Berlin’s post-Cold War foreign policy was rich in moralism but poor in morality. It left Germany defenceless, Eastern Europe weak, and Vladimir Putin expecting an easy victory in Ukraine.
In less than a week since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war has turned German politics upside down.
We are used to seeing about-faces, changes of mind, and U-turns in politics. But what happened in Berlin on Sunday morning, announced by new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left the normal volatility of politics far behind.
In a special sitting of the Bundestag, both the government and the major opposition party jointly discarded decades-old German positions.
Germany has elevated security to the top of its political agenda. And finally dumped the weak, amoral, and irresponsible foreign policy of the Merkel years.
They did so across the fields of foreign, security, defence, and energy policy. The goal: to create a strong country able to defend its interests and without dependence on rogue states for its energy needs.
We can better appreciate Berlin’s repositioning by viewing it within its historical context. After 1945, Germany was not only divided but also lacked sovereignty. West German rearmament only started in 1955, and was highly controversial.
To prevent a repeat of its militaristic past, the new army, the Bundeswehr, was under the command of a civilian minister. It was not allowed to operate domestically except in natural disasters. Parliament had to approve each engagement. Soldiers were supposed to be citizens in uniform.
The reality of the Cold War necessitated a powerful army, but the Germans probably preferred not to have one. They have distrusted anything military since World War II.
As a result, when the chance came to scale down the Bundeswehr after the fall of communism, Germany jumped at it. The number of troops dropped to under 200,000 from 500,000. Spending was slashed. Entire divisions disappeared, as did their capabilities.
And the Germans? Finally, they had the army they always wanted. One that could do no harm – not least because it had literally run out of ammunition.
Others were less happy. A decade ago, then-Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski said: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.”
While Germany allowed its military capacity to deteriorate, it made severe strategic mistakes. It phased out coal-fired power stations and simultaneously accelerated its nuclear phase-out after Fukushima. Despite the rush into expensive renewables, that still left a large energy gap. The Germans decided to fill it with Russian gas.
To the horror of its neighbours to the east, successive German governments were prepared to allow Russia to bypass them with a dedicated pipeline through the Baltic Sea. As a result, Russia would have been able to blackmail Ukraine and Poland. It would have allowed the Kremlin to cut off their gas supplies without affecting Germany. Maybe that is why it did not seem to bother Berlin in the slightest.
Meanwhile, former chancellor Angela Merkel tried her best to slow down, or block, NATO’s expansion to the east. Instead of extending NATO’s protective shield to new and westward-oriented democracies, Berlin preferred not to disturb Russia.
To round it all off, Germany refused to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine, even after the annexation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The official reason: not to intervene in crisis regions and to acknowledge its historical guilt. Never mind that the Nazis had been especially ruthless and murderous in Ukraine.
All this happened under successive federal governments, under different chancellors, and in various coalitions. It was a policy rich in moralising and poor on morality. It left Germany defenceless, eastern Europe weak, and Putin expecting an easy path in pushing through his interests.
That Putin attacked Ukraine is his responsibility. That he thought he could do so is partly Germany’s.
The correction of Germany’s strategic policy comes too late to prevent the damage already done. But at least it has come now, and it is bigger than anyone could have expected.
Over the coming years, Germany will spend more than 2 percent of its GDP on defence – finally above the NATO target. This year, it will commit a one-off €100 billion ($153 billion) to its army – a fifth of which will go towards ammunition.
Germany will build not one but two liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals – after years of debate whether it should build any.
Germany will also deliver weapons to Ukraine, and it has agreed to tough sanctions against Russia, which (at least in the short run) could threaten the country’s energy supply.
To counter that, the government is thinking out loud about having coal and nuclear stations operate for longer.
With these measures, Germany has elevated security to the top of its political agenda. And it has finally dumped the weak, amoral, and irresponsible foreign policy of the Merkel years.
As Chancellor Scholz delivered his speech on Sunday, no-one in Parliament looked as satisfied as Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador. He and other eastern Europeans no longer need to fear German inactivity.