GERMANY IS once more in a key position to shape Europe’s destiny, in a world in which the West is adrift as it confronts increasingly assertive challengers. Berlin’s strategic role is not mainly economic: eurozone reform, like improving internal security cooperation, is just a part of the challenge. Far more challenging for Germany is another question: will it do its part so that Europe can learn to “jointly project its power in the world,” as the outgoing foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, put it at the Munich Security Conference in February?
GABRIEL ASKED the question precisely the way it would hurt the most, since the state of strategic thinking and debate among the German political class remains far behind the challenges it is facing. At the Sorbonne in September, French president Emmanuel Macron laid out detailed proposals to revive the vision of a “fair, protective and ambitious Europe.” Berlin’s responses so far, laid out in the new government’s coalition agreement, headed “A New Beginning for Europe,” are vague at best. On retooling the eurozone, a cautious “maybe.” On building an effective joint police and counterterrorism apparatus, a careful “yes.” And on external security and Macron’s provocatively framed proposal to build a common strategic culture of “intervention,” a deafening silence—carefully embedded in a resplendent flowerbed of goals for making Europe “more independent” while “solidifying the bond to the United States.”
It was probably the best that could be expected from three parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), all of which are suffering from coalition fatigue, having governed together for eight of the last twelve years. Their new coalition deal had to be approved by a referendum among the SPD’s 463,000 rank-and-file members. As a result, it was negotiated with at least one eye toward winning this crucial vote, rather than just as a blueprint for governing together.
On defense spending, the negotiators found a complicated formula that obfuscates a pretty solid target: by 2021, Berlin’s annual defense budget will grow from €37 billion (2017) to some €45 billion. While it is set to miss NATO’s 2024 target of 2 percent of GDP by a wide margin, the new government aims for a 20 percent increase over the next four years, along with significant increases to diplomatic and development spending, parts of which are pegged euro for euro to the extra funds for defense. It’s a solid target, set out in almost impenetrable terms only because of the SPD leadership’s need to avoid provoking its dovish members. Together, the targets themselves and their opaque presentation help understand how far Germany has come—and how much of the return journey from its long holiday from history has yet to be concluded.
FOR MOST Germans and their politicians, the woes of the world had no immediate relevance as long as their home and their immediate European neighborhood were at peace, exports boomed and everybody more or less liked Germany. War and genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s and the intervention in Afghanistan after 2001 sparked changes to that mind-set, but they faded quickly. The real wake-up calls came only very recently: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, and the more than one million refugees and migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015–16, largely as a result of the civil war in Syria. In one of her first speeches after the “refugee crisis” began, Angela Merkel nailed how the country had long felt about wars and violence: “For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart.”
Since 2015, Germany has come a long way, but the country’s political class is now lagging behind the population. To understand why, we only have to look back at the time of the last federal election, in the fall of 2013, and the last formation of government. At the time, the challenge of the day was to save the euro. Saving the banks at the expense of the Greek people essentially defined Germany’s role in Europe at the time. The war in Afghanistan seemed to be winding down, and the previous government had just avoided an entanglement with the ill-fated French-British-American adventure in Libya. Germany was living in peace, surrounded by friends in all directions. Consequently, while many of Germany’s friends and neighbors were growing more impatient by the day, diplomacy, defense and development barely played a role in those coalition talks.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, entering his second term as foreign minister after a four-year break, was worried about this growing gap between expectations from abroad and reluctance at home. He launched a major outreach exercise to promote Germany’s “international responsibility.” He need not have worried, as it turned out. Enter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the refugees who opened Germans’ eyes to the outside world. Moscow’s aggressive behavior, in particular, forced many senior figures, including Merkel and Steinmeier themselves, to revise long and dearly held assumptions about Russia and the foundations for peace in Europe. Trump’s election made the United States an unreliable partner; the British vote for Brexit kicked one leg away from the three-legged stool of EU leadership. China, the main beneficiary of the American crisis, got more and more assertive—and better and better in playing the Europeans against one another.
In 2013, none of Germany’s political parties had been ready for this “world out of joint,” as Steinmeier called it in his speeches. That Germany managed to navigate those turbulent years reasonably well is the result of his and Merkel’s personal diplomatic skills, and the professionalism of a foreign- and security-policy bureaucracy that rose to the challenge. Their learning curve was a steep one, and their success in building and maintaining a responsible approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and many other hotspots obscured the thin foundation on which that success was built—particularly where the political parties were concerned.
German politics saw hot debates over key decisions such as sanctions on Russia and the “Turkey deal” on refugees. But the strategic challenges beyond those day-to-day decisions, how we understand the problems and what tools we have to develop solutions often went ignored outside the Berlin bubble of experts. The conservatives outsourced most difficult decisions to their leadership, while the left-of-center parties held often-vicious internal debates over tactical and operational issues while ignoring the larger strategic picture.
THE EASY part is all the traditional security challenges for which we already have well-known strategies and tools. Keeping the peace in Europe requires saving the European project and maintaining U.S. deterrence against Russia, while saving arms control and (re)building a durable regional-security order. For the Kim Jong-uns out there, we need arms control and diplomacy.
But there are also new threats to Europe’s open societies. The defining rift of our time, as the new foreign minister Heiko Maas put it in his first staff meeting on March 14, is “between those who cherish openness and those who seek to return to isolation and nationalism. When authoritarian powers try to topple our internal order, we need to react.”
There are also the consequences of the wars and violence in the Middle East and Africa. War in Syria, terrorist attacks in Nigeria, organized crime and displacement are not going to destroy European states or societies. But the dead, the injured, the fear and the economic costs are very real, and governments are expected to protect their societies from these effects. These are the security challenges that Emmanuel Macron has in mind when he suggests building a “Europe that unites to protect, intervene and save lives,” including from external security risks.
Most of the German population recognized this new international environment and supported more foreign-policy leadership; they even understood the need for increased military spending and cautiously supported most military deployments. In an October 2017 poll, 59 percent supported a more active international role, not just by way of diplomacy (84 percent) or aid (71 percent), but also military training (59 percent) and stabilization (56 percent) or police operations (55 percent).
What did Germany’s leading parties offer in this regard when the 2017 campaign season came around? In their joint manifesto, Merkel’s conservatives promised “relevant contributions” to a “sustainably peaceful, stable and just world order.” And they would start right at home: the first item on the CDU/CSU’s foreign-policy agenda was “to strengthen Bonn [the former capital] as the German seat of the United Nations, international NGOs and as a location for international conferences.” You read that right. Further down, they pledged more money for defense and development, toward NATO’s 2 percent goal and the OECD’s 0.7 percent goal, respectively. Those were the only changes from previous electoral platforms. The conservative answer to modern security challenges: more money for the same tools.
And what about the SPD? Its platform included plenty of thoughtful priorities for fixing this program and strengthening that tool, but the party’s leaders chose a mud fight with Merkel over “warmongering” (for the CDU’s claim to push defense spending toward 2 percent of GDP) versus “peace” (the SPD’s pledge to spend more on aid) as their signature international campaign issue. It’s telling that in times of a fracturing West and a world in which Europe’s role is challenged, the biggest foreign-policy idea of Willy Brandt’s old party was to criticize an increase in defense spending slightly higher than its own proposed increase.