Wheels up for Vilnius: Three lessons Germany’s NATO partners should draw from its new national security strategy

Germany’s first ever national security strategy contained few big surprises – but the country’s NATO partners can still draw three key lessons from the document

BERLIN, GERMANY – DECEMBER 01: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hold a joint news conference in Berlin, Germany on December 01, 2022. Abdulhamid Hosbas / Anadolu Agency
BERLIN, GERMANY – DECEMBER 01: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hold a joint news conference in Berlin, Germany on December 01, 2022
Image by picture alliance / AA | Abdulhamid Hosbas

Tomorrow, NATO allies will meet for their summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Rarely have there been so many issues on a summit’s agenda: from Sweden’s – as yet blocked – membership, to security guarantees for Ukraine and its eventual accession, and changes in NATO’s approach to deterrence. The attending heads of state and government have their work cut out – and no doubt plenty of analyses and policy papers demanding their attention. But, given Germany’s influence in the European Union, it would be advisable for them also to note the country’s inaugural national security strategy – and three lessons they can draw from it.

  1. Germany puts its faith in NATO more than in the EU (at least for now)

Germany’s NATO allies can rest assured: the country’s commitment to the alliance remains not only strong, but – judging from the strategy – has actually increased. The section on Germany’s view of European defence notes:

“The Federal Government wants to further strengthen the European pillar of the transatlantic defence community. The more our European allies contribute militarily and politically to NATO, the more solid the transatlantic Alliance will be. Europe’s ability to act on its own is increasingly a prerequisite for German and European security. This ability to act entails modern, capable armed forces in the EU member states, as well as a high-performance and internationally competitive European security and defence industry that creates the foundations for the armed forces’ military capabilities.”

The authors express clear support for NATO – as the main guarantor of Europe’s security – by talking about the “European pillar of the transatlantic defence community”. At the same time, they back the EU’s fledgling defence efforts, emphasising “Europe’s ability to act on its own”. Germany has been walking this line between the EU and NATO for a while: the country is an important supporter of EU defence efforts, but, for Berlin, the actual military capabilities of EU countries always mattered much less than the unity and cooperation among EU member states that common defence efforts create. Now, it appears that Berlin has decided to put its faith more in NATO, at least in the immediate term.

This is illustrated also by the decision of the authors to not to use the term “European sovereignty” even once in the strategy. Germany had never particularly adopted the “European strategic autonomy” terminology, as this is perhaps too independentist and anti-American for a German ear. “European sovereignty” is the compromise term. The government’s coalition agreement referred to it several times: “we want to increase Europe’s strategic sovereignty”; “a strategic sovereign EU is the basis for our peace and prosperity”; “our goal is a sovereign EU”. So, what happened?

European security remains guaranteed by NATO, specifically by the United States, and Berlin recognises this

What happened is the war in Ukraine. Part of Germany’s Zeitenwende was an awakening to the fact that military capabilities and defence matter. But hand in hand with that has come a realisation that EU efforts to guarantee European defence have not yet led to real capabilities. European security remains guaranteed by NATO, specifically by the United States, and Berlin recognises this. It doesn’t mean that the EU cannot or should not play a role in the future. And it doesn’t mean that Berlin is losing faith in EU defence efforts. It does, however, mean that NATO allies can expect the German delegation to do its utmost in Vilnius to reassure them that Germany is steadfast.

  1. One European NATO partner matters more than any other

The national security strategy mentions just three partner countries. The United States – three times – which should surprise no one, as the US remains Germany’s most important security partner and the key player in NATO. Israel – twice – as the strategy describes “responsibility for Israel’s right to exist” as an “enduring obligation” for Germany. And France: the country across the Rhine is mentioned five times. Berlin is bound to Paris through a “profound friendship”; the two countries have “overcome historical perceptions of enmity”, and now have a “joint responsibility to further the EU’s integration and ability to act at international level,” the strategy notes.

But the gushing language might be accused of being a cover for divergences. Berlin’s position on European defence (see above) won’t find much love in Paris, which emphasises European autonomy. And it is no secret that the current Franco-German relationship has difficulties, including but not limited to divergences over defence. France, for example, has not joined the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative, and delays and disagreements have occurred over the joint project (also with Spain) to build a new European fighter jet. The French president, meanwhile, is pushing for NATO membership for Ukraine, while the German chancellor remains reticent.

This also matters for NATO. Germany and France are the two big EU players in the alliance, economically, politically, and militarily. If the two work together, things move; if they don’t, things can get blocked. President Emmanuel Macron has become noticeably more NATO-friendly in his rhetoric in recent weeks. If Berlin and Paris can agree on the “European pillar of NATO” idea, which sees European defence capabilities increase without creating any concerns within NATO, that would be good news for the alliance.

  1. Military power? Yes, but

It is well-known that Germany has neglected its military capabilities for years. The strategy acknowledges as much, and – rhetorically – strengthens the Bundeswehr. It vows to maintain the military capabilities required for the core task of national and collective defence, and to “bridge capability gaps quickly”. It calls the Bundeswehr “a cornerstone of conventional defence in Europe”.

Many of these assertions are noteworthy, especially for a centre-left government – including on the role of nuclear deterrence, which the strategy describes as “essential for NATO and for European security”, and notes that “Germany will continue to do its part in nuclear sharing and will constantly provide the dual-capable aircraft this requires.” (The last point in particular had been in question before the election. Now, Germany will buy US F35 aircraft to guarantee Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing.)

Unfortunately, however, there is still the question of funding. The strategy is evasive on its plans to fulfil the agreement of NATO members to allocate 2 per cent of GDP to their own defence: “We will allocate two percent of our GDP, as an average over a multi-year period, to reaching NATO capability goals, initially in part via the newly created special fund for the Bundeswehr.” The “multi-year period average” will likely serve as an excuse to not meet the target for a while. The special fund – the €100 billion that German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in his Zeitenwende speech on 27 February 2022 – has been a welcome additional funding stream to German defence capabilities. But, without a significant increase in Germany’s regular defence budget, this will still not be enough to put an end to the structural underfunding of the Bundeswehr. On a positive note, defence minister Boris Pistorius announced last week that Germany will establish a permanent presence of around 4,000 troops in Lithuania as part of its promise in the strategy to boost its presence in allied territory.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has made some decision-makers in Berlin look with a more realist eye on Germany’s security. The apparent favouring of NATO over EU efforts when it comes to real defence is one consequence of this. At the same time, Germany has not changed its core beliefs and traditions – there is continuity in the institutions and continuity with regard to a lack of funding. Germany’s evasiveness on the 2 per cent goal will certainly lead to some complaints in Vilnius. But, despite that, it is good news that Germany is pulling its weight in NATO, and its allies might want to recognise this.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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