Not since Willy Brandt’s 1970s Ostpolitik has a German geopolitical term made such waves as Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende. Amidst the shock and horror of Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine last year, the Chancellor stood up in the Bundestag only three days into the war to explain how Putin’s aggression was a “historical turning point” – a Zeitenwende – for everyone, but especially for Germany which was now committing to cutting its dependence on Russian gas, supplying arms to Ukraine and ramping up defence spending.
Here was the abrupt end – and reversal – of the venerable German foreign policy tradition of engaging and working with Moscow, primarily for mutual diplomatic and economic benefit. What Brandt started with Ostpolitik, and Angela Merkel took to historic heights – see her crusade in favour of Nord Stream 2 – Scholz brought back full circle to a hard logic reminiscent of the first half of the Cold War when defence against the Soviet threat was the key issue in the West.
Yet the Zeitenwende, with its military emphasis, is supposed to be more than a throwback to the recent past. Today the Bundesrepublik occupies a different position in Europe and the world than post-WW2 West Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall unchained German power: reunification generally restored Deutschland to its Bismarckian geopolitical mass at the heart of Europe, while the euro has ensured its financial domination of the continent like never before.
Coupled with this amount of economic heft, any question of serious German rearmament becomes a very radical proposition. So when Olaf Scholz wrote in Foreign Affairs last December that “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security”, he created great expectations about the Zeitenwende national security strategy – Germany’s first – that his government had been working on since the Russian invasion.
But instead of the roar of the German military machine shifting back into gear, the eagerly awaited document produced hardly more than a pipsqueak. What was supposed to be the blueprint for a vast defence transformation of Europe’s premier power at a time of war turned out to be 74 pages of clichés, fluff and inventories of known German policy positions. Adopting the fashionable framework of “integrated security” – where everything from civilian capabilities in crisis prevention to climate and social inequality now sits on the same strategic continuum with Defence issues – the paper manages to avoid making any clear policy commitments, let alone signalling any shifts commensurate with the Zeitenwende moment.
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Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.