After the Security Strategy, the Real Work Begins
President of AGI
Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.
Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.
Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.
The government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz published a national security strategy on June 14. The document appeared half a year later than promised in the coalition agreement, but it makes up in comprehensiveness for what it lacked in punctuality. The strategy is broad in its description of the geopolitical and international security situation Germany faces. It is clear in identifying the threat Russia poses to the European political and security order. It is resolute in Germany’s support for Ukraine. And it is sober about the breadth and seriousness of challenges, such as monitoring and securing supply chains, sustainably sourcing strategic minerals, avoiding one-sided dependencies, and insulating the population from vulnerabilities like disinformation and attacks on cyber infrastructure.
A reader of the strategy can be under no illusions about the difficulties Germany must confront along with its allies and partners. In that regard, Chancellor Scholz, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius have delivered a product that communicates to the public more clearly than previous governments have and crystallizes the toughening German security policy. The strategy falls short of reconciling the ends Germany seeks with the means that would be required to achieve them: what exactly the German government will do and how it will pay for it. In that regard, it is only the beginning of a difficult process of adapting Germany’s actual efforts to have an impact on a complex security environment. But the document’s clear definition of the country’s challenges will make it much harder for the country’s decision-makers and policy elite to revert to the rose-colored attitudes that enabled Germany’s decades-long energy dependency and military decline.
Some of the contours of German action are already clear. Berlin quickly committed to a leadership role in NATO’s forward presence in Lithuania after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, leading the battalion-sized rotational presence as part of the strengthened NATO posture on the eastern flank. Defense Minister Pistorius, in a late-June visit to Vilnius, raised that commitment to the stationing of a brigade of approximately 4,000 troops, demonstrating Berlin’s readiness to deliver on its promises to its central and eastern European partners and to strengthen them when the situation requires. It is notable that Germany is ahead of its NATO partners in the Baltic states, when one compares Germany’s posture to that of lead nations Canada (in Latvia) and the United Kingdom (in Estonia). Similarly, Germany has in recent months stepped up its delivery of weapons to Ukraine, including precision multiple launch rocket systems (Mars II), advanced main battle tanks (Leopard 2), infantry fighting vehicles (Marder), and air defense (PATRIOT and IRIS-T). The decision about providing Leopard 2 tanks in January of this year did not enjoy majority public support at the time it was taken, absorbed an enormous amount of oxygen in German political discourse, and earned the scorn of some observers. Nevertheless, the provision of advanced weapons has accelerated in recent months without any significant domestic opposition. A recent survey indicated majority support for maintaining or expanding the current level of weapons deliveries to Ukraine, which suggests that Chancellor Scholz’s deliberate approach to managing the politics of the issue has been successful, whatever frustrations it has elicited from Ukraine and Germany’s partners. This further suggests that concerted efforts to raise public understanding—such as the national security strategy—play a positive role in building sustainable support for the government’s security policy moves, which is another reason to welcome the security strategy regardless of any imperfections.
The major conundrum in the national security strategy revolves around resources and the unresolved questions of burden-sharing in the transatlantic security relationship. Chancellor Scholz famously promised after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that Germany henceforth would spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, thereby meeting the target that NATO leaders agreed to in 2014 after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. He also called for the establishment of a special €100 billion extra-budgetary fund for the armed forces, which would help to meet the 2 percent target, redress the years-long neglect in procuring major defense systems, and reverse the hollowing out of the Bundeswehr underway for more than a decade. Not long after the chancellor made that pledge, it had to be revised, because it became clear that Germany would not be able to spend its off-budget defense fund quickly enough to reach the target. Germany’s appropriated defense budget in the meantime has reached the level of €50 billion in 2023, which makes Germany the largest continental European defense spender, trailing only the United Kingdom and the United States according to NATO data. But for a country as prosperous as Germany, €50 billion still represents only about 1.5 percent of its GDP.
The document’s clear definition of the country’s challenges will make it much harder for the country’s decision-makers and policy elite to revert to the rose-colored attitudes that enabled Germany’s decades-long energy dependency and military decline.
Given this slow pace of procurement and expenditure rises, observers of German security policy and transatlantic defense were eager to see the commitments in the national security strategy for defense spending. The document attempts to square the circle by pledging that Germany will reach the 2 percent spending level “on average over multiple years.” The off-budget defense fund will make up the difference between the appropriated €50 billion and the target but will soon be depleted—as early as 2027 according to research by the German Council on Foreign Relations.
This compromise on the defense spending target reflects a delicate balance between the acknowledged priority of re-capitalizing the Bundeswehr and strengthening Germany’s contribution to European security and the coalition’s commitment to restoring budgetary discipline after the extraordinary expenditures of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), whose leader Christian Lindner serves as finance minister, is laser-focused on delivering to the German electorate the party’s promise to return Germany to an era of balanced budgets. The “debt brake” written into Germany’s constitution in 2009 leaves relatively little room for flexibility, but the rule was suspended to address the emergency of the pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine between 2020 and 2022. The IMF has recommended that Germany “undertake reforms to create fiscal space,” but there is little political momentum in the medium term to make fundamental changes.
The national security strategy highlights Germany’s central role in European defense, but it backs away from pledges made by Scholz and his defense ministry that Germany would become the best-equipped armed force in Europe. Likewise, although the strategy highlights certain ambitions, such as the “development and introduction of highly advanced capabilities, such as precision deep-strike weapons,” it does not describe in detail what forces and military capabilities Germany will acquire and maintain in order to carry out its responsibilities within NATO and the European Union or internationally. One might justifiably argue that this level of specificity would be inappropriate for a strategy document of this sort. This absence of a defense plan highlights future work that Berlin must prioritize in order to meet the obligations of leadership in Europe and globally.
It is that work—to define Germany’s approach to the strategic landscape in Europe and the challenges raised by China and to spell out how Berlin will define and meet its defense responsibilities—which must characterize the country’s foreign policy engagement for the coming months, through the NATO summit and the long-awaited publication of the government’s China strategy. The security strategy has defined an ambition from which it will be hard for the German political mainstream to retreat, ratcheting up the commitments Berlin must fulfill to restore peace and stability in Europe and put the transatlantic security partnership on a firmer footing.