9th Jun 2023


German foreign policy: between hesitancy and transparency

  • In his famous 'Zeitenwende' [turning point] speech, German chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to the two-percent goal of Nato (Photo: German Finance Ministry)
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"Can we rely on Germany?" — this question was posed bluntly by Latvian defence minister Artis Pabriks at Körber-Stiftung's 12th annual Berlin Foreign Policy Forum in October.

It is certainly not the first time this question has come up: Germans have heard it time and again over the past decade, and even more so since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent proclamation of Germany's fundamental shift in foreign policy.

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Has Germany lived up to its promises of "Zeitenwende" [turning point]? And do Germans stand behind it?

This year's Berlin Forum titled "The Price of Peace: Rethinking Security for Germany and Europe" aimed at discussing the role of Germany and Europe within the complex foreign policy and security challenges posed by Russia's war, Chinese aggression and changing transatlantic relations.

Political decision-makers and experts from various countries and key institutions close to today's tectonic shifts in the international order exchanged their views, shared their expertise, and discussed the varying international expectations to strategies, alliances and procurements needed to navigate through today's manifold international crises.

While the Berlin Forum showed that Germany's partners clearly appreciate its proclaimed willingness to take on a leadership role and contribute more actively to their collective security, there was also agreement among European partners that there is still a gap to be filled between Germany's goals and its actions when it comes to foreign and security policy.

In his 'Zeitenwende' speech, chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to the two-percent goal of Nato.

At the Berlin Forum, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock in turn gave a strong promise to the people of Eastern Europe, wanting to strengthen the German military so "that they can provide security for the people in Tallin, Riga, Vilnius or Warsaw".

Yet a recent study shows that Germany's current budget plans will fall short of reaching the Nato two percent by €18.9bn already in 2023 with an even larger gap to be anticipated in the following years.

European states expect Berlin to lead the way and contribute to their collective security according to its economic and political power.

When asked about taking on this leadership role, however, German defence minister Christine Lambrecht stressed the need to lead through coordinating all actions with partners and developing "offers and ideas to involve all allies". It is this hesitant definition of leadership that dominates Berlin's policies rather than the clear course of action that was promised and is expected by its partners.

Another gap can be found between the objectives of Scholz's government and the expectations and needs of the Germany public.

At the Berlin Forum, Ukrainian expert and former diplomat Iuliia Osmolovska pointed out that it is not sufficient for only politicians to understand the severity of Russia's war for the European way of living, for our so often cited values, for the very base of our own security.

Instead, the public needs to be taken along in important decisions through transparent and comprehensive leadership.

Although many politicians in Germany have not yet accepted this reality, Osmolovska's point might be a key factor for German international engagement. Körber-Stiftung's recent poll in The Berlin Pulse shows that while two thirds of Germans supported their country becoming more involved in international crises in March 2022, just a few months later in August, the general mood has changed to half of the population wishing for Germany to exercise more restraint in the international arena.

German politicians fear for the support of their voters by pushing for a more assertive stance on foreign and security policy and implementing the goals proclaimed in February 2022 — and not without reason, as indicated by the mentioned polls.

The increase in rightwing sentiments in Germany adds to that fear.

Stoking the Right

The populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has gained support over the past months, mostly fuelled by economic uncertainty. Meanwhile, the governing Social Democrats have lost around seven percentage points in support since the beginning of the Russian war, leaving them third in place after the Christian Democrats and the Green party.

This puts Germany's governing coalition in a difficult position. It needs to live up to its partners' and its own expectations of taking the lead in a strong, united front against Russia, while at the same time tackling urgent problems at home in order to maintain social stability and the support of its voters.

This is likely one of the reasons why Berlin is taking so much time to specify the policies that are supposed to execute 'Zeitenwende' and even postponed the release of a National Security Strategy until February 2023.

Expectations towards that strategy are certainly high — it needs to be very clear about Germany's goals and how it wants to achieve them.

These expectations are also reflected in the standards the German government is held up to. Berlin has committed €9.6bn in military, financial and humanitarian aid, making it the biggest European donor.

It is thus certainly not the case that Germany is providing barely any support to Ukraine.

The problem rather lies in the indecisiveness that paints an image of hesitancy. The most recent example of this is the matter of delivering tanks to Ukraine.

It once again comes down to the issue of communication. Germany should focus less on the lengthy process of reaching a decision within the coalition and parliament, but rather emphasise the result and be transparent about the reasoning behind a decision.

In June, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg asked: "Which price are we ready to pay for peace? How much territory? How much independence? How much sovereignty? How much freedom? How much democracy?"

The Berlin Forum showed: for a successful German foreign and defence policy, Berlin not only needs to make some difficult decisions on what price they are ready to pay for peace, but also learn how to communicate and execute those decisions.

Neither Germany's international partners, nor German voters will be able to follow along and support the decisions made if the German government keeps sending mixed signals, continuously failing to close the gap between words and actions.

The answer to the question whether we can rely on each other, thus ultimately depends on the German public and the adaptability of the German administration. The political goals are set, and international expectations are clear — what's needed is better communication with the public and more decisive action.

Author bio

Xenia Kelemen and Leslie Schübel are both programme managers for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung.


This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.


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