Germany’s national security strategy misses the mark
23 Jun 2023|

After a significant delay, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week unveiled the country’s first national security strategy. The long-anticipated plan, introduced nearly a year and a half after Scholz stood before the Bundestag and proclaimed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had triggered an ‘epochal change’ (Zeitenwende), is intended to help Germany navigate a changed and uncertain geopolitical landscape. But while the 74-page document—jointly released by the foreign affairs, defence, finance and interior ministries, as well as the chancellery—clearly lays out the geopolitical and economic challenges facing the country, the strategy, in its current form, is too vague to be an effective guide.

Although Germany has so far managed without a national security strategy, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine—together with the country’s dangerous dependence on Russian natural gas—drove home the need for comprehensive thinking. For decades, Germany relied on the United States and NATO for protection, a seemingly never-ending peace dividend that enabled the country to champion military restraint while maintaining the illusion that the world was more peaceful and secure than it was.

That illusion was shattered after Russia attacked Ukraine, and China, eager to exploit any perceived Western vulnerability, adopted a more assertive foreign policy. But although the new strategy acknowledges Russia as Germany’s primary security threat, its description of China—‘partner, competitor and systemic rival’—is a contradictory mash-up, and Taiwan is never mentioned. Instead, the document emphasises Germany’s close partnership with the US, unwavering commitment to NATO, and membership in a strengthened European Union as the institutional pillars of the nation’s defence against both actual and potential enemies.

While a significant portion of the strategy is dedicated to stating the obvious, three of its key features are worth highlighting. On a positive note, it adopts a holistic approach to national security that goes beyond military preparedness and deterrence. Under the slogan ‘robust, resilient, sustainable’, the document outlines the three guiding principles of Germany’s integrated security strategy. ‘Robust’ means being prepared to protect against attacks, including cyberattacks and hybrid warfare, and meeting Germany’s commitments to NATO. ‘Resilient’ signifies the country’s commitment to upholding a liberal, rules-based domestic and international order through a values-based, interest-led foreign policy. And ‘sustainable’ represents the need to ensure that Germany has the natural, economic and social resources it needs to prosper.

Given that the current level of Germany’s defence and security spending is insufficient, such an integrated strategy would ultimately require further investments. By enhancing its military capabilities and accelerating the energy transition, Germany could fend off potential attacks, defend the international liberal order, protect human rights and promote a sustainable way of life. It’s difficult to imagine anyone opposing these goals.

But this vision also raises several questions. Crucially, what institutional mechanisms, rules, regulations and budgetary resources are needed to implement this integrated security strategy? Would embracing such far-reaching changes not require a nationwide mobilisation effort? Would that not significantly increase the role and power of the state?

The document’s first weakness is its failure to address these questions. When it comes to national security policy, a strategy’s purpose is to establish long-term objectives and provide a roadmap of short- and medium-term tactics to achieve them. But while Germany’s national security strategy is long on vision and outlines some strategic goals, it comes up short on tactics and concrete steps.

The document doesn’t propose any allocation of funding for its proposals, nor does it explain which agencies or bodies will be responsible for coordinating and overseeing implementation. Moreover, it disregards the potential value of a national security council and assumes that the existing inter-ministerial mechanisms will suffice. But will they?

Unfortunately, the strategy doesn’t reckon with the fact that it was the lack of coordination among key ministries and a weak central command that gave rise to Germany’s deficient foreign and defence policies in the first place.

The document’s reliance on vague language is another major weakness, because it creates ambiguity where precise statements are necessary. For example, while the strategy reiterates Germany’s commitment to NATO’s 2%-of-GDP minimum for military spending, it now qualifies that commitment as ‘an average over a multi-year period’.

Behind these equivocal formulations lies the looming threat of the debt brake, a constitutional mechanism empowering the finance minister to restrict public spending in order to prevent structural budget deficits. In other words, the effective implementation of Germany’s first national security strategy is contingent on the finance minister’s willingness to provide the funds needed to achieve it.

In sum, while Germany’s national security strategy advances some thought-provoking ideas, its realisation is jeopardised by a lack of actionable policy proposals and uncertainty surrounding institutional mechanisms and financial resources. Without precisely defined goals and detailed, step-by-step plans to achieve them, the strategy will most likely remain on the shelf—a well-written account of what could have been.