After Merkel: Why Germany must end its inertia on defence and security

Angela Merkel has long resisted updating German defence policy for today’s challenges. Her successor will not be able to avoid the challenge forever

Angela Merkel (CDU) visiting the High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in 2019
Image by picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

When Germany’s Christian Democrats elect their new party leader on 16 January, it will mark the beginning of the end of the Merkel era. Whether Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, or Norbert Röttgen becomes chair, he will have a strong chance of succeeding Angela Merkel in office after September’s general election. Whoever takes over as chancellor will have big shoes to fill. In her now almost 16 years in office, Merkel has had a decisive influence on German politics and emerged as Europe’s strongest and most powerful leader. After the election of Donald Trump in 2016 she was even hailed by some as the leader of the free world. Many now worry about who will keep Europeans together and lead them through the next crises once Merkel is gone. In Germany, we will miss her dearly.

In one policy area, however, her legacy is less impressive: German security and defence. Here, the chancellor remained notably absent over the years. “Hard security” has never been Merkel’s thing – she has always appeared somewhat aloof from Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, she rarely spoke out on questions on security and defence, and has remained sceptical about the usefulness of military interventions. While governing with the Free Democrats from 2009 to 2013, she supported then foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s “culture of restraint” rule of thumb – or at least offered no alternative. In 2011, Germany refrained from participating in the European-led military intervention in Libya. Allies felt this was a failure to stand with them, but Merkel stood behind the decision. Where she approved new military interventions, against the Islamic State group and in Mali, she did so primarily out of alliance solidarity.

At the same time, Merkel is not a pacifist. She has always backed Germany’s commitment to NATO and supported the development of a European defence union. But she has never dared position herself outside the ponderous security policy status quo in Germany – and she never went out of her way to explain, or even push through, unpopular measures. As in other policy areas, she only imposed as much on the German public as she felt they were willing to tolerate without much grumbling. She never forcefully gave direction.

One of the few security policy initiatives that came directly from the Chancellery was the so-called “Ertüchtigungsinitiative” – the “Enable and Enhance Initiative”. Later defined by Der Spiegel magazine as the “Merkel Doctrine”, its thrust was to train up and equip trustworthy partners, in global trouble spots, who showed a readiness to engage in regional security themselves. But its focus on logistical support, training, and arms exports, often earned the Germans the criticism that they were leaving other allies to do the dirty work, such as the actual fighting of terrorists, while Germany stayed comfortably far from the front lines.

Merkel has seemed never much interested in the very strategic debate that think-tanks and journalists would repeatedly call for. During her years in office, she has mainly left it to others – the federal president, defence ministers, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee – to loudly advocate that Germany’s growing weight in the world should include a more effective German and European defence policy, one that is capable of action. She herself has rarely used her political capital to get this message across and to convince the broader public that Germany must show more security and military commitment internationally. On the rare occasions when Merkel issued big public statements about Europe’s growing need to defend itself – such as comments she made while campaigning in Munich in 2017 suggesting the continent should take more responsibility for its own future – she never spelled out to the German public what this could mean, or how much it would cost.

Merkel’s strange absence from the debates has greatly irritated Germany’s European partners. French President Emmanuel Macron is probably still wondering why he had to make do with talking to defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the debate on strategic autonomy of the last months – and whether or not the minister’s views were ever supported by the Chancellor.

There has been, however, no lack of ideas from her own ranks. Leading CDU foreign and security policy experts, including both the current defence minister and her immediate predecessor, have made a number of proposals, from the expansion of the Federal Security Council, to a national security strategy, to an annual fundamental debate on security and defence policy in parliament. Behind the scenes, it was rumoured that all this was “not wanted” by the Chancellery.

It is probably known only to Merkel whether her reservation in this policy area is because she herself is deeply uncomfortable with these issues, or whether it is because she knew, with her intuition for the mood of the German public, that it risked driving away potential voters.

Of course, Merkel has never had the support of her coalition partners for a more decisive and robust German security and defence policy. On the contrary, in the most recent years of the Grand Coalition it has become clear that the so-called “Munich Consensus” (the idea that Germany must assume more international responsibility, including militarily) does not actually exist. In fact, there is still no shared understanding in Germany about what the assumption of “more responsibility” should concretely mean for German security and defence policy ambitions. There have been massive party-political disputes between the conservatives and the Social Democrats from the beginning of the legislative period, when the SPD decided to recall its tradition as Germany’s true “peace party”. On many issues the Grand Coalition is so massively divided that no clear course is discernible, whether it be arms exports, armed drones, mandates for deploying the Bundeswehr, the successor to the obsolete Tornado fighter bombers and – connected to this – Germany’s nuclear participation in NATO. Instead of taking new steps forward, the government continues to kick difficult decisions down the road.

Germany can no longer afford to wander around without a clear political compass – as if crises stop at the borders of the republic.

The new CDU party leader, and perhaps soon chancellor, must give more orientation than Merkel ever offered. This is not about adopting the same strategic culture as France or the United Kingdom, or about engaging in “military adventures”. Germany has a different political heritage and must find its own way to respond to the changed security environment. But Germany can no longer afford to wander around without a clear political compass – as if crises stop at the borders of the republic. Germany’s European partners and allies understand that many debates are more difficult here than elsewhere. What they cannot deal with, however, is the constant uncertainty about German positions. The next party leader must clearly indicate what role he sees for Germany as a security and defence policy actor in the future. So far, these issues have not played a major role for the candidates for CDU party chair. But in the upcoming federal election campaign, the German public should know where the parties’ top candidates stand on security and defence policy. The pressure of international events will continue to grow, as will the expectations of European and transatlantic partners to see Germany more engaged. Many in Germany are looking forward to the end of the current coalition and are pinning their hopes on an alliance between the CDU/CSU and the Greens after this September’s federal election. Even if issues such as nuclear sharing, arms exports, and foreign deployments are unlikely to be less controversial then, the current paralysis must not be allowed to continue.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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