Germany's New Plans for Transforming Its Defence and Foreign Policy Are Bold. They Are Also Running Into Familiar Problems


Jan 17, 2024

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits the Territorial Command of the German Armed Forces in Berlin, Germany, February 28, 2023, photo by IMAGO/Florian Gaertner/ via Reuters

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits the Territorial Command of the German Armed Forces in Berlin, Germany, February 28, 2023

Photo by IMAGO/Florian Gaertner/ via Reuters

In a landmark speech on February 27th 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dubbed Russia's invasion of Ukraine a Zeitenwende—or turning point—for European order and for German foreign policy. Germany's Defence Policy Guidelines, published this November, solidify these aspirations. They mark a seismic transformation in German military strategy, away from diplomacy and dialogue towards defence and deterrence.

The first key strategic document Germany has published in 12 years, the 2023 Defence Policy Guidelines outline the vision for a more robust approach to national defence. Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany's defence strategy took a light touch. Despite the annexation of Crimea, offering Ukraine military hardware was off the cards. Providing Ukraine with weapons was seen to run counter to a modern Germany sensitive about its military past. Better to deploy softer measures like diplomacy, economic sanctions, and humanitarian aid.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine changed all this. Within days, Scholz pledged to reverse the decades-long, self-described trend of a neglected military. He vowed to increase defence spending by 0.5 percent of GDP, to the NATO target of 2 percent. Anti-tank missiles and artillery were swiftly sent to Ukraine. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier apologised for the naivety of attempts to pacify Putin with energy interdependency, admitting in a now-famous speech to the German parliament in 2022 that his country got Vladimir Putin wrong.

The first key strategic document Germany has published in 12 years, the 2023 Defence Policy Guidelines outline the vision for a more robust approach to national defence.

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The new Policy Guidelines flesh out this vision for foreign policy in greater detail. They identify key objectives in further strengthening NATO as a guarantor of deterrence and defence, meeting NATO Capability Targets, and strengthening the Bundeswehr's regional defence capability. Military aid to Ukraine will be doubled in 2024, to €8bn. 4,800 German soldiers will be deployed to NATO's eastern flank in Lithuania, begin training in 2025, and be ready for combat by 2027—an expansion that would have been unthinkable before Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Bold Changes Do Not Come Cheap

These are bold declarations, and clearly Germany has made significant progress supporting Ukraine. But whether it can afford to truly transform itself is another question. While money and arms have finally flowed to Ukraine, replenishing a depleted Bundeswehr has proved more challenging. The promise to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence spending was not met in 2022, and is not expected to for 2023. In his Zeitenwende speech Scholz promised an additional €100bn for the Bundeswher, but the commissioner for Germany's armed forces, Eva Högl, reckons that this figure “won't be enough in order to compensate for all the deficiencies” and is just a third of what's required.

This was already true before a budget crisis erupted in late November. Germany's constitutional court ruled that a government plan to reallocate €60bn of emergency debt from a COVID-19 fund to finance Germany's green transition was unconstitutional, blowing a €60bn hole in the budget. Coalition partners eventually agreed on a budget for 2024 in the early hours of 13 December, but future cuts are now inevitable, and many of the ambitions laid out in the Defence Policy Guidelines are not costed. Already spending pledges are being rolled back: the federal government initially promised to create a new special fund in the budget to buy weapons for Ukraine, but in light of the recent crisis these arms must now be provided through the €100bn fund intended to modernise the Bundeswehr.

German politicians have promised that support for Ukraine will not be diminished by the latest budget crisis. Finance minister Christian Lindner announced that the promise to double military spending on Ukraine to €8bn will still go ahead. But the broader impact of Germany's budget woes will limit its ability to balance military ambitions against other priorities, such as the country's green transition. As Scholz admits, “it is clear that we will have to do with substantially less money to achieve these goals.”

One area that looks particularly fraught is the establishment of a military brigade in Lithuania. Pistorius has heralded this as the “lighthouse project” of the Zeitenwende. Yet it is not costed in the defence department's budget, and when asked how he will fund it Pistorius is worryingly vague: “we will cope with it because we have to cope with it,” he said at a recent visit to Lithuania.

They May Also Be Unpopular

In keeping with the new emphasis on practical military support, Germany has been steadfast in its support of Israel. Exports of sensitive military equipment to Israel in 2023 are more than 10 times what they were in 2022, at over €300m. Around 85 percent of the military export licenses from Germany to Israel approved in 2023 were greenlit after the Hamas attacks.

This is a tangible expression of the Zeitenwende in action, but many within Germany have balked at their country's support of Israeli violence. Protests surged at the bombing of Gazan civilians, as food, fuel, and water were cut off and schools and refugee camps were reduced to rubble. Germany initially banned pro-Palestine protests over fears of antisemitism. “If this is an attempt to atone for German history,” wrote a group of Jewish writers and academics, “its effect is to risk repeating it.”

Defence and deterrence can be polarising. They are also expensive.

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Nazi responsibility for the Holocaust may have driven Germany to stand firmly behind Israel, but it is still a nation of pacifists. Nine months after Putin's invasion of Ukraine, just 20 percent of the population claimed to be in favour of deploying military force—up only 2 percent from before the war. Some 71 percent of those surveyed in August 2023 said that Germany should not play a military leadership role in Europe—a 3 percent rise from the year before. As the country seeks to be more assertive on the international stage, the Zeitenwende may face resistance at home.

To its credit, Germany has succeeded in galvanising the language around defence and security. Its politicians no longer talk of energy interdependence, and parties across the political spectrum agree on the need to be more forceful with Russia. The country is rightly taking responsibility to meet the challenges of a more dangerous world.

But domestic struggles with arming Israel and financial problems highlight the many increasing difficulties that are to come if Scholz's lofty visions are to become reality. Defence and deterrence can be polarising. They are also expensive.

Harper Fine is a research assistant and Peter Carlyon is an analyst at RAND Europe.