Revising Germany’s Playbook

Alexander Privitera

AGI Non-Resident Senior Fellow

Alexander Privitera a Geoeconomics Non-Resident Senior Fellow at AGI. He is a columnist at BRINK news and professor at Marconi University. He was previously Senior Policy Advisor at the European Banking Federation and was the head of European affairs at Commerzbank AG. He focuses primarily on Germany’s European policies and their impact on relations between the United States and Europe. Previously, Mr. Privitera was the Washington-based correspondent for the leading German news channel, N24. As a journalist, over the past two decades he has been posted to Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, and Rome. Mr. Privitera was born in Rome, Italy, and holds a degree in Political Science (International Relations and Economics) from La Sapienza University in Rome.

For More European Unity

When faced with criticism about his commitment to Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz usually reminds audiences of numbers—German military support to Kyiv is the highest in Europe—and the famed ‘Zeitenwende,’ the epochal change he announced in response to the Russian aggression. Yet, so far Scholz has failed to convince large parts of his own governing coalition that he is doing enough. Difficulties in corralling his own troops have been labeled as weak leadership. However, the rifts about Ukraine indicate deeper fault lines about more fundamental issues.

The German political class is still grappling with renewed questions about the country’s proper place in Europe and in the transatlantic community. The rapidity with which one of Germany’s foreign policy goals of half a century, détente with Russia, has melted away is stress testing the country’s remaining postwar foreign policy pillars. How strong are the transatlantic security anchor, the Franco-German relationship, and the European Union? All appear to have become more vulnerable.

The current obsessive focus on what a second Trump administration would do to the support for the war efforts and to NATO glosses over the fact that America’s commitment to Germany and Europe had already begun to change and weaken two decades ago when the U.S. administration unilaterally decided to go to war against Iraq. At the time German, French, and Russian opposition was unceremoniously dismissed by senior U.S. officials as the tired voice of old Europe. The rift highlighted how since the start of the new century Europe had ceased to represent the main theater of a potential larger conflict that required most of America’s attention. Nor did the continent represent the new frontier of economic opportunities. Eventually, the low point in the bilateral relationship was overcome by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel, but the underlying assessment did not change. In fact, at the time Europeans immediately lamented the United States’ ‘pivot to Asia.’ Believing that Germany could only join the new battleground on global influence through enhanced economic prowess, Germany tried to emulate America’s focus on the Far East with increased support for its business interests in the region.

Perhaps in the belief that the war in Ukraine finally offers an opportunity to at least partially reverse the downgrade of the transatlantic bond, Scholz has decided to rely entirely on the United States for all his major decisions on military support for Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia’s aggression has painfully exposed the asymmetry in the relationship between Europe and the United States on security matters. Scholz’s Germany almost had no choice but to dust off its old Cold War playbook to confront the new threat. Its central feature is to rely on the United States to stop Russian aggression. Its ultimate goal is containment rather than rollback. It implies Ukraine should not lose the war, but not decisively win either, as Russia would need to be tamed rather than defeated. Since the United States’ goal in the war has been equally ambivalent, Scholz is trying to deflect any criticism by stressing that he is acting in close coordination with the White House. However, that makes the chancellor vulnerable to any course correction undertaken in Washington. Numerous political allies at home are puzzled, while some of Scholz’s main partners abroad, such as France, are outright irritated.

The chancellor’s choices are indeed a far cry from the strategic autonomy for Europe advocated by French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s attempts at reminding his partner in Berlin that there is a Europe before the war in Ukraine and one after have fallen on deaf ears in the chancellery. In fact, Germany’s old Cold War playbook also seems to include resistance against any perceived French ‘Gaullist’ attempt at loosening Germany’s ties with the United States to increase its reliance on France. Scholz is playing this part with dedication, comforted perhaps by historical precedences.

At the height of the Cold War, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his French counterpart Charles de Gaulle also engaged in similar debates without ever resolving them. Even current widespread concerns about American disengagement are not at all new. Adenauer continuously feared the United States would eventually leave Europe at the mercy of Soviet Russian imperialism. But similarly to Scholz today, he concluded that even the closest possible alliance with France was no viable alternative to U.S. protection, at least until Europe integrated further, a goal the current chancellor obviously still regards as too elusive.

[A common European defense agenda] would recalibrate the uneven relationship with the United States and advance the political integration of Europe, but it would also force partners to address the typical hurdle of how to pay for it.

Thus, the inability of Scholz and Macron to see eye to eye goes beyond the evident lack of personal chemistry. Overcoming the big chill would require a new common understanding of the big picture that is currently simply absent. For Macron the conflict has morphed into an existential threat to France and Europe that requires greater European ambition and more urgent common action. Scholz’s behavior suggests a more minimalist, defensive posture that relies on past behavioral patterns.

The recurring difficulties in the Franco-German relationship have become at the same time the main reason for and the result of a more general loss of European momentum. Rather than proceeding on a path toward political union, Germany, France, and their partners all too often manage what has been previously accomplished. Common institutions, used to emphasize economic matters like fixing some of the features of their new common currency union or defending the single market, are ill-prepared to play a more active role in defense of the union. While coordination between member states has been enhanced, no major breakthrough on political integration has taken place since Helmut Kohl left power in 1998. He was the last chancellor to assert that a political union with a military component was a necessary goal to complement the currency union.

Any push to advance a common European defense agenda potentially represents a quantum leap. It would recalibrate the uneven relationship with the United States and advance the political integration of Europe, but it would also force partners to address the typical hurdle of how to pay for it. Should Europe once again issue common bonds to fund long-term commitments to purchase weapons, an idea pushed by the government in Paris and parts of the EU Commission in Brussels? In theory the proposal is appealing as it would push common institutions to play a greater active role in the defense of the bloc, address the uneven fiscal space of individual member states, and ensure greater funding certainty for an arms industry that needs long-term contractual arrangements. In practice ‘frugal’ member states, including Germany, will resist such a scheme, not least because they still believe that to best contain national populism means shielding their taxpayers—voters, from greater financial commitments towards Europe. Typically such debates produce scaled-back ambitions or no significant new common initiative at all.

Scholz’s posture simply doesn’t match Macron’s ambitions. The chancellor has already addressed calls to do more for the war efforts at the European level by highlighting what Germany is doing unilaterally for Ukraine. The main opposition party, the Christian Democrats, have duly attacked him for not answering calls to close ranks with Paris. However, they would not necessarily have acted very differently, if in power.

While the conservative bloc is indeed in favor of providing more sophisticated weapons to Kyiv, including the much-debated longer-range Taurus missile, it is equally reluctant to advance European political integration if it means new common fiscal tools. A substantive debate between the French president and a conservative chancellor would eventually face the same questions Scholz is reluctant to answer today. So far the lack of a common understanding with France on Europe and the ongoing debates within his own coalition only seem to validate the chancellor’s narrow choice to manage the crisis rather than to try to shape it.

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