Turn of phrase: Germany’s Zeitenwende

Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech was widely viewed as a major adjustment to Germany’s foreign and security policy. But, six months on, it is unclear whether the country is up to the task

Aktuell,27.02.2022 Berlin, Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz (SPD) im Portrait bei seiner Regierungserklaerung im Rahmen der ‘Sondersitzung aus Anlass des von Russland voelkerrechtswidrig begonnenen Krieg gegen die Ukraine ‘ bei der 19. Sitzung des Deutschen Bundestag in Berlin
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz announces the “Zeitenwende” during his speech on February 27th

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech on 27 February felt like the beginning of a new era for Germany’s security and defence policy. Indeed, for many observers, his announcements heralded a complete overhaul of German foreign policy. Six months on, however, there is little evidence that a process of radical transformation has begun. It is now time for Germany to show that the speech itself was not the solution to a Zeitenwende in security policy but the start of a more coherent and substantive process.

When Scholz became chancellor, he had no plans to significantly alter Germany’s security and defence policy – having campaigned on a platform of continuity with the Merkel era in this area. It took Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on 24 February to convince him of the need to adapt to a new reality. So, he formulated his Zeitenwende plans in less than 48 hours, under mounting pressure from Berlin’s international partners.

The Merkel government repeatedly committed to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence by 2024 – in line with NATO targets. Yet Berlin proudly announced at the same time that it would manage to hit just 1.5 per cent of GDP. As a result, the underinvestment in the armed forces intensified. As part of his Zeitenwende announcements, Scholz proposed a €100 billion special fund to close the critical gaps in military capability that had emerged and widened in the preceding decades. He also pledged to meet the 2 per cent NATO target “year after year” from then on. However, it quickly became clear that the government would not use the special fund to supplement the 2 per cent goal. Instead, the government would use it to meet the NATO target in the coming years. And the government had already shifted part of the existing costs for ongoing defence projects to the special fund. Accordingly, if inflation remains at 7.5 per cent, the special fund will only buy military equipment worth an estimated €60 billion.

There have been no significant developments in Germany’s renewable energy sector since the start of the war

While Merkel’s government remained committed to Nord Stream 2 even after the annexation of Crimea, Scholz’s immediate response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was to halt the certification of the gas pipeline. His main Zeitenwende announcement on energy security set out the need for more and faster investment in renewable energy. The government would also urgently build up coal and gas reserves and construct two liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals. Scholz argued that this approach could end German dependence on Russian fossil fuels, thereby cutting off funding for President Vladimir Putin’s war. But the LNG project is now faltering and Germany remains at the mercy of Gazprom and Putin’s weaponisation of gas supplies. Furthermore, there have been no significant developments in Germany’s renewable energy sector since the start of the war.

However, Germany cannot transform its energy sector in just six months. The country is feeling the effects of its enormous dependence on Russian gas and is working urgently on solutions to restore its energy security as quickly as possible. To this end, the government is even willing to leave Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants in operation for the time being.

Scholz’s Zeitenwende announcements were striking. Yet the German government is mainly responding to international criticism and lacks the initiative to become a Führungsmacht (leading power), as Social Democratic Party (SPD) co-leader Lars Klingbeil recently called for at a Friedrich Ebert Foundation conference. So, where Scholz has left a void, Klingbeil has begun to think ahead by filling it with a clear strategy for defence and energy policy reform. And he would have the support of the German public: for instance, a recent poll found that 67 per cent of Germans approve of the €100 billion special fund for the military.

Older members of the Bundestag are particularly hesitant to increase military spending. This is due to the fact that the Greens and the SPD have antimilitarism in their DNA. However, the Greens have quickly adapted to the new situation. The same cannot be said for all members of the SPD. Some members of the party’s old guard are finding it difficult to escape their past on Russia. For example, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier did not receive an invitation to Kyiv because of his previous positions on Russia; former chancellor Gerhard Schröder constantly makes headlines due to his personal relationship with Putin; and regional SPD leader Manuela Schwesig is under fire for her role in the Nord Stream 2 project.

In future, German leaders will need to realign their eastern policy to prove their reliability both to the German public and to their partners in the European Union and NATO. They should avoid becoming embroiled in controversies related to issues such as non-compliance with agreements, as in the case of a proposal for a circular exchange of tanks with Poland. Germany should also meet the 2 per cent defence spending target every year – particularly given that it is currently estimated to reach just 1.7 per cent in 2023. Finally, the special fund should not be the only security policy element of the Zeitenwende: the government should build on this with enough investment to make Germany a valuable player in the territorial and collective defence of Europe.

Nonetheless, the biggest challenge is to bring about a change in mindset. Scholz needs to reposition the country as a security and defence policy player. And he will need to take German voters along with him – not only to persuade them to accept greater investment in the long term but also to change the way they think about the military as a tool of policy. This will require strong leadership and a clear political will. It is up to well-established politicians whether this shift comes from them or from the younger leaders who continue to upstage them.

Six months after Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, the implementation of his announcements is not what most listeners were hoping for. But, with the challenges of the Zeitenwende in mind, the German foreign ministry is now formulating Germany’s first national security strategy. This could be the long-term strategy the country needs to become a reliable partner of other EU and NATO countries. If the messages in his speech make it into the National Security Strategy and continue to change the government’s behaviour, Scholz’s speech may indeed usher in a new era in German security policy.

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


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