German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, generally seen as a dutiful and careful technocrat, is now possibly overseeing a revolutionary change in German foreign policy.

Zeitenwende: How Putin forced Germany back to the global stage

8 mins read

The 24th of February 2022 was without a doubt a watershed moment in modern history. As always, the Germans have a fitting word to describe the situation: Zeitenwende (meaning approx. turning point in time). Only three days after the invasion of Ukraine, German chancellor Olaf Scholz used the expression Zeitenwende to announce that his government would make a firm commitment on Ukraine’s side: with the goal to end the country’s reliance on Russian energy and near double current military spending. 

Could this be a break with the country’s post-war habit of sticking to the sidelines and the start of Germany asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with? If so, what does that entail for the rest of us?

A restrained giant

After WW2 Germany was — for very understandable reasons — severely restricted in its military power and international influence in both East and West. Though soon, due to the growing tensions of the cold war, West Germany was allowed to re-establish its armed forces and join NATO in 1955. It built one of the strongest militaries in the alliance, but still never considered themselves a military power and have been very cautious to avoid international military involvement. 

The ‘never again’ mentality, highly prevalent in German society and discourse since WW2, led to a wave of foreign policies aimed at forging economic ties in favour of confrontation and isolation. Ostpolitik exemplifies this the best; a term used during the cold war when West Germany pursued cordial relations and trade with the eastern bloc, with the hope of bringing east and west closer together. Ostpolitik is often attributed with successfully lowering tensions and allowing for smoother integration between eastern and western Europe after the fall of communism. Arguably, the increased mobility of people and information between east and west that came from this policy laid the foundation for the movements that would later rise up and bring democracy to the countries behind the iron curtain. 

But it was not without adverse effects. The extensive energy imports of Russian gas that led to the energy crisis of today are a direct consequence of Ostpolitik. Not to mention the fact that it kept Germany in worryingly close diplomatic relations with Russia.  

Meeting between East-German Prime Minister Willi Stoph (right) and West-German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970. A key part of Ostpolitik were official talks and recognition between the two states. Credit: Ludwig Wegmann

The approach of trying to change other countries through trade, so called Wandel durch Handel — which partially succeeded as a part of Ostpolitik — has been the norm in German foreign policy since the late 1900’s; striving to spread democracy by forming close ties with other countries through a combination of soft power, extensive trade and avoiding conflicts through appeasement. 

Along with Russia, China has been the main target of this approach. But instead of changing for the better the Chinese regime has only become more aggressive, leading Germany to find itself in economic dependence on yet another authoritarian state with great ambition. As the energy crisis following Russia’s invasion has clearly shown, overreliance on an arbitrary autocracy can have massive consequences. It is therefore not very surprising to now also see Germany reevaluate its ties with China.  

While Ostpolitik arguably worked, trade deals with Russia and China since the end of the cold war have mostly been naïve efforts that temporarily enrich Germany at the price of giving leverage over its economy to autocratic regimes. This realisation was sparked by the invasion of Ukraine and has resulted in Germany fundamentally shifting its approach to diplomacy.

Springtime for Olaf and Germany

Fresh winds are blowing in Berlin. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left coalition entered power last December with the promise of sweeping reform after sixteen years of Merkel’s conservative leadership. But despite this, the ruling parties could never have imagined that they’d be overseeing such massive changes. 

After Putin’s invasion, the Scholz administration  drastically increased military spending to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP recommendation. In addition, they sent huge sums of military and financial aid to Ukraine while weaning themselves off Russian energy. Though much more can still be done; as a share of GDP, German support is lower than half of EU members and the Social Democratic Party is still blocking proposals to send Ukraine tanks. This has led to extensive criticism from Germany’s NATO allies and tensions within the ruling three-party coalition. But the massive change in policy during this year is still a clear indicator that Germany is turning its back to pacifism and naïve ties with autocracies in favour of a more assertive stance. 

Olaf Scholz held a press conference February 15th following negogiations with Russian leaders. Credit: Presidential Excecutive Office of Russia

Germany’s new attitude is noticeable in common opinion as well. The aforementioned ‘never again’ mentality used to be seen as a responsibility for Germans to never repeat the crimes of the Nazis. But the discourse seems to have shifted. Instead, many Germans now feel a responsibility to prevent anyone from committing similar atrocities. So, it is unsurprising that support for this new stance remains strong among Germans, despite higher energy bills from shunning Russian gas as well as billions of Euros going to Ukraine and the armed forces.  

Though the most significant German action has not been on its own, but rather as a part of the European response. Brussels and Berlin have been in lockstep when it comes to sanctions against Russia and common support for Ukraine. In addition — although with slight reluctance and awkwardness — Germany is now starting to shoulder the leading role in Europe that befits its size. This is best exemplified by the initiative in late October to create a massive fund for the reconstruction of Ukraine as well as pressing Serbia to choose between the EU and Russia in early November. 

In short, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Russia’s greatest frenemy into a determined and increasingly powerful opponent.

Deutschland, Weltpolizei?

It seems unlikely that this stance will be a flash in the pan. As German reliance on Russia turned out to be a clear failure, we can see the government openly reconsidering its approach to China. Hopefully, this is a sign that Germany has learned its lesson and will put an end to its record of appeasement, opting instead of more diverse and reliable partners in the future. Meanwhile, the ever-present permacrisis will leave little room for Germany to step back out of the spotlight, as strong leadership may continue to be needed for years to come. If Germany commits to this path, how might its new assertiveness manifest itself? 

The prospect of an invigorated and powerful Germany will make many see red and immediately draw hasty parallels to the early 20th century. But the government in Berlin has no ambition to control its neighbours and partners. The explicit intention of Germany’s current foreign policy is to promote cooperation within the EU and collective action, just as in their response to the invasion of Ukraine. This united approach could benefit the entire block since individual EU member states are far less influential on their own. It is also unlikely Germany will intimidate independent nations with military might. Even as the military receives more funding, it is in a sorry state and fortunately, the taboo of military involvement remains strong. Even then, to quote a former Polish foreign minister: “I fear German power less than German inaction.” 

Rather than by force of arms, Germany’s strongest tools of global power will continue to be economic influence and the goodwill gained through its large foreign aid budget. The response to the war in Ukraine shows clearly how this works in practice; the industrial and economic support of the west has enabled Ukraine to continue the fight, while coalition-building across the world and sanctions have left Russia isolated and in economic free-fall, making the war increasingly hard to wage. 

Germany hosted a meeting of the G7 in March that centred around the invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Office of the President of the United States

Unfortunately, the risk of Berlin botching this opportunity should not be overlooked. European leaders are growing increasingly frustrated. As the Scholz administration continues to be hesitant towards delivering heavy arms to Ukraine while attempts to simultaneously wean Germany off nuclear power and Russian gas is compounding the energy crisis for its neighbours. For Germany to be accepted as a leader they have to truly act as one.

There will also undoubtedly be extensive Germanophobic and Eurosceptic reactions stoked by the likes of Le Pen, Orban and Kaczyński to this shift in European power dynamics. Should the efforts of such political demagogues succeed, Germany will most likely fall back to the sidelines of international politics, as its strength relies on cooperation. But the renewed threat from Putin’s Russia might just be what causes Europe’s nations to let their suspicious attitude towards Germany go and rally around a powerful leader to defend common values and freedom.

A New Hope

So what can be expected from this returning power?

Firstly, a strong engagement for democracy and human rights is likely in German policy. Even before Putin’s war, Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said that Germany would no longer stay silent to appease oppressive regimes. Presenting a vision of diplomacy driven by values, rather than the country’s own gain, this is an approach to foreign policy that the world could never have too much of from its most powerful actors. 

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, here at a summit of the ICC in April, is proposing many changes to German foreign policy, particularly focused on pursuing value based diplomacy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, Germany will most likely continue to be a strong proponent of free trade and globalisation. Even as the blunder of close economic ties with Russia has been made clear, German veneration of trade remains strong. Since it is fundamental for the export-oriented economy, all major parties hold firm in promoting multilateral trade with the world; as the nation turns away from Russia and China, other partnerships need to be explored. This strategy will be crucial in the wake of the current supply chain, energy and food crises as many powerful economies may find economic isolation tempting. Should the world start returning to protectionism this would be disastrous for many smaller countries — such as Sweden — that are specialised in a few industries and rely on international trade. A more confident Germany could be very welcome in this situation, as it would stand up for trade even in headwinds for everyone’s benefit.

Lastly, as anyone who has accidentally stepped on a Berlin bicycle path will know, Germans love rules and readily chastise rulebreakers. This mentality could greatly benefit the wider world; an influential collaboration between Germany and the EU keeping to convention and not giving in to others’ contempt of justice could guarantee global stability. This is sorely needed, as the structured order, protecting smaller states in particular, has come under threat from the arbitrary realpolitik (forsaking ideals or principles and only focusing on the zero sum gains of one’s own) of China and Russia. 
It remains to be seen if a Zeitenwende is truly here or if this will turn out to be a dead end. But should Germany accept the responsibility of its size and shoulder a leading role in creating a more united Europe, it would act as a much-needed force for good in an increasingly dangerous and fractious world. 

Thumbnail photo credit: Christoph Braun

Carl Sjölin Fagerlind studies German at Uppsala University. He spends most of his free time rewatching sitcoms, playing curling or studying an eclectic cocktail of languages, history, philosophy and politics. Going down Wikipedia rabbit holes on any trivial topic catching his interest has claimed many hours of his life.

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