*I recently wrote this policy memo for the Global Intelligence Trust and have reposted it here

Sam Seitz

Germany recently published its new defense white paper, outlining its vision for the future of the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) and German foreign policy (1). This document represents a significant break with Germany’s past strategy of nonintervention and diplomacy and suggests a greater German willingness to utilize force and military power to achieve foreign policy objectives. To be clear, Germany is still a reluctant power, skeptical of overt military action. Nevertheless, its new white paper suggests that Germany may be growing more comfortable with a more forceful foreign policy.

German foreign policy has always been characterized by restraint and caution, as the excesses of Nazi-era aggression remain burned into the minds of German citizens and policymakers (2). Indeed, even during the dangerous years of the Cold War, Germany remained committed to diplomacy and peace. The Federal Republic of Germany (Western Germany) certainly maintained a significant and well-trained military force during the Cold War, but it also sought to maintain a policy of moderation, embracing Ostpolitik (“eastern politics,” a policy of rapprochement toward East Germany) under the leadership of Bundeskanzler Willy Brandt. Ostpolitik worked to moderate tensions between East and West, and resulted in the normalization of relations with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Germany’s pacific foreign policy strategy continued into the post-Cold War era. During the First Gulf War, for example, Germany was reluctant to join the American-led coalition deploying to liberate Kuwait. While Germany eventually relented to American demands, it provided purely economic and logistical support (4). This skepticism at the use of force was sustained into the 21st century, with Germany refusing to help topple Saddam’s regime in Iraq and placing significant caveats on its deployment to Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States (5).

Recent geopolitical turmoil such as the Russian annexation of Crimea and the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Europe has forced Germany to consider more aggressive foreign policy actions. Thus, it is not surprising that Germany’s new strategy embraces a foreign policy that is more willing to utilize Machtpolitik (“politics of force/power”). Indeed, Angela Merkel’s opening remarks highlight Germany’s need to redefine its goals and pursue a more active foreign policy agenda. This is nowhere more evident than in the report’s statements on Russia, which decry Putin’s aggressive posturing and strategic rivalry with the West. Germany appears to no longer want to act as a link between East and West as it did under Brandt, instead choosing to firmly side with the United States in opposition to Russia’s provocative and illegal actions in Eastern Europe. The white paper also reaffirms Germany’s commitment to the NATO alliance, an important point given German citizens’ tepid support of the principle of collective security (6). On top of its reaffirmation of its support for NATO, the white paper expresses a greater willingness to join ad hoc coalitions instead of rigidly requiring UN approval before deploying military force. This is an important development because it grants Germany far greater foreign policy flexibility and allows NATO allies to request German military support in a greater range of contingencies.

Germany’s rhetorical commitment to NATO and multilateral military action is supported by substantive changes to German defense policy. Germany is already the third largest defense spender in Europe, and recent increases in German defense spending suggest that Germany’s commitment to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP is more than just an empty promise (7). This increase in spending is complemented by an increase in the size of the Bundeswehr to 185,000, the second largest force in Europe (8). Moreover, there has been significant work under Defense Minister von der Leyen to reign in procurement costs and make defense spending more efficient. Specifically, Germany has amalgamated its two armaments agencies into one department and worked to address major equipment deficiencies in accordance with Agenda Rüstung, the German plan to improve readiness levels throughout its forces (9). According to Jeffrey Rathke, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, these measures have bolstered public confidence in the Bundeswehr, leading to greater public support for defense spending (8).

This change in foreign policy is seen not only in the new defense white paper, but also in a recent article published by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walther Steinmeier in Foreign Affairs. In his article Germany’s New Global Role, Steinmeier writes that while skeptical of military power’s ability to solve every problem, he and his government fully embrace the use of military force when appropriate. As Steinmeier explains, “Germany’s path to greater military assertiveness has not been linear, and it never will be. Germans do not believe that talking at roundtables solves every problem, but neither do they think that shooting does” (10). Steinmeier is a historically pacific foreign minister who is deeply skeptical of the use of military force. Thus, his affirmation of Germany’s willingness to use military force indicates that even the most dovish elements of the German leadership are shifting their worldview. Of course, there will likely continue to be disagreement among Germany’s major policy principles regarding Germany’s role in the world and the legitimate use of military force. There is nevertheless a clear movement toward a more assertive and forceful foreign policy.

Europe is suffering from severe problems. Terrorism, Russian revanchism, economic stagnation, and the Brexit have all contributed to a more turbulent, less unified continent. In light of these challenges, it is important that Germany – Europe’s leading power – becomes a more “normal” power that is willing to embrace its role as Europe’s de facto leader. Modernizing its military and improving its readiness are crucial to bolstering German national power, and it is encouraging that Germany’s government seems willing to improve and upgrade the Bundeswehr. It is still unclear how quickly Germany will be able to improve its forces. What is clear, however, is that Germany has grown more cognizant of its global responsibilities and is working to fulfill its obligations.

Works Cited

(1)- Federal Republic of Germany. Bundesministerium der Verteidigung. Weissbuch 2016: Zur Sicherheitspolitik und Zur Zukunft der Bundeswehr. Berlin, Germany: Bundesregierung, 2016. Print.

(2)- For insight into how Germans were psychologically impacted by Nazism and World War II, see Stargardt, Nicholas. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945: Citizens and Soldiers. New York: Basic Books, 2015. Print.

(3)- Craig, Gordon A. “Did Ostpolitik Work.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 1994. Web.

(4)- Bennett, Andrew, Joseph Lepgold and Danny Unger (1994). “Burden-sharing in the Persian Gulf War.” International Organization, 48(1) (1994): 39-75.

(5)- “France and Germany unite against Iraq war.” The Guardian. January 22, 2003. Web.

(6)- Dempsey, Judy. “NATO’s European Allies Won’t Fight for Article 5.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. June 15, 2015. Web.

(7)- Data comes from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Military Expenditure Database” (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2015), http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex.

(8)- Rathke, Jeffrey. “Rising Ambitions and Growing Resources Mark New German Security Strategy.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. July 25, 2016. Web.

(9)- Braw, Elisabeth. “The Bundeswehr Backs Away From the Brink.” Foreign Affairs. January 19, 2016. Web.

(10)- Steinmeier, Frank-Walter. “Germany’s New Global Role.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2016. Web.