Gesine Weber analyses the first German national security strategy, suggesting it reflects the current status quo more than a significant shift in strategic thinking.
Germany published its long-expected national security strategy last Wednesday – the first of its kind. The document reflects continuity rather than change in German foreign and security policy, however it is only the starting point for a slowly developing strategic debate and culture.
When the German security strategy was published, those waiting for a ‘Zeitenwende’, a change of an era, were likely to be disappointed. In fact, the document is characterised by a high degree of continuity: in the very beginning, the strategy outlines the close partnership with France and Germany’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance. In contrast, the UK and Poland, important partners for Germany in Europe, are not explicitly mentioned; this can be understood as ‘playing it safe’ as it underlines historical continuity and avoids prioritising certain relationships over others.
When it comes to security and defence, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of NATO for defence and deterrence, whereas the focus regarding EU security and defence is on the implementation of the EU’s Strategic Compass, managing security in the European neighbourhood, and tackling hybrid threats. The government’s approach on China, one of the most contested issues in the drafting process, is in line with Germany’s and the EU’s current approach, describing China simultaneously as a partner, competitor and rival. More details can be expected to be outlined in the German China strategy, which is likely to be published in July.
The perhaps most significant change is the approach of the document itself: the strategy clearly links geopolitical challenges to citizens’ security through an ‘integrated’ approach, bringing together robustness, resilience and sustainability as three central pillars. With the palpable impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on the daily lives of many citizens, this approach is more than overdue, and the fact that the German government so clearly communicates the importance of geopolitical changes for the security of citizens constitutes a significant shift. Particularly in light of financial trade-offs that will need to be made at one point to provide appropriate financial means for security, this is clearly an important step.
Beyond what is included, it is also worth considering the missing elements. The big picture of security challenges and the multitude of elements included makes it difficult to identify clear policy priorities for Germany. While the strategy provides the government’s analysis of today’s world order, there is little vision about how Germany aims to shape the future course of events through concrete action – beyond the broad parameters like multilateralism or the respect for international law. In contrast to the coalition agreement concluded in late 2021, the strategy does not contain the terms of ‘European strategic autonomy’ or ‘European sovereignty’ anymore, although the essence of the idea, namely the need for Europe to step up as an international actor, can be found throughout the entire document. Yet overall, despite reiterating German support for EU enlargement and reforms, a broader vision for what Germany wants Europe to look like in the future is missing.
Yet, the biggest shortcoming of the strategy is related to the budget: while Germany reiterates its commitment to spending 2% of its GDP on defence on a multiannual average and underlines that the special fund of 100 billion euros, announced by Chancellor Scholz in February 2022, will be used to achieve this goal in the next years, it is unclear how the government aims to finance its ambitions beyond 2025. Asked about this aspect in the press conference for the presentation of the strategy, finance minister Lindner admitted that Germans will have to expect trade-offs between investments in other areas and defence investment. All these shortcomings reflect that the strategy is a document based on the lowest common denominator among the three coalition parties, and that catering their respective interests came at the cost of a clear vision.
On this backdrop, one might be tempted to ask why one should bother at all about the strategy that looks so much more like continuity and status quo than change. However, this perception is misleading in the context of Germany– because German strategic culture and thinking is just emerging.
When the government announced its ambition of drafting a national security strategy in the coalition agreement in late 2021, this was strongly welcomed by the security community in Germany, but sparked a public debate about the necessity of such a strategy. The start of Russia’s war on Ukraine has significantly changed the public debate and brought questions of security and defence into focus, and so have the government’s communication vis-à-vis its citizens and about foreign policy. The strategy reflects that Germany is slowly learning the language of geopolitics because it is the first time for a document to elaborate explicitly on the relationship between values and interests, and to spell out German interests.
In this regard, the strategy can be seen as a status quo snapshot of German strategic thinking in 2023. There is little doubt that this will have to evolve over the next years, but the strategy also explicitly states that the document is supposed to be a starting point and not an end. In the context of the German strategic culture, the process of drafting the security strategy itself already constitutes progress that cannot be neglected. Besides the involvement of different ministries, the Chancellery and the regions, the drafting process was also accompanied by a series of dialogues between the government and citizens.
Nevertheless, the strategy is not only read by a German audience, but also by Germany’s partners – and it risks leaving them with only little more information about Germany’s approach to geopolitics and security policy. While most partners are also aware that Germany still has to catch up with others in terms of strategic thinking, the strategy would have been an opportunity to do so. Yet, by mostly producing a lowest common denominator paper which outlines the status quo, it may also raise questions whether the famous ‘Zeitenwende’ will actually be followed by concrete action and changes in foreign policy. To make sure that the strategy does not become a paper tiger, additional more specific strategies clearly linking means and action will be needed to flesh out the future of German security policy. The upcoming China strategy can be a litmus test for this endeavour.
By Gesine Weber, PhD candidate, King’s College London.