When Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022, he sent shock waves through Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz immediately declared the invasion a “zeitenwende” – a historic turning point. He promised that Germany would finally meet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization target of spending 2% of GDP on defense; it would be violating its own ban on sending weapons to conflict zones by supplying weapons to Ukraine. To the surprise of US officials, Scholz even stopped the controversial Nord Stream II pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.
Since then, however, Germany’s actions have often seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary. Scholz has delayed Germany’s entry to the 2% threshold. For fear of escalation, Berlin has often acted as a brake on large arms deliveries to Ukraine.
The latest controversy concerns tanks. Poland and other countries want to send their German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Permission from Berlin is required for this, even though the Poles suggested this week that they should not wait for German approval.
Amid dissatisfaction from some of his own ministers, Scholz has claimed that Germany will only send tanks as part of a larger coalition involving the US. “We always act in concert with our allies and friends — we never go alone,” Scholz told Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait this week.
The exasperation is palpable in Kiev, Warsaw and other Eastern European capitals less concerned with provoking Putin than with defeating him. Add to that the fact that Scholz hit his way to Beijing as soon as Chinese President Xi Jinping started accepting post-Covid visitors in November, and there are many questions about whether Germany – the world’s fourth-largest economy – can withstand the threats. for a global economy seriously. order it served so well.
Those questions are not new. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Eastern European members of NATO had long complained that Germany’s pursuit of deep economic and energy ties with Moscow was jeopardizing their own security. Former US President Donald Trump gleefully accused Berlin of being a strategic deadbeat who refused to pay his fair share of collective defense. Skeptics argued that Germany’s policy of “change through trade”—promoting economic integration with autocratic challengers in hopes of softening them diplomatically—was really just naivety or greed.
None of these criticisms are unfounded. Still, making Germany the culprit in a geopolitical morality game is a mistake.
For all its shortcomings, Germany’s Ukraine policy has been remarkable: who could have predicted a year ago that Germany would respond to the invasion by decisively reducing its dependence on Russian energy? That it would, however ambivalently, send howitzers, anti-aircraft guns and armored vehicles to Kiev?
In a longer-term view, you can criticize Germany for being naive about Putin’s Russia and becoming economically enthralled with a nasty autocracy. On the other hand, the US – and many of Europe’s largest democracies – are guilty of similar mistakes.
Above all, it is worth remembering that the features that critics of German foreign policy find so frustrating are the same features that helped transform a once warlike country into the peaceful, liberal state we know today. There was a time when “the German problem” did not refer to a hesitant, quasi-pacifist country underspending on defense. It referred to a country that was the terror of Europe as it repeatedly tried to seize geopolitical primacy by force.
After World War II, a divided Germany (at least half of it was under American control) took on the traits that its diplomacy still bears today. It effectively renounced a completely independent foreign policy, entrenched its power within European and North Atlantic institutions, and closely attached itself to the US. It emphasized diplomacy and economic prosperity, even though it contributed substantially to the defense of NATO.
That earlier Zeitenwende ensured an unprecedented period of European peace. So Berlin doubled down on the same policies in the post-Cold War era, in part to reassure its neighbors that a reunited Germany would not once again become the scourge of Europe. Today’s Germany may not be the best possible Germany, but it is far from the worst.
A fairer critique is that Germany has been slow to recognize that what the world and the West need today is very different from what was needed a generation ago. As the US-led order comes under attack from multiple angles, all advanced democracies, especially those as prosperous as Germany, will need to invest more in its defense.
The good news is that Berlin’s foreign policy, albeit erratic and belated, is moving in the right direction. The bad news is that Ukraine may not have the luxury of waiting for a time-turn to unfold at a leisurely pace.
More from this writer at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Big lesson from the war in Ukraine: there is only one superpower: Hal Brands
• If China invaded Taiwan, what would Europe do?: Hal Brands
• In every modern war, Ukraine was the big prize: Hal Brands
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is the most recent co-author of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the Foreign Affairs Policy Board of the State Department.
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