Late last year, when Angela Merkel was still German Chancellor, I asked one of her government’s most astute foreign policy thinkers about the country’s worrying dependence on authoritarian powers and the reluctance of its political class to reconsider these relations.
At the time, Berlin was preparing to inaugurate a new gas pipeline from Russia, and the biggest German companies were announcing major new investments in China. But Merkel was on the verge of leaving, and the question on many minds was whether a change in direction could mean a change in Germany’s approach. The German official was skeptical.
“Freedom doesn’t mean as much in Germany as it does in other places,” this person told me, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss German political mores. “If the trade-off is between economic decline and an erosion of freedoms, Germany may well choose the latter.”
Over the weekend, Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, took to the Bundestag podium and proved otherwise, putting freedom first in a stunning response to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Russia. In doing so, he broke the taboos of German foreign policy that dated back to the founding of the Federal Republic more than 70 years ago.
Scholz announced that Germany would end its reliance on Russian gas, spend an additional 100 billion euros on its military, and deliver hundreds of anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine to help its outclassed military counter Russia’s all-out assault. Germany could also be forced to extend the life of its nuclear power plants to fill the energy gap created by the shutdown of Russian gas supplies.
Each of these decisions represents something of an earthquake. Taken together, they constitute a political cataclysm that no one saw coming – neither from a rookie Chancellor known for his caution, nor from a coalition of German parties with pacifist roots, and certainly not from a government led by the social Democrats, with their history. close ties with Russia.
“We are entering a new era,” Scholz told parliament. “And that means the world we live in now is not the one we knew before.”
From Washington, it can be difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the changes we are seeing in Germany, and so it is worth looking back at where the country came from.
As the German diplomat Thomas Bagger eloquently put it explained in 2019, Germany emerged from the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union convinced that it had finally landed on the right side of history. Democracy swept through Eastern Europe, driving authoritarian strongmen from power. What Vladimir Putin – a KGB agent living in the East German city of Dresden when the wall came down – described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century was a renaissance for Germany, and the proof, according to Bagger’s words, that the story turned to his brand of liberal democracy. The end of the Cold War also meant peace and, with it, a drastic reduction in German defense budgets.
At the same time, the country was emerging as an industrial powerhouse, sucking in Russian gas and selling its advanced machine tools to a rising China, while relying on a security umbrella provided by the United States. There have been obstacles along the way – the European financial crisis, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, terrorism in the Middle East and an influx of refugees – but none have shaken Germany’s confidence in its own model and its own vision of the world.
Then came Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the growing realization that “Wandel durch Handel “- the German mantra of change through trade – was not working so well after all. China was still grabbing German cars and technology, but it had become an authoritarian surveillance state with global ambitions, as well as a formidable economic competitor.
Merkel, more than a decade into her long reign, hinted that all was not well. In a Munich beer tent in 2017, after one of her first meetings with Trump, she acknowledged that Germany might no longer be able to rely on the United States as it once did. But it never made ordinary Germans realize that the pillars of the post-war German model were crumbling, nor did it make them realize that they might have to pay the price for the upheaval to come.
One of his last major foreign policy acts was to push through a European Union investment deal with China over objections from the new Biden administration. A last ditch attempt to keep an old world based on rules, unfettered trade and comfortable relations with major powers intact, it collapsed within three months in a flurry of sanctions.
Yet Scholz sent the message to voters during his election campaign that nothing really needed to change. He presented himself as Merkel’s natural heir, even adopting his diamond-shaped hand posture to reassure the Germans that “Mutti” (Merkel’s maternal nickname) would live on in the form of a man of 63 years old bald and soft-spoken. the rival of his party. He spoke of the need to revive former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” policy through greater awareness in Moscow and Beijing.
But as Harold Macmillan once said during his tenure as British Prime Minister, “events, dear boy, events” have a knack for challenging leaders in ways they could not have imagined. Scholz’s first reaction to Putin’s slashings was to downplay them. Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline to Germany that had long faced fierce resistance from EU partners and Washington, was an apolitical “business project” that should be divorced from the sanctions debate, Scholz told the world in mid-December, even as Putin massed troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border. (It’s not for nothing that former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder has turned into a gas lobbyist for Putin since his departure in 2005.)
Scholz’s sudden about-face over the past week as Russian troops entered Ukraine was partly a reaction to the overwhelming pressure his government had come under, both in Germany and among Berlin’s closest allies. , after weeks of dragging feet. But pressure alone does not explain the measures announced by Scholz, which go far beyond what one would have expected from a politician known for his Hanseatic reserve.
These measures are a recognition that the world has indeed changed, that Germany must invest heavily in its own defence, that it must pay an economic price to defend its values, that it cannot remain a larger version of the Switzerland in a world of systemic rivalries. In making them, Scholz went against his own party, that of the German business establishment, and what many assumed to be the preferences of the German population at large. However, the parties of his coalition supported him and the German media hailed his audacity. On the same day Scholz made his announcements, more than 100,000 people converged on the Tiergarten, next to the Bundestag, to show their solidarity with Ukraine.
In one fell swoop, Scholz broke free from Merkel’s cautious mold that got him elected. Merkel has also made momentous decisions in her 16 years as Chancellor, but none have been as seismic for Germany’s place in the world, or as potentially costly for the economy, as those Scholz announced less than three months after taking office. It is ironic that the taboos born of the country’s shameful World War II past can only be broken by another war in the heart of Europe.
What happens next is uncertain. Implementing Scholz’s measures will be difficult, and he can expect resistance from deep-rooted German interest groups. Fixing the underfunded Bundeswehr will not happen overnight. And replacing the Russian gas supply is a daunting task.
It’s unclear what the implications are for Berlin’s relations with Beijing, which has sealed a “limitless” partnership with Putin and refused to condemn his aggression. China is significantly more important to the German economy and its major companies than Russia. And its threat to Germany’s security, though slow rather than direct like Moscow’s, is no less real or worrying.
But the dice are cast. “Peace and freedom in Europe are priceless,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week. It is freedom rather than prosperity after all.