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May 22, 2023

Ending Germany’s Indecision-Making

Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz near a German tank
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On May 13, Germany announced that it would send $3 billion in military aid to Ukraine. German commentators generally welcomed the news, congratulating the chancellor for facing down his domestic critics and taking a leadership role in Europe. But for the rest of Europe — accustomed to Germany arriving late and then stealing the show — relief was tempered by familiar frustration. 

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Initially, many observers hoped that under German leadership, the European pillar of trans-Atlantic defense would evolve to be solid and dependable, if perhaps a little dull and unwieldy. Instead, Germany is importing the dysfunctional politics of the European Union into trans-Atlantic military decision-making. As Europe faces security shocks and strategic surprises, this has already led to foot-dragging in Germany and Germany-bashing in the rest of Europe. The ensuing political controversies have given Moscow far more warning about allied planning than a U.S. intelligence breach and far more insight into Western divisions than a speech by a French president. 

We got a taste of this during the January diplomatic drama about sending German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine. The episode began with hopes for quick European action. This was followed by heavy diplomatic pressure on Berlin, leading eventually to prolonged gridlock. When movement finally occurred, it was so late and so sudden that the transfer of arms spooked allies more than it reassured them.

In fairness, Germany is a country facing up to its difficult past and providing political cover for other European states with deep qualms about remilitarization. But these excuses stretch only so far. Germany’s real problem lies in its coalition politics and the endless ministries that demand a say before action can occur, all compounded by the fact that it can mine its difficult past for reasons to avoid addressing these structural issues. 

Even the most sympathetic partners are exhausted by the way in which Berlin holds Europe hostage until its demands are met. During a decade of repeated European crises, these partners have all been kept waiting until German constituencies have been placated and domestic coalitions put together. Many now fear that Berlin will drag the United States into its political psychodrama whenever the next strategic shock hits.

Only the Germans can sort this out. The last decade shows why: Attempts by partners to accommodate Germany’s sensitivities have not worked. Attempts to flush Berlin out into the open have failed, too. Interventions by the United States only supercharge frustrations within Europe and set back Germany’s emotional development. As the Germans put the finishing touches to their first National Security Strategy, they should take the opportunity to be clear and accountable to their allies. 

Four Lessons about German Policymaking

Since Russia began its war of aggression, the European response has been held up by Germany. Here in Berlin, officials acknowledge that there have been difficulties, but they are bullish in their justifications. They claim to have been persuading Germany’s citizens of their moral authority to send arms to Ukraine whilst the drama-loving Poles and French turn the war into a beauty contest. And they claim to have been reconciling Germany’s status as the indispensable European power with fears of it dominating Europe or inadvertently escalating the situation in Ukraine. Yet the past decade of European decision-making experience suggests that four other dynamics are at play, and none shed a very positive light on Berlin.

Even in an International Crisis, Germany Will Manufacture Drama 

Germany cannot move in a crisis without waiting for its partners to force it to act. The reason that Berlin needs this concerted diplomatic pressure is quite simple: The German political system no longer produces personalities big enough to command its diffuse power structures. 

In each federal election since 1998, coalition combinations have become more complex. Consequently, the heads of the bigger parties succeed not with bold speeches or visions but by being so tight-lipped as to never alienate a potential coalition partner. As Angela Merkel revealed, this produces backroom powerbrokers whose skill lies in having the greatest command of detail. 

The trouble is that the skillset that brings a Merkel or a Scholz to power tends to paralyze them when in the chancellery. There were hopes when Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave his bold speech on Zeitenwende that this would change: Russia’s war of aggression appeared to have galvanized him to lead his country. But Scholz is of Merkel’s ilk, and he has since reverted to being the quiet type

Reserved brokers like Merkel and Scholz can take decisive action only when the chancellery has the political authority to dominate German decision-making. And this typically happens when Germany’s partners focus on Berlin and demand a particular course of action. Whereas an international crisis or war tends to fragment the German system, it takes a diplomatic drama like the one in January to put it back together. 

Germany Co-Opts Its Neighbors into Helping It Dominate Europe

There is a second reason why Germany likes to be publicly pushed into action by others: Foot-dragging actually enhances its power in Europe

Germany is always slow to formulate its stance on European affairs, and it habitually fails to reference its partners in the process. This means that long after its neighbors have agreed on a shared course of action, Germany turns up and delivers its own particular position, acting as if no carefully prepared package deal were on the table. Only very rarely will Berlin revisit a domestic compromise to accommodate its partners’ particular concerns. But in a diplomatic drama like January’s, it does not need to. When Germany drags its feet in a crisis or a war, all other countries in Europe set aside their own interests to beg Berlin for a decision. 

Germany likes to pretend that it is afraid of dominating Europe — that being publicly dragged into action is proof of its admirable self-restraint. In reality, if Germany did come out quickly in favor of its interests, other European countries would welcome this. It would allow them to either bandwagon with Berlin or coalesce against it. An assertive Germany, far from dominating decision-making, would behave as the predictable, credible player that Europeans crave

Germany’s Partners Try to Steer It, but This Only Gives It a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

 Over the past decade, Germany’s neighbors thought they had found productive ways of managing Berlin, but their attempts to accommodate it have only made things worse. 

Countries that watch Germany closely — such as France, Poland, Czechia, and the Netherlands — developed magic words for coaxing Berlin into action. These words gave Germany the moral authority to act early and assertively without having to manufacture drama. For example, during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, Poland and Czechia called on Germany to “defend the rules-based order,” thereby pushing Merkel to respond with much tighter border controls. Accusing Germany of being “geopolitically naïve” has also provided Berlin with the moral authority to break relationships and agreements. The Dutch government used this language in encouraging Berlin to distance itself from Turkey, while the French government used it to encourage Germany to take a firmer stance with the United Kingdom over Brexit.

Germany’s neighbors now have buyer’s remorse. They pushed Berlin to act by invoking the narrative of a good Germany forced to engage with a bad world. Now, whenever anything goes wrong, Berlin can use this same narrative to disassociate itself from responsibility. 

Germany Gains in Stature by Making Its Partners Look Petty

Germany’s neighbors are now so enraged by its readiness to hold Europe hostage that they seem almost willing to risk their own reputation and interests in order to discredit Berlin in Washington’s eyes. And this in turn only reinforces Germany’s standing across the Atlantic.

When Scholz dragged his feet in January, they took the opportunity to pile on. What better subject for publicly unmasking Germany than the Leopard, which some view as the epitome of its selfishness? Germany has contributed little to European defense, but it has a significant military-industrial complex thanks to its readiness to freeride on the United States and ensure European markets operate according to its norms. This means Germany produces the standard European tank, the one most easily integrated into other European systems, and the one that Europeans can export to Ukraine only with German permission. 

Partner governments were extraordinarily open in their criticism of Berlin’s handling of the Leopard transfers, even if this diminished collective European defense efforts in American eyes. Yet Germany still emerged from the episode with its reputation enhanced. At the denouement of the drama, Scholz descended serenely from his office and chided his European partners for their shrill tone. His diplomats were soon berating other European governments for failing to deliver their tanks — never mind that these partners had been blindsided by the German about-face and had had no time to plan.

The more that Berlin appears to be flaunting its hypocrisy like this, the more dysfunction and resentment it will generate. A similar example came when French President Emmanuel Macron, on his way back from Beijing, called for Europeans to exercise sovereign choices about their security and seemed to echo Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan. Amidst the backlash to his comments, German leaders soaked up applause in Washington for offering their own moral corrective. Yet the fact is that France is currently doing more for Taiwan’s security than Germany — indeed, its frigate Prairial just transited the Taiwan Strait. 

What’s more, by staying silent on European security policy, Germany can make any European state that takes initiative appear to be selfishly promoting its own agenda. Last month, for instance, France and Poland were arguing about how to fund the joint European procurement of ammunition to Ukraine. France advocated prioritizing E.U.-based firms, which would inevitably include French contenders. Poland sought to speed up the process by casting the net wider. German commentators accused France in particular of being petty and parochial. But it was the radio silence from Berlin that had reduced France and Poland to arguing. Germany is the bridge between Paris and Warsaw and could have put forward a proposal that balanced immediate support for Ukraine with the long-term health of the European defense-industrial base.

The National Security Strategy Will Have a Signal Effect

The only way to resolve these dynamics is for Berlin to explain its interests and goals and allow itself to be held accountable. In the second half of May, Germany is due to publish its National Security Strategy. This document offers Berlin a valuable opportunity to set the record straight. 

Germany’s partners will read the National Security Strategy for signals on key issues. Is Germany ready to fill the security vacuum left by an enfeebled Russia in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, or does it still afford the Russians an inviolable “sphere of influence”? Does Berlin still think that Europe’s remilitarization is what provokes autocratic powers, rather than its weakness? And is Germany prepared to radically change the European status quo, not least by making space for a potentially victorious Ukraine

If Germany’s track record of long, wordy strategies is anything to go by, the document’s drafters won’t be inclined to answer. They would be happier to couch everything in ambiguous and technical formulas. They will claim there is nothing to gain from spelling out how Germany would respond to, say, a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Maintaining plausible deniability about Berlin’s position can help Germany to form European coalitions and avoid unnecessarily antagonizing other powers. 

But Berlin should recognize that the conversation within Europe about security is well advanced, and countries want proof that Germany is listening and responding. Were it to heed the call and answer its allies’ questions, Berlin could take a valuable step toward ending European defense dysfunction. Europe needs leadership, not drama, and is waiting for Berlin to deliver. 

Bibliographic data

This article was first published as a Commentary in War on the Rocks on May 19, 2023.