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Germany charts its course in unstable geopolitical waters

Berlin’s new National Security Strategy is far more pragmatic than its critics are willing to admit.

Analysis | Europe

For the first time in its post-World War II history, Germany has issued a National Security Strategy. The symbolism behind this event marks a significant shift in Germany’s threat perception and a turn away from its postwar anti-militarism. 

While many analysts were hoping the new NSS would take a tougher stance on defense issues and China, Germany took a practical approach toward Beijing and opted against making any specific defense budget pledges. Rather, Berlin set its sights on retaining its autonomy in a new multipolar world order. The NSS reveals a rare pragmatism that is more astute than many Atlanticist commentators will admit. Germany’s independent perspective on global affairs should be touted as a positive contribution for the future of global stability.

Much of Germany’s new NSS justly points out the major non-military threats of the day that need urgent attention, such as climate change and global health. The strategy reveals a future-oriented and progressive approach to major global challenges that get insufficient  attention today. In fact, the word “climate” appears no less than 71 times in the document whereas the word “China” is only mentioned six times

While U.S. commentators have criticized this framing, it gets the balance of the real threat Germany faces exactly right, especially given the immediate danger of climate-related catastrophes. As an example, Germany experienced massive flooding in 2021 as a direct result of climate change which killed many Germans. The NSS still mentions that China and Russia are threats; Russia is described as the “greatest threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area today” and China as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival.” But Berlin does leave room for ambiguity towards both, a hallmark of the German Social Democratic party’s historically cautious approach. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the SPD’s coalition partner, the Green Party, led by hardliner Annalena Baerbock.

The language of the NSS reveals that Germany is indeed concerned with renewed global tensions. But when it comes to budgetary commitments, the NSS merely repeats a commitment to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, which, it claims, will come at “no extra cost to the federal budget.” For now, the added investments will come from the recently created 100 billion Euro defense fund, which was created after Russia invaded Ukraine last year. But future financing is left up to a future government to sort out. 

In other words, Germany’s view of the future remains undefined. Berlin appears to have chosen a cautious approach to the war in Ukraine, whereby a potential peace settlement could eventually alter Europe’s security architecture. A further piece of evidence in support of this analysis is that the NSS neither mentions the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO nor acknowledges the supposed shift of NATO’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe. There is also no mention of a need to bolster the eastern flank or work together with Poland, the Baltics and the UK on the European security order. 

The NSS does, however, single out Germany’s special relationship with France, a country that has been the continent’s leading proponent of Europe’s “Strategic Autonomy.” This deliberate vagueness and lack of detail reveal Germany’s wait-and-see approach to a future European security architecture — one that may even include Russia. 

As it pertains to China, the NSS does not take as tough of a stance as the United States does. As Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations argued on Twitter, “[T]he German government is trying to walk a very, very thin line between the US’ confrontational approach and a more cooperative – not just business-friendly, but also climate-change-cooperation – approach.”

While many will criticize such a policy, it is ultimately the wisest approach to ensure the country’s stability and prosperity in an unpredictable world facing common threats to our planet. Berlin’s stance on China is one of “de-risking” as opposed to “decoupling.” The former includes creating new supply chains to avoid total dependency on Beijing whereas the latter would entail a more fundamental break in bilateral trade ties. The strategy also seeks to compete with China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative through the creation of alternative development funds for the Global South.  

The document does not provide a fuller account of Germany’s future China policy, much of which will be left for a separate China policy document that is currently being negotiated. This process has been slow because of the disagreements between Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who favors engaging with Beijing, and hardliners such as the Greens under Baerbock who favor a tougher stance. 

China is very important to the German economy, particularly its automobile industry. Executives throughout Germany are aware that increasing trade deals with China runs contrary to U.S. efforts to isolate the country economically but insist that revenue from China is essential for their businesses to offset losses from Europe’s high energy costs. And Germany depends on China for rare earth minerals, lithium, cobalt, nickel and other raw materials essential for the country’s plans to transition to cleaner energy and transportation. 

The document also contains a clear acknowledgment of an already existing multipolar world order in which Germany seeks an independent role. While Germany is rhetorically supportive of the Western bloc, its reluctance to decouple from China and its willingness to consider Beijing a “partner” in international affairs suggest a certain level of pragmatism about the need to cooperate with democracies and autocracies alike for the greater good of humanity and Germany’s prosperity. 

However, the NSS still emphasizes values and the need to select foreign partners through a values-based approach to international relations.  It remains a bit unclear how Germany intends to keep its pragmatic partnerships with non-democracies while upholding a values-based foreign policy. 

Part of the NSS’s ambiguity stems from Germany’s divided coalition government, with the Greens taking a tougher stance on Russia — and particularly China — than the Chancellery. One major disagreement between the parties was whether to create a National Security Council. The proposal was tabled when it became clear that neither party wanted to cede influence to the other: The Social Democrats wanted the structure under the control of the Chancellery, while the Greens wanted it to be under the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which they currently head. 

The “new cold war” is far more complex than the previous one. While the antagonism and disconnect between the West and Russia is as clear as day (for now), the relationship with China is much less clear. German business interests as well as the pro-business Free Democratic Party, also part of Germany’ coalition government, support maintaining partnership with China. China on its side has also taken a pragmatic approach to international relations as it chooses not to overtly support Russia in its war in Ukraine and also favors a continued business partnership with Germany and the West. 

Critics have called the NSS vague and ambiguous — factors which will likely frustrate Germany’s transatlantic partners. But Germany is not the only such ally expressing ambiguity toward the new cold war.

Like many other Western powers, Germany hopes to prevent the creation of such an antagonistic global order and is trying to forge a more pragmatic path forward.  Like Germany, much of Europe is highly dependent on China economically. Europe took a hard hit when it moved away from Russian sources of energy and would be in no position to distance itself from China. Cutting the relationship with Russia has set Europe on a path to recession

A truly bifurcated world order —China and Russia on one side, Europe and North America on the other, and the Global South in between — would also be a recipe for instability. France and Germany are looking to maintain as independent a European pole as possible in a multipolar world order, while not sacrificing the much-needed transatlantic security partnership. 

While Germany supports Ukraine, more than half of Germans believe diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine are not going far enough. This suggests that the cultural aversion to war is still strong despite Germany’s supposed “Zeitenwende.” Also, the hardline Green party’s overall support is declining. Germany’s desire to avoid a disastrous cold war, as manifested in its independent perspective on global affairs, should be a beacon of light in this era of uncertainty.

Alexandros Michailidis / shutterstock
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