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What's the matter with Germany? Part 2

In part one I gave a broad overview of Germany, how its unique history (with Russia in particular) led to Berlin becoming a semi-witting enabler of Vladimir Putin's imperialist ambitions. “Semi-witting” as this enabling did not come about due to malign intent, but rather through a combination of historical guilt for World War Two in general and the death and suffering inflicted on the people of the Soviet Union especially, and Germany's constructed post-Cold War identity of a nation of hard workers who desire only trade and peace. Prussia, as Napoleon famously put it, was a state hatched from a cannon ball, however its modern descendent, the Federal Republic of Germany, has become soft and accomodating by design, both from within and without. Putin smelled this weakness and capitalised. Even as Ukraine mounts its 2023 counter-offensive, with German Leopard tanks now a key part of Kyiv's newly acquired heavy armour, Berlin continues to avoid taking on a true leadership position in the defence of Europe. And the roots of this hesitation are old and deep.

An issue of ongoing academic debate is how pacifist Germany has been since 1945. (For the purposes of this argument the focus will be on West Germany, the defence and foreign policy of communist East Germany was really dictated by the Soviet Union, and while the official term describing what happened in 1990 is “reunification”, it would be more accurate to describe the former GDR being absorbed into the political and legal structure of the FRG.) This “pacifism” needs to be understood more as a sort of a national mood, not like the (in)famous Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan that forbids that country from ever declaring war. As covered in part one, West Germany's position as a NATO member on the front line of the Cold War meant that it had to be something of a military power in addition to hosting foreign troops. But as Japan has a “Self-Defence Force” that isn't technically a military, so too did Germany have an army, but for most citizens the idea of these soldiers deploying overseas was considered unlikely to deeply undesirable.

“Pacifism” in this context doesn't mean any sort of total opposition to war or even self defence. Rather it's a commitment to peace, the prioritisation of civilian power, cooperation and dialogue. As Jamie Galbraith and Kai Oppermann discuss, this idea co-exists with other key tenets of German foreign policy such as realism (the recognition that a powerful state would be expected to use force or the threat of force to peruse national goals), regionalism and Germany's status as a reluctant hegemon (two concepts relating to how a state that is a powerful member of both the European Union and NATO subordinates much of its political influence and resources to collective decision-making forums). Brian C. Rathbun goes further, calling German pacifism a "myth", arguing instead that the country should be seen as a “normal” European power. While Berlin might have declined to join the “coalition of the willing” for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it did participate in the 1999 Kosovo War, and thus the country should be seen as having an independent foreign policy where decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, not determined by some inflexible ideological position.

When assessing how a state approaches the idea of war, political scientists try and determine what its strategic culture is. What are the assumptions about the role of war in human affairs and the efficacy of the use of force to eliminate threats and the conditions under which force is applied? Kerry Longhurst defines strategic culture as “A distinctive body of beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding the use of force, held by a collective and arising gradually over time through a unique protracted historical process”. Thus, just as one can observe different political cultures in the United States when compared to Australia or Germany, so too can different countries have very different strategic cultures. In her 2018 book Germany and the Use of Force, Longhurst identifies West German security culture as being based around general restraint in the use of armed forces, a preference for non-confrontational deterrence, promoting stability and an aversion to unilateral leadership in security matters, a preference for multilateral solutions. However despite all the changes since reunification, and that Germany is now actively involved in peacekeeping operations around the world, much of this Cold War strategic culture endures, essentially unchanged.

Angela Merkel's 16 years as German chancellor, from 2005 to 2021, were very much an expression of that strategic culture. Her steady and conservative helmsmanship prioritised economic growth and prudent financial management, with a commitment to international consensus-driven foreign policy. Her unwillingness to confront Putin's imperial aggression, directed first against Georgia in 2008 and then against Ukraine from 2014, while continuing to not only trade with Russia but expand economic ties likely emboldened the Kremlin to expand its war aims. As the vice chancellor and minister of finance for the last three and a half years of Merkel's government, her successor as chancellor, Olaf Scholz, it was assumed would represent a continuation of this basic posture. And foreign and defence policy were not major issues in the September 2021 election, although it is instructive to note that both the far left Der Linke (which can trace part of its lineage back to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany) and the far right, Russian funded and supported, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), both called for improved relations with Russia.

The outcome of the election was a so-called “traffic light coalition”, led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), along with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. For the two smaller parties foreign policy was very low on their lists of key issues. The FDP's platform was mostly bringing the bloated pandemic-era budget back under control without raising taxes, and for the Greens it was about aggressively tackling climate change (a part of the Greens' election manifesto was about creating an “anti-racist” and “feminist” foreign policy). So while the three parties all agreed on enough fundamentals to form a government, this is not the most natural governing coalition, and the Ukraine war has strained this in various ways. At times the internal friction has spilled into the open, and recent electoral successes for the AfD have been blamed on the fractious and unpopular government. Former US House speaker Tip O'Neill might not have coined the phrase “All politics is local”, but it's an undeniable truism. And right now increasing energy costs and inflation which can, in part, be blamed on the war in Ukraine, are likely larger motivating factors for many voters than ideals of freedom and human rights.

As the leader of the coalition, it is the policies and ideology of the SPD that determine the trajectory of the government and the country. And for decades the SPD's attitude towards Russia has been defined by “Ostpolitik”. This originated with Willy Brandt, who was West German chancellor from 1969 to 1974. While mostly an approach to East Germany, as noted above, Moscow was the real power behind the GDR, so it was further east Brandt looked in order to achieve rapprochement through trade. However as Angela Stent argues, this policy of engagement through trade was eventually adopted by the conservative Christian Democrats (Merkel's party), and did not end with the collapse of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. However while Berlin was supportive of NATO's eastward expansion, this had limits, with bipartisan opposition to former Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine joining. Additionally, Russia's grievances about its treatment in the 90s as well as insistence it receive special consideration as a former great power found a more sympathetic hearing in Berlin than such talk did in London or Washington.

Despite enduring the ongoing Russian military presence in Transnistria, the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of parts of Ukraine, Ostpolitik could not survive past February 24, 2022. Three days later, Olaf Scholz addressed the Bundestag in a special session, laying out a radical change in German foreign and security policy. In his speech the chancellor proclaimed a Zeitenwende, which is best translated as a “turning point” or “watershed”, a shift from one era to another. The headlines were new economic sanctions against Russia, a special fund of 100 billion Euros to modernise the German armed forces (Bundeswehr), a commitment to a range of EU armament programmes and raising defence spending to 2% of GDP, a figure that NATO members agreed to in 2014, but that Germany (and other states) had so far failed to meet. While this was a big step up from Scholz's government's first response to the invasion, which was to offer 5000 helmets, a gesture that was widely ridiculed, Berlin's subsequent actions haven't lived up to the promises laid out in the speech. A year on there had been a lot of progress in decoupling from Russia economically, with imports of oil and gas plummeting, however military spending increases have been slow to glacial, and any change in Germany's strategic culture incremental at best.

The outcome of these slow domestic processes has been a longer war, more Ukrainians casualties, both soldiers and civilians, more damage to infrastructure and a longer and more expensive road to recovery after the war. This is not, of course, a failure unique to Germany; the United States hesitated before supplying the tactically crucial HIMARS systems in mid 2022, there was almost a year of protracted and painful negotiations before the first Ukrainian pilots began to be trained on American built F-16s (with the aircraft themselves to be donated by various European states) and it's been almost a year and a half since the first request for long range ATACMS missiles, that look like finally being delivered in late 2023. Scholz prevaricated for months and months before agreeing to the transfer of German Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and this same tiresome routine is being repeated with the Taurus cruise missiles when it's already obvious what is most likely to happen. There will be a long debate with the government, a lot of hand wringing, and then these will be delivered; and in the interim there will have been more needless deaths and suffering.

As Europe's largest economy and a key part of both it and NATO's defensive architecture, Germany has not been living up to its own declared values in how its has approached its own defence spending and its commitment to helping the people Ukraine after Russia's illegal invasion. While some on the populist right in countries such as Poland and the United Kingdom still try and score cheap points off the actions of the Third Reich, for everyone else the memories of World War Two should not determine European and global security policy in the 21st Century. Germany's awareness of its own history is not an excuse to shirk its responsibilities as a global leader today. Berlin needs to make good on the promise of Zeitenwelde and drive a change in the nation's strategic culture. Even on a base political level, Olaf Scholz should recognise that this a moment for strong and decisive leadership, this is his opportunity to not only amend for the (understandable but also, with the benefit of hindsight, unforgivable) sins of his predecessors in accommodating Russian imperialism, under the aegis of this being good for business. The costs that now must be counted above all else are human lives and the future of democracy and freedom in the world.