TAG Virtual Conference: Zeitenwende – An Era of Change?

September 13th, 2022

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

“We (Germans) have to pay for solidarity”.

The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine led the German political class, people and armed forces to begin a change of mind-set over the role of Germany in European defence and the utility and purpose of force, but it will be a long process. Change is by no means assured due to a profound lack of understanding about deterrence in Germany, the tendency to equate more institutions with increased fighting power, and the huge cost of improving the readiness of the Bundeswehr. However, Germany has abandoned its belief that reliance on Russian energy would lead to convergence between German and Russian values and policies with the mantra of ‘wandel durch handel’ (change through trade) and the belief that mercantilism is grand strategy little more than self-serving strategic fraudulence. Berlin’s belief that energy could be securely sourced from Russia, production out-sourced to China, and debt ‘out-sourced’ to other Eurozone states lies in tatters.

The immediate consequences are the decisions to abandon Nordstream 2, the provision of weapons to Ukraine, and the rebuilding of the Bundeswehr. The latter decision has three main elements: the establishment of a ‘Special Budget’ ostensibly to help invest in a future force, an increase the defence budget to 2% GDP, which if realised would afford Germans an increase in the defence budget from the current $47bn to $75bn, and the decision to procure F-35s and a range of advanced drones.  

Smoke and mirrors? Much of the increase to the defence budget comes from the national contingency fund and is thus temporary and could fall going forward, whilst in the absence of a clear military strategy much of the ‘Special Budget’ has been consumed by short-term fixes to “fill all the holes in the yard”. It is also far too small to correct the decades-long hollowing out of the Bundeswehr, particularly under Chancellor Merkel. There are also profound splits in both the governing coalition and opposition over the extent to which Germany should re-invest in its armed forces, with the biggest block seemingly Chancellor Schölz.

The role of allies will be vital in compelling Germany to really “break an era”, particularly the US. Germany is already well “behind the curve” in its efforts to reach 2%. Germany is also beginning to face hard political choices over cost and consequences. Scholz’s August 2022 Prague Speech highlighted strains in the defence-strategic relationship with France is under strain, particularly over the Future Combat Air System and air defence. The NATO Strategic Concept and the Madrid Summit again seem more important to Berlin than the EU Strategic Compass and its promise to afford the Union a “full spectrum force”. The relationship with Poland is not at all easy given Warsaw’s claim for €1.3 trillion of war reparations and the Poles may well claim some of the proposed expenditure as reparations-in-kind. The design of the German future force will also need to be driven by high-end interoperability with US forces. The re-orientation of the Bundeswehr back from expeditionary crisis management to bulwark of land deterrence in NATO’s expanding north and north-eastern Europe will inevitably push Berlin closer to Washington and London. The minimum military test of Zeitenwende will be the creation by 2030 of at least three fully-equipped and agile combat-ready Bundeswehr divisions.

A new National Security Strategy will probably be launched at the 2023 Munich Security Conference which will suggest the depth and extent of the Zeitenwende, including its relationship with China. Germany can no longer hide in the plain sight of history if it fails to follow through with Zeitenwende and Berlin can no longer imply an equivalency between China, Russia and the United States. Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Zeitenwende is defence expenditure. For much of the last twenty to thirty years the Bundeswehr has been a ‘Potemkin force’, more appearance than strength as the political class has transferred the responsibility for, and the risk of, making Germany military missions work onto their young men and women in uniform. As such, German defence policy has been a monumental waste of German taxpayer’s money as well a form of free-riding on the tax-payers of allies, most notably the United States. 

The more impeccably democratic, Atlanticist, European Germany spends on defence the greater the value for money that will be afforded to its taxpayers and the more equitable the sharing of burdens with its over-stretched allies and partners. For that reason, and because for the first time since the end of the Cold War Germans feel threatened, Zeitenwende’s three principal drivers are likely to endure. First, the settled German political settlement on defence has been profoundly disrupted by Russia. Second, the renewed and consequent focus on what Germany must do to defend itself is sharp. Third, self-criticism over why and how Germany failed/refused to understand Russia’s drift towards war is deep. It is hard to see how Berlin can turn the clock back as A.E. Houseman once wrote, “The past is another country. They do things differently there”.

Julian Lindley-French is the Chair of The Alphen Group