28th Sep 2023


Germany's new security strategy; balancing, not shaping

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It was a big deal in Berlin on Wednesday. The government's press conference was packed. Chancellor Scholz and key ministers from the three coalition parties presented a German security strategy. It's a document of great ambition, aiming to address all policy fields, internal and external, that may impact on Germans´ security.

So what's new? Overall, not so much. But its mere existence, the way it was presented and some of its language provide a telling snapshot of the mood in the country and the dilemmas facing the government.

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The mood? Pessimistic. No such document has been prepared before. Some dubbed it Koalitionsvertrag 2.0, an update of the three-party agreement that forms the basis for the current government. The fact that such a document centers on security is revealing.

A decade or two ago, the focus would have been on modernisation or something more optimistic. Now it conveys a fear that the best days are over. There are no sweeping ambitions to change the world, it is more a plan to make sure things don't get worse.

The direction? The strategy lists three priorities: classic military security, resilience at home and sustainability, particularly in relation to climate change.

The military priority confirms the dramatic change of German policy in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. German pacifism has become one of the victims of that war. The government and most of the public agree that the German army needs heavy investment. The strategy reflects this, confirming the plan to spend 2% of GDP on the military, though it is not specific as to how this will be achieved.

The Green party has given up its past insistence that military spending should equal investments in civilian aspects of foreign policy. With the other coalition partner, the liberal FDP, insisting on a balanced budget, less funding will be available for that element of foreign policy.

In terms of bi-lateral partners, Germany keeps banking on France and the US, as it has done since the pragmatic Konrad Adenauer was in power. He was unsure whether either of the two were reliable partners and hedged his bets to reduce potential risks. While the risks have not disappeared, the strategy is politely silent on what Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen would mean for German security.

As Nikolai von Ondarza from the SWP think tank rightly points out, there is a strange omission of others from the strategy, especially Poland, the UK and the Netherlands, all of which are essential allies, especially in terms of military security. Adenauer-style pragmatism would suggest it is time to think beyond the US/France approach and get prepared for the eventuality of a Trump/Le Pen double whammy.

As a democracy practitioner I was naturally most interested in the strategy's messages on democracy and human rights. In German debates, democracy is often seen as a value — a matter of idealism — as opposed to interests, which relate to realpolitik. Fortunately, the strategy ends that artificial distinction. It describes democracy and human rights as values and interests.

The strategy describes China as a systemic rival — the rivalry being between democracy and autocracy. Given how central this opposition is becoming in international relations, I had hoped for more elaboration. For example, how to deal with the many states, many of them major regional powers, that are neither democracies nor hard autocracies. The strategy remains silent on this grey zone.

My concern: Once we divide the world into democracies and autocracies, we will pretend that many of the grey zone countries are well-functioning democracies, because we want them in "our camp". We will stop being self-critical about our own democracies, in order to keep up appearances. That will do a disservice to democracy.

The strategy rightly points out that China is also a partner in solving some global issues. Continuing Adenauer´s eternal balancing act, the strategy signals some distance between the US approach (confronting China) and the French insistence on an independent position based on European sovereignty. Germany can thus be expected to attempt to slow down certain dynamics. It cannot be expected to set the pace.

This approach leaves me ambiguous overall: acting as a moderating middle power can be a useful role in a polarising context. On the other hand, German talk of stability and reliability has too often obscured hard realities that need to be confronted. The biggest foreign policy blunder since 1945, making us ever more dependent on Russian gas, despite its war on Ukraine since 2014, was always couched in the soothing language of bridge-building, stability and reconciliation.

This is the weakest point of the strategy. It identifies the right themes, points out many dangers, but it is neither specific and hard-hitting in its analysis, nor selective in what it considers to be the top priorities. It is: balancing, not shaping.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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