A First German National Security Strategy

James D. Bindenagel

University of Bonn

James D. Bindenagel is a retired U.S. Ambassador, Henry-Kissinger-Professor (Emeritus) at Bonn University, and Senior Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He has published: Germany: From Peace to Power? Can Germany Lead in Europe without Dominating it? (2020) and International Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert, Deutschlands Verantwortung (2015), both published by V&R Bonn for Bonn University.

Next to Come: A Process for German Priorities?

The world looks for German leadership in its National Security Strategy, the first in German history, unveiled on June 14, 2023. It offered reassurances of Germany as a reliable partner in Europe, the transatlantic alliance, NATO, and the G7, as well as confirmed its commitment to the values of a free, democratic order and the international rule of law. It could have addressed more clearly its priorities for managing multiple existential risks beyond Russia.

The National Security Strategy is an all-of-government document that offers insights into the German government’s strategic thinking related to the epochal change, the Zeitenwende, after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It presents a three-dimensional approach—robust, resilient, and sustainable—as a framework for integrated security policies. It draws on the collaborative interaction of all relevant actors, resources, and instruments that, in combination, can comprehensively guarantee and strengthen German security, including food and health security, climate, as well as hard security in China and Russia, and other issues in its security definition. It draws on a whole-of-society concept with broad domestic support and the resilience of free and democratic order, international law, and the UN Charter.

The robust, resilient, and sustainable framework, including a firm commitment of 2 percent of GDP for defense, offers a platform for continuing strategic debates on priority issues in the Russian war against Ukraine, China as a systemic rival, climate change, and critical raw materials for a modern society.

The National Security Strategy defines German interests:

“The paramount task of German security policy is to ensure that we can continue to live in our country in peace, freedom, and security. Germany’s security is indivisible from that of our European partners and allies. Our commitment to NATO and the EU is unshakeable. We stand resolutely by the mutual defense pledge under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. We are strengthening the Bundeswehr as a cornerstone of defense in Europe. National and collective defense is the core task of the Bundeswehr, and this task includes our contribution to NATO’s deterrence capabilities. We will allocate two percent of our GDP, as an average over a multi-year period, to reaching NATO capability goals, initially in part via the newly created special fund for the Bundeswehr. At the same time, we will bolster investments in critical-infrastructure protection, cyber capabilities, effective diplomacy, civil protection, stabilizing our partners, and dedicated humanitarian assistance and development cooperation.”

That statement of interests can go a long way to reassuring Germany’s international partners and friends where Germany stands in security policy today. This German national security strategy defines Germany’s political place in Europe. And, as it confirms its values and sets priorities, the National Security Strategy will mitigate continuing and growing doubt and mistrust of German leadership in Europe that does not dominate European policy. But can this National Security Strategy achieve for united Germany what Konrad Adenauer’s Westbindung did for West Germany in the 1949 Zeitenwende that defined West Germany’s commitment to democracy, Europe, and NATO?

The integrated approach is an essential guiding principle for the German government and a unique opportunity to employ a broad, whole-of-the-country conception of strategy that can yield new thinking. At the same time, the strategy needs a process to address the priorities in the document.

As such, the new National Security Strategy offers the chance in Germany’s current Zeitenwende to strengthen European defense by accepting responsibility for international security, as President Gauck and Ministers Steinmeier and von der Leyen promised at the 2014 Munich Security Conference. It takes courage to take responsibility. Thucydides noted that it is courage that is the secret to freedom, and courage to tackle national security strategies is needed.

While the document addresses current threats, it evades contentious strategic debates over priorities, particularly for future financing. Strategic policy priorities need clarification. The volatile geopolitical environment needs strategies to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, manage the strategic rivalry with China, balance transatlantic relations with the EU, and shape the emerging international order. The integrated approach is an essential guiding principle for the German government and a unique opportunity to employ a broad, whole-of-the-country conception of strategy that can yield new thinking. At the same time, the strategy needs a process to address the priorities in the document, including calls for critical infrastructure protection, cyber capabilities, effective diplomacy, resilient disaster prevention and relief, stabilizing our partners, and engaged humanitarian assistance and international development cooperation.

The coalition found consensus on the document’s structure, but Germany needs a national security council to manage policy debates on various issues. A national security strategy can only contribute added value to policymaking when a strategic learning culture is institutionalized. A council of experts for strategic foresight can contribute essential approaches, especially with Bundestag debates. Germany can show more courage to debate controversial issues and not lose focus on the resources needed to protect Germany, its free democratic order and values, and its foreign and security policy commitment to a free international order based on international law, and the Charter of the United Nations.

While Germany and France enjoy a close friendship in which they have overcome historical perceptions of enmity, more must be done to achieve a shared purpose with East Central Europe and the Baltics, especially with Poland. European integration is indispensable for peace in Europe, which needs continued United States support in the transatlantic alliance.

The National Security Strategy is a good start at strategic thinking. Plans, as President Eisenhower said, are worthless; planning is everything. Thinking strategically with this new National Security Strategy will help avoid going blind into crises and help secure peace in the future.

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