a different generation to Scholz, who is 63. She is the most visible face of a clear stance against the Kremlin’s aggression, calling out the lies of her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, not ruling out sending weapons to Ukraine even before the invasion. How her position plays out in the coming weeks and months will be be decisive for any future security architecture. It will be up to people like Baerbock to step up and develop an idea of how to deal with conflict and aggression in a post-post-Cold War Europe.
As German media report, Scholz did not consult Baerbock or, for that matter, Habeck about his plans for a massive expansion of German military spending. However, he did talk to the finance minister, Christian Lindner of the conservative-liberal Free Democratic Party, and also to representatives of the opposition CDU. There is an apparent rift between the old thinking and the new, one relying on the reality of fossil fuel, the other embracing the sustainable future — and with it a different geopolitical perspective.
The impression of Scholz is of a man with a financial “bazooka”, as German media called it; Baerbock and the Greens are a party with a vision. It is clear that security politics is energy politics, that climate change is not distinct from the survival of democracy. And a different economic thinking is essential for any lasting peaceful order in Europe. Baerbock stands for this new approach, still in the shadows, waiting to emerge. Once again, as in the late 1990s, the more radical shift in foreign policy thinking, both more aggressive and more constructive, comes from the Greens.
One thing is clear: the responsibility for this war lies with Russia. But it is equally clear that the lack of strategy and preparation is a failure of the West in general and of Germany in particular.