The Grand Failure

Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger

Non-Resident Senior Fellow

Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger is non-Resident Senior Fellow at AICGS.

Grand New Beginning?

February 24, 2022, will go down in history as a watershed moment for Europe and not the least for Germany. The day Russia invaded Ukraine spelled the end of an era for my country and the beginning of a new one. “Zeitenwende!” The end of an era; a turning point; a sea-change. It is a Zeitenwende of historic dimension. So Germans’ adjustment should also be historic. I believe it will be because the consequences are severe and multi-dimensional. Russia’s invasion has begun a fundamental overhaul of Germany’s energy, security, and defense policy. It was long overdue. Nevertheless, Putin’s assault against a neighbor has come as a shock to many Germans.

In light of Russia’s war of annihilation against Ukraine, Germany needs to draw the right strategic lessons—politically, economically, militarily—after decades of costly mistakes, wrong priorities, and deadly illusions. Now we must build our security not with Russia, but against it. Furthermore, the German model that we have come to embrace and which has contributed so much to our prosperity is under attack. It probably has run its course. Again, this will have grave consequences.

Germany has three uncomfortable dependencies, of which the latter two are downright dangerous: on the United States for security, on Russia for energy, on China for export markets and outward investment.

With regard to Russia, it will not be enough simply to admit previous mistakes and express regret and remorse. The Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines under the Baltic linking Russia with Germany are examples of naive assumptions, geopolitical ignorance, and bad policy. And raw national commercial interests.

Today, Germany is finally having a serious debate about energy, supply lines, diversification, and high prices of gas, fuel, and power. It is serious because it is being waged by Germans, who at long last have recognized the strategic energy vulnerabilities that were obvious to many of its European and transatlantic partners more than fifteen years ago. This debate is not free of hysteria—some commentators and politicians speak as if, in light of potential gas shortages, the coming winter will bring an end to civilization. This discourse is more serious than that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when many Germans were less concerned about deadly infections than they were about the availability of toilet paper, noodles, and travel opportunities to Mallorca.

Principles of the Zeitenwende

There are four key aspects that must underly the Zeitenwende if it is to be successful. German leaders must admit the new realities and the stakes and prepare for the fact that Germany’s prosperity may be on the line. Accept that the end of an era means exactly that. It’s over, and Germans must adjust, adapt, and rise to the occasion. The old transatlantic bargain is probably no longer effective. Why? Because American voters no longer understand why the United States should underwrite Germany’s security as long as Germany spends its resources otherwise, pursues its commercial interests globally, and fails to fulfill its security commitments within NATO. This is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Politicians, the business community, and the public need to think strategically. Wishful thinking is a bad guide.

First: We need to rebuild our defenses immediately and for the long term. There is no peace dividend. It is shameful that the Bundeswehr has been allowed to become a second-rate military force. We need to do what we have promised within NATO rather than engage opportunistically in party politics. In a speech recently, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the Bundeswehr must be seen again as a key institution for the well-being of the German people (Daseinsvorsorge) and assume a military leadership role. She however did not offer a positive word on the most urgent question, providing tanks and related arms to Ukraine—an absence that highlights the gap between German recognition of the gravity of the situation and the country’s inherent difficulties in taking adequate action.

Second: Germany must not continue to increase its economic dependence upon authoritarian competitors, rivals, and even enemies of the West. This is the admonition that the German business community, particularly with regard to its engagement with China, should take seriously. Is it willing to do so? The fact of the matter is: many German companies continue to invest big time in China, and their engagement still growing. German chemical giant BASF is finalizing a huge investment of 10 billion euros in southern China. If completed, it is the single biggest investment by BASF and probably one of the biggest investments by a German company outside Germany—ever! The manufacturing base of German companies is expanding, but outside Germany and not in a Western country. The lure of China’s market, both its scope and dynamic, is trumping any geopolitical risk. Warnings to include these risks in their business calculations seem to fall on too many deaf ears.

Politicians, the business community, and the public need to think strategically. Wishful thinking is a bad guide.

Third: Germany must transform its energy sector and diversify resources and supply chains. Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are lessons of ignorance and bad judgment, greed, corruption, and the impact of ideology. Never again should we subcontract key areas of public policy, economic or energy-related, to a clique of commercial interests and party politicians which have rendered Germany, whatever their intentions and motives, helpless and defenseless and subject to blackmail.

Germany has far-ranging responsibilities. It must provide sound, enlightened leadership in and for Europe and for the West more broadly, not a selfish or provincially minded “Germany first,” to which we have been prone all too often.

Fourth, and most important may be this: Germany needs a reconceptualization of its security and prosperity that centers national action around the challenges, risks, and threats in the 21st century and how the country should respond. This is at the heart of Germany’s identity and role in the world—and in a decade which according to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, will be the decade of living dangerously.

Can Germany Measure Up to the Moment?

What are the chances that Germans are ready to learn the lessons of Russia’s war and the impact it has on us? Is there reason to be optimistic? Yes, there is, but there are still political and social forces that stand in the way of this necessary return to fundamentals.

Will we still feel as one with Ukrainians if energy prices continue to rise and rise and energy-intensive companies shut down their operations and lay off workers? What price are we ultimately prepared to pay? There are more questions than answers. Surveys of public opinion, however, give reason to believe that the consensus will not fall apart. September polling from ZDF-Politbarometer shows a desire for continued German support for Ukraine (74 percent), even if energy prices remain high.

Russia’s war has turned German politics around. It is a major turnaround for large parts of the SPD and most of the Greens to accept a German commitment to the NATO target of spending two percent of GDP on defense, as Chancellor Scholz pledged in his February 27 Zeitenwende address to the Bundestag. To compensate for the deficiencies and equip the Bundeswehr, a new special fund of 100 billion Euros has been set up, and even enshrined in the constitution. And Germany’s traditional self-imposed arms export restraint—no arms exports to crisis regions—has been put aside, with Berlin sending air defense systems, multiple rocket launchers, and modern artillery to Ukraine. This may be too little, too late, but is in sync with other major NATO partners. And for Germany it is a major step. More must follow.

Apart from making the Zeitenwende’s aspirations, promises, and announcements a material and institutional reality, Germany must overcome its reluctance to provide real leadership.

Mothballing Nord Stream 2 is another major turn-around for the SPD, parts of the CDU, and quite a few in the business community. The hard left Die Linke party and the hard right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)—and some in government positions in the Eastern states—still position themselves as champions of the pipeline. But Nord Stream 2 is history.

In general, giving up on the aspiration for partnership with Russia is an embarrassing admission of foreign policy illusions over several decades and involves several governments, parties, and the public at large. It bears witness to nothing less than a massive national failure.

Putting coal-fired power plants back in service is a considerable turn-around for the Greens. To do the same with the remaining nuclear power stations would be a dramatic challenge to the Greens’ birth narrative. It would again be a lesson of pragmatism and an indication of how deeply Russia’s war has affected Germany. Indeed, two stations will remain operational until next April, in case of an emergency. The Green Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Habeck is definitely under heavy fire. The nuclear issue has already eroded some of the support the Scholz government enjoyed so far.

Major Challenges Ahead

Chancellor Scholz’s Zeitenwende announcements were widely praised. But the choir of criticism has never been completely silenced. The first reason was the government’s position on arms deliveries to Ukraine: too little, too late. Since the summer, the government is under heavy fire from a different direction: discontent is growing because of rising energy costs. As the public increasingly felt the pain and disagreements in the coalition became all too obvious, the chattering classes in Berlin started to ask whether the coalition will survive what may become a winter of discontent. Could a new government be formed, with CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz as Germany’s next chancellor? I do not see this happening, not least because two of the three partners in the current coalition would also have to agree to be members of any new one. Opposition leader Merz does not miss any opportunity to challenge the government. Merz is on fire, but it is not likely to bring down the government.

Voters in Lower Saxony will have an opportunity to evaluate the performance of the three parties in Scholz’s government when they go to the polls on October 9. Sure, it is only a state election, but the national dimension is unquestionably profound. We will get a glimpse of whether voters are unhappy with the crisis management of the national government. It is not unlikely that they will hand out a verdict that hurts the three coalition parties. After a strong national performance in the spring and summer, the Greens’ peak in opinion polls may be behind them. It is typical: After a rise to the top comes the fall.

It is increasingly expected that Germany will enter into a recession in the coming months compounding a potentially bitter winter. Part of the gloom has to do with Germany’s economic structure. With its strong manufacturing base, many strategically significant industries rely on gas. Gas will not be easy to replace, in some cases it will be impossible to achieve in the short term.

Russia’s invasion has brought about a fundamental re-orientation of key German policies. That is good. But Germany will not quickly become the kind of ambitious leader its politicians describe in their rhetoric and which its partners seem to yearn for. Germany is rather comfortable to be part of a coalition and acting on common agreements. Berlin’s allies should keep this in mind and not lose their nerves over German inconsistencies.

It may sound cynical, but it is nevertheless true: Russia’s assault on Ukraine has brought about a fundamental reorientation of key German policies. This is highly welcome since it was long overdue. But it is not enough. Apart from making the Zeitenwende’s aspirations, promises, and announcements a material and institutional reality, Germany must overcome its reluctance to provide real leadership. Germany is not comfortable to stick its neck out on security and military issues. And it thinks it has already done a lot with regard to Ukraine and weapons deliveries. Indeed, it has done quite a lot! But its partners want a much more ambitious leader. So, Germany has a chance to rise to the occasion. If Germany does, it will change the fate of Europe.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.