Security and Stability in Germany’s “Zeitenwende”

This is part of our special feature, Europe and NATO Since Ukraine.


“The world afterwards is not the same as the world before,” intoned Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the Bundestag on February 27, 2022. That was his way of defining the Zeitenwende, an “epochal change in the history of [the European] continent” unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three days earlier. In Berlin, perhaps more than in any other European capital save Kiev, the “cold-blooded” Russian assault reversed fundamental assumptions about the nature of international politics: war in Europe was possible in the twenty-first century.[1] As a consequence of this invasion, every element of national security, including energy supply, alliance commitments, communication’s integrity, and military readiness, appeared in a different light.

The term “security” itself assumed a central position in German discourse in 2022. Nearly a year and a half after the invasion, on June 14, 2023, Scholz’s coalition released a glossy brochure containing Germany’s first-ever national security strategy (NSS).[2] It was comparable in form and scope to the Biden administration’s own national security strategy document from October 2022; the two texts were also nearly identical in length.[3] Under the headings wehrhaft, resilient, nachhaltig (rendered as “robust, resilient, sustainable” in the official English translation), the German NSS contained a series of propositions about Germany’s interests and the policies needed to uphold them. Reception was lukewarm. The document’s breadth, however, was striking. Through a clearly established list of core German interests, Berlin addressed a wide array of economic, social, and environmental concerns under the rubric of security.

This essay presents a historically oriented analysis of the NSS document to assess its constructive aspects and its blind spots against the seven-decade history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although a sense of urgency shines through the NSS, particularly in connection with the modernization of the Bundeswehr, much of the document amounts to a regrouping and repackaging of Germany’s conventional aims such as disaster preparedness or climate change mitigation. The principal military methods considered in the document involve the containment of Russia and the strengthening of multilateral overseas state-building deployments. Most proposed solutions involve deferring to international organizations and authorities, with the assurance that Germany will intensify its engagement with EU, transatlantic, and UN efforts. Little here is of direct benefit to Ukraine, and the funding situation for the Scholz government’s various security initiatives is in serious jeopardy. Nevertheless, the NSS appears noteworthy as a first step toward defining a distinctive German strategic approach to global challenges. The NSS thus highlights how deeply the war in Ukraine has changed the country that lies at the center of Europe.


A “traffic light” document

Articulating any kind of agreed strategy was bound to be challenging for the German government, which consists of three disparate groups—the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens. Until 2021, such a “traffic light” coalition (reflecting the three colors—red, yellow, and green— associated with those parties) had never been attempted at the federal level in Bonn or Berlin. In fact, since 1961, all governing coalitions had consisted of only two political groupings—even if the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sometimes operated at a distance from its larger ally, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The formation of political coalitions in Germany involves several weeks of horse-trading over cabinet posts and directions to take in policymaking, culminating in an agreement outlining the blueprint for governance in the subsequent months and years. Scholz’s government had just emerged from this process in December 2021, which likely contributed to its ability to respond with a clear and unitary voice in the immediate aftermath of the February 2022 “Putin shock.” A year and a half later, the differing priorities of the coalition partners were more clearly in evidence and help to explain the composite nature of the NSS. The document’s overall tenor is mostly to uphold the ideas of the Green party, as formulated under Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock; the Foreign Office did indeed lead the drafting process, starting with a series of “citizens’ dialogues” and “town hall meetings” in spring and summer 2022.[4] The strong notes of fiscal caution reflect input from Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the FDP. Given the SPD’s deep internal divisions over policy towards Russia and the legacy of the SPD’s Ostpolitik, it is more difficult to ascertain from public documentation what role might have been played by Chancellor Scholz and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, despite the latter’s energetic efforts to revive the Bundeswehr.

Discussions in the Bundestag and media coverage about the NSS highlighted one striking absence: despite prior public discussions about the need for a German national security council (NSC) comparable to that in Washington, DC, the SPD and Greens apparently overruled the FDP on this issue.[5] Baerbock explained that the decision reflected a difference in governing systems: under a presidential system such as that in the United States, an NSC centered in the White House might be appropriate, but Germany’s parliamentary system could not as readily coexist with a body so detached from the cabinet’s control. One suspects that the existing ministries, including the defense ministry and Baerbock’s own Foreign Office, did not relish conceding more executive authority to the Chancellor’s Office. An ad hoc “security cabinet” would have to do, alongside the permanent Federal Security Council dedicated mainly to arms export questions. Without any single agency in charge of coordinating the myriad aspects of security identified in the document, which range from anti-terrorism measures to cybersecurity and the securing of strategic raw materials, the NSS falls back on a vague and unconvincing buzzword: “integrated security.” A text box explains that “integrated security” is “more than coordination, co-operation and connectivity. By purposefully interlinking various policy fields in depth, it frames answers to complex threats and identifies the suitable instrument in each instance.” More ambitiously still, “integrated security” is said to combine “preventative action with intervention and follow-up measures.” The most charitable reading might simply be that “integrated security” denotes measures taken by whichever agencies are appropriate for the task—making the government as such, including federal as well as state and civic authorities, the embodiment of “integrated security.” The only genuinely integrated feature here appears to be the inclusion of many disparate tasks within the framework of a single document.


Naming interests

The NSS does, nevertheless, represent genuine progress in spelling out the nature of Germany’s interests. This topic has been something of a minefield for German leaders since the attainment of German unity in 1990. During his time as defense minister, Peter Struck (SPD) raised hackles by claiming in 2004 that “[Germany’s] security also gets defended at the Hindu-Kush”[6] In 2010, Federal President Horst Köhler (CDU) drew fire for contending that “a country of [Germany’s] size and with [Germany’s] foreign trade orientation, and thus foreign trade dependence must realize that in doubt, in an emergency, military force too is necessary to protect [Germany’s] interests.” Köhler wound up resigning in the wake of the ensuing controversy.[7] Thus, it is no small achievement that  “maintaining an open, rules-based international economic and financial system with free trade routes and a secure, sustainable supply of raw materials and energy” is identified in the NSS as one of nine core German interests. Another named interest in the document involves “fostering prosperity and social cohesion in our country by protecting our social market economy.” The inclusion of these two interests within a strategy document appears to signal a greater willingness to defend economic priorities with force when needed.

Most of the interests named in the NSS are couched in multilateral terms. For example, the document explains that Germany has an interest in “protecting the people, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country, the European Union and our allies.” Additionally, Germany benefits in “strengthening the European Union’s ability to act,”  in “consolidating the transatlantic alliance,” and in “promoting an international order based on international law, the United Nations Charter and universal human rights.” In general, the document reflects a strong desire to uphold a “fragile” peaceful order that is not, alas, “set in stone,” as Baerbock laments in her introductory statement to the NSS. Berlin is doubling down on the international order that has prevailed since 1945, seeing in the UN Charter and associated organizations such as the International Criminal Court the basis of legitimacy.

A more rigidly systematic document might have proceeded directly from the list of core interests to a series of policies explicitly mapped to uphold each stated interest. Instead, following a brief sketch describing the deteriorating state of international relations, the NSS moves on to three thematic chapters that constitute the bulk of the text. These cover the need for military deterrence, the need for democratic resilience, and the need to act against climate change. The three chapters have considerable internal cohesion, but in their efforts to thoughtfully give full expression to their individual themes the link to overarching German interests is not always spelled out; and the immediate context of the Ukraine war plays only a subordinate role.


Strategies of containment

The NSS contains numerous references to a “multipolar world,” all of them wistful since the new environment is also said to be “less stable.” Two powers, Russia and the People’s Republic of China, are identified as significant opponents to stability. By “wrecking the European peaceful order, Russia is directly threatening our security and that of our allies in NATO and the EU.” While carefully refraining from identifying Russia as an enemy and insisting that “neither Germany nor NATO seek any rivalry or confrontation with Russia,” the document lists a number of policies that mark Russia as a danger. It is noted that Russia aims “to destroy the state sovereignty, territorial integrity, cultural identify and political existence of a peaceful neighbor” and that Russia constitutes a nuclear threat against Europe. Moreover, the document also mentions Russia’s efforts to “destabilize the democratic societies of Europe” and to deliberately undermine international law and human rights.

China is treated in a more differentiated manner in the NSS, as it is considered a “partner, competitor and systemic rival.” Nevertheless, it, too, is described as attempting to “remold the existing rules-based international order… acting time and again counter to our interests and values.” Further, the document notes that “China makes deliberate use of its economic clout to achieve political goals.” But, whereas scant hope is given for cooperation with Russia, the NSS stresses the inescapable need to work with China, “without whom many global challenges and crises cannot be resolved.” Taken together, the NSS readings of Russia and China suggest that only the latter must be reckoned with—as a systemic rival—and reasoned with—as a partner. This reading represents a kind of carrot-and-stick approach. Indeed, the harsh rhetoric about Russia allows for speculation about how Berlin might respond to a future Chinese assault on Taiwan, although the latter is not explicitly mentioned in the document.[8]

Other menaces receive due consideration in the NSS, such as nuclear non-proliferation—in particular when it comes to North Korea and Iran—and the destabilizing impact of regional wars. It is noted that “fragile states… become the cradle and safe haven for violent non-state actors, including extremists, who pose a direct threat to these states and their neighbors” and indirectly to Europe via terrorist networks and on-line radicalization and recruitment. Meanwhile, “external actors” are said to be exploiting the opportunities afforded by the growing chaos “to consolidate their own power and to extend their spheres of influence.” The latter mention might refer to the Wagner Group’s activities in the Sahel, though it would apply just as readily to Iran’s backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen.

How, specifically, might Germany counter challenges to the rule-based order it cherishes? The key message is to foster deterrence on a continental basis—“We are strengthening the Bundeswehr as a cornerstone of conventional defense in Europe”—while continuing to supply aircraft toward NATO’s nuclear deterrence. The need to augment German capabilities is stressed repeatedly, culminating in an expanded, more permanent presence in Allied territory. The stated aspiration is to make Germany “a framework nation [Anlehnungspartner] for our fellow allies.” If this goal is realized, German soldiers will be significantly more visible along NATO’s front lines over the next five years. All of this language is highly reminiscent of a Cold War containment strategy. Germany does not wish to engage in open conflict with Russia, nor is it aiming at regime change. The only option, then, is to try to mitigate the effects of Russian behavior—whether along Russia’s borders, across the Global South, or among Western democracies, particularly in view of Russia’s interference “in political processes, public debate and elections.” Just as with George Kennan’s containment model from the 1940s, however, there are downsides to a defensive, essentially reactive posture: it leaves the initiative to the disruptors and keeps the defenders guessing about the next point of crisis.

With that caveat in mind, the lack of geographic differentiation in the NSS becomes problematic. Aside from a single sentence acknowledging the “special significance” of the “Indo-Pacific,” the document does not define any regional strategy for continents beyond Europe—a striking contrast to the parallel text produced by the Biden administration. As a result, the NSS might seem to confirm Germany’s status as a strictly European power. But that is not, apparently, what Berlin intends: the NSS depicts Germany as a responsible global power acting on an international humanitarian basis in cooperation with European allies and with the blessing of the United Nations. To underscore this point, Germany has once again raised its hand and expressed its readiness “to serve as a permanent member” of the Security Council “and thereby assume greater responsibility.”

In other respects, too, the NSS conveys a determination to intensify German involvement in international crisis management: “we will strengthen, expand and combine our political, diplomatic, development-cooperation, military, police and civil instruments.” The rhetoric about “addressing the structural causes of conflicts” is akin to boilerplate Foreign Office language from two decades ago, but the document does at least speak matter-of-factly about “armed Bundeswehr missions abroad” as a routine aspect of German policy. In a separate chapter, the NSS avows the universality of human rights “for all individuals throughout the world,” even as it offers a nod to “feminist foreign and development policy.” All told, it is hard to see the current strategy document as resolving the contradictions that bedeviled Germany’s (and all of NATO’s) intervention in Afghanistan, and that country is not even mentioned by name. It is fortunate, then, that the Bundestag has commissioned a parliamentary investigation into the “lessons of Afghanistan for Germany’s future networked engagements,” with a report due by the end of the legislative period in 2025.


What about Ukraine?

Perhaps the most unsatisfying aspect of the present NSS is its static treatment of Russia’s genocidal war to eliminate Ukraine as an independent state, culture, and people. After all, containment was a peacetime strategy. Moscow’s “special military operations” in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were swift interventions, however brutal their longer-term consequences. Had Ukraine capitulated after only three days as projected, the 2022 invasion would surely have been remembered the same way. Instead, Ukraine’s determination to resist provided the inspiration for Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech and the NSS itself, as both Scholz and Baerbock acknowledged in their signed introductions. The NSS explains Germany’s strategy in response to the war by noting that

By supporting Ukraine, we are strengthening its resilience against Russian aggression, while making a fundamental contribution to our own security. We stand by a free, independent and democratic Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders.

This passage almost reads as though the war has already ended. “Resilience” is precisely the term that this document uses to portray the enhancements in German peacetime readiness. As critics—notably Benjamin Tallis and Julian Stöckle—have complained, Berlin’s position falls short of calling for an outright Ukrainian victory, let alone pledging German support in achieving such a victory.[9]

When it comes to the most significant controversy dogging Germany over Ukraine—the question of which weapons Berlin might safely provide to the struggling government in Kiev—the NSS takes a remarkably cautious line: “the Federal Government will continue to adhere to its restrictive baseline policy and set benchmarks in an arms-export control law.” Aside from “human rights, democracy, and the rule of law,” German policy “takes into account [its] alliance and security interests, geostrategic challenges, support for partners facing direct threats, and the requirements of enhanced European arms cooperation.” The reference to “direct threats” encompasses one of the most significant and painful shifts in German policy over the past two years. Before the Zeitenwende, the Federal Republic had deliberately refrained from supplying arms to any party at war. From that standpoint, Germany’s provision of offensive weaponry to Ukraine represents a major departure, which Berlin has justified in terms of bolstering Ukraine’s right to self-defense. But the specific rationale for supplying certain weapons and not others has seldom been clear or consistent, and the Scholz government’s hesitations are rightly held to be an impediment to Ukraine’s existential struggle. Assuming that Russian nuclear capability has been one of the principal obstacles, it might have been helpful to see a more open discussion of escalation risks within the NSS document.

The NSS does, at least, forthrightly disregard Russia’s insistence on dictating the allegiances of its near neighbors. “The Federal Government supports enlarging the European Union to include the countries of the Western Balkans, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and, at a later stage, Georgia.” Just as importantly, the authors have refrained from hand-wringing over Russia’s future. The Scholz government’s successful diversion of gas imports away from Russia has allowed it to steer free of any future reliance on Moscow’s good will (though private German business interests in Russia will surely continue to influence German thinking). Perhaps future developments will occasion a reconsideration of punitive sanctions, but it is worth noting that the document ties sanctions not only to Russian military aggression but to problems of cybersecurity. The “hybrid” quality of Putin’s challenges to the Western democracies is appropriately stressed in the document, even if the proposed solutions fall short.


“Stability” as a brake

As early as 1965, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard identified macroeconomic stability as the foundation of (West) German foreign influence. Addressing the Bundestag on November 10, 1965, Erhard spelled out the consequences:

[A]n economic weakening of our country . . . would do serious damage to our foreign policy ranking and our maneuverability. German foreign policy must, in defending vital German interests and in achieving the political goals of our divided country, be able to rest convincingly on a socially stable and economically vital Germany.[10]

The upshot was that overextending Germany’s financial commitments abroad would prove counter-productive in the long run, undermining the basis of the country’s respect and authority. Over the intervening decades, such reasoning has offered an ample excuse (to domestic audiences, anyway) for acting parsimoniously with respect to foreign aid and defense outlays more generally. Since 2009, Berlin’s financial maneuvering room has narrowed further through the formal anchoring of a “debt brake” in the constitution.

The prospect for funding the various initiatives outlined in the NSS was always dubious. The “executive summary” notes obliquely that the projects in question would be managed within ministerial budgets “by means of prioritization.” Otherwise, the document mentions that Germany “will strive to implement this strategy at no additional cost to the overall federal budget.” Whether this strategy was earnestly meant, a bombshell ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe in November 2023 has crippled the coalition’s spending plans. To avoid running deficits, Scholz’s government had tried to repurpose emergency pandemic funding and apply it to the climate crisis instead—a practice now ruled unconstitutional. Given that climate action, too, was a major component of the NSS, the coalition’s spending setback also represents a setback for its security strategy. Fortunately, the oft-touted €100 billion modernization fund for the Bundeswehr remains intact, thanks to the coalition’s success in enshrining its constitutionality during the panicked early months of the Zeitenwende.

It is too soon to project how severely the “debt brake” ruling will set back other facets of Germany’s security policy. It will likely exacerbate the chronic underinvestment in public infrastructure, thus working at cross purposes with the strategy’s goals. Against all evidence, proponents of a schwarze null (zero-deficit) policy insist that Berlin’s sound public finances serve as a positive example for EU partners. But one can imagine other lessons that Germany’s allies might draw if a boldly proclaimed National Security Strategy fails due to the country’s own self-imposed spending caps. A more generous definition of stability, one that sought to wrap a blanket around Germany’s neighbors rather than pulling the sheets too tightly, might achieve far more in advancing “integrated security” for Germans and Europeans.


Decline of the rule-based order

When introducing Germany’s “security identity,” the NSS harkens back to Nazi crimes: “We act in awareness of our history and of the guilt our country bears for unleashing the Second World War and for perpetrating the Shoah, that betrayal of all civilized values.” As a result, the document avows, Germany “will continue to take on responsibility for Israel’s right to exist.” This pledge is not accompanied by any operative strategy; yet the past several months have demonstrated just how seriously the Scholz government takes this assumed responsibility. In particular, video speeches by Robert Habeck (Green), Germany’s minister for the environment and the economy, explain quite lucidly why the Federal Republic has offered such full-throated support for Israel in the wake of the vicious Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, even as Palestinian casualties from the Israeli counter-attack have mounted catastrophically. It is possible that absent the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the resulting upgrading of security consciousness in Berlin, the Scholz government might have been less inclined to take such an exposed and uncompromising position. Postwar German governments have not always been so unequivocal.  For example, during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973—at the very moment in which West Germany joined the United Nations as a full member—the Bonn government and most of its European allies shrank back from supporting Israel in the hopes of averting the threatened Arab oil embargo.

As things stand, the combined impact of the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars has exposed an underlying weakness in Germany’s reading of the world. According to Berlin’s NSS, “the overwhelming majority of states are committed to the United Nations Charter and a free international order based on international law.” Yet Russia’s aggression did not arouse the universal condemnation that might have been expected following such a blatant violation of the UN’s founding principles. Too many countries, including Brazil and South Africa, chose to look away. The “Peace through Strength” mechanism, which was first engineered in 1950 to work around the Soviet veto in the UN Security Council, has not been used to coordinate international military resistance against Russia as it was against North Korea; Ukraine has been left to fend for itself, with an unpredictable supply of military and financial support from sympathetic outsiders. Russia’s nuclear arsenal, its Security Council membership, and its circle of friends have rendered it untouchable. Now that this is plain for all to see, the UN’s credibility as a legitimating body for the international community has been dealt an enormous blow.

More immediately, given the course of events in Gaza, Germany may soon find itself isolated and condemned by the very institutions it so earnestly touts as the wellspring of the rule-based international order. In the 1970s, the United States paid a heavy price within the UN system for backing Israel, leading Washington to define its interests independently of (and often in opposition to) super-majorities in the General Assembly. Should the Federal Republic endure a similar isolation in the years to come, it too might have to couch its interests in less idealistic terms in future iterations of the National Security Strategy. Scholz’s government is thus further than ever from what it clearly sees as the crowning achievement of international approbation, namely, a permanent seat for Germany in the UN Security Council.


William Glenn Gray is an associate professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is the author and editor of numerous books, articles, and chapters on German foreign relations since 1945, covering problems such as nuclear proliferation, weapons exports, European integration, Ostpolitik, and the international monetary system.



[1] Deutscher Bundestag, Stenografischer Bericht, 20. Wahlperiode, 19. Sitzung, February 27, 2024; Scholz speech 3050-55.

[2] “Wehrhaft. Resilient. Nachhaltig. Integrierte Sicherheit für Deutschland – Nationale Sicherheitsstrategie” (Berlin: Auswärtiges Amt, 2023). Quotes in this essay are drawn from the official English translation, or from the original German version where specifically noted.

[3] Biden-Harris administration, “National Security Strategy” (October 2022). This document and the English translation of the German NSS are each around 23,000 words in length, counting the introductions.

[4] For documentation, see various articles and videos posted to

[5] Deutscher Bundestag, Stenografischer Bericht, 20. Wahlperiode, 110. Sitzung, June 16, 2023; see especially remarks by Jürgen Hardt (CDU/CSU), Joachim Wundrak (AfD), Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP), Roderich Kiesewetter (CDU/CSU), Manuel Höferlin (FDP), and Thomas Silberhorn (CDU/CSU). See also Dominik Rzepka, “Baerbock, Scholz, und ein Kompetenzgerangel,” zdf heute, June 14, 2023.

[6] Peter Struck, Minister of Defense Address, Berlin, December 20, 2002.

[7]Rücktritt von Köhler / Das umstrittene Interview im Wortlaut,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 31, 2010.

[8] On July 13, 2023, Berlin government did issue a separate “China strategy” as a follow-up to the NSS. The wording on Taiwanese security is still quite vague: “The status quo of the Taiwan Strait may only be changed by peaceful means and mutual consent. Military escalation would also affect German and European interests.” “Strategy on China of the Federal Republic of Germany” (Berlin: Auswärtiges Amt, 2023).

[9] Benjamin Tallis and Julian Stöckle, “Who’s Afraid of (Ukraine’s) Victory?Internationale Politik Quarterly, May 26, 2023.

[10] Cited in William Glenn Gray, Trading Power: West Germany’s Rise to Global Influence, 1963-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), 99.


Published on February 15, 2024.


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