Germany requires philosophical debate amid promise to rearm

Germany requires philosophical debate amid promise to rearm

Germany requires philosophical debate amid promise to rearm
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 14, 2022. (AFP)
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The impact of the Ukraine war will be vast. It is too early to tell the extent or direction of the resulting change but, Ukraine aside, one country has already taken major steps that could change the face of European and even global politics.
Germany has never fully recovered from the world wars. Economically, yes, but the legacy of these two conflicts has lived on in German attitudes and policies. For many Germans, it has been a “don’t mention the war” attitude. This is understandable. The term Nazism resonates even today and has been deployed routinely during the current war. The trauma of the global disasters caused by the world wars and Germany’s role in them, particularly the second, would and should affect many people.
Since 1945, West Germany and later a reunified Germany has trodden a largely pacifist line. This contrasts with the militaristic Germany that thrived from Bismarck to Hitler. But could this be about to change?
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken to many Western parliaments in recent weeks, but none was more resonant with symbolism than his address to the Bundestag. In short, what Russia is doing today was what Germany was doing to Ukraine some 80 years ago. The Ukrainian leader challenged the Germans to work for peace in Europe and to stop appeasing Russia. Zelensky made it clear that Germany had not done enough.
The German leaders have been forced into a seismic shift as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the bravery of the Ukrainian people and the millions of refugees pouring into the EU. Given Germany’s terrible history on the same lands, Ukrainians are entitled to feel Germany owes them one. Under the chancellorship of Olaf Scholz, the coalition of the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party has laid out a new path for Europe’s largest economy. Arguably, it had to be a social democrat rather than a conservative politician who did this.
The new German chancellor last month called for a special session of the Bundestag. His speech there on Feb. 27 was historic and perhaps unexpected. Prior to the Russian invasion, Scholz had been hesitant. In this speech, he removed the shackles: “It’s clear we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy.” Germany will now invest in the Bundeswehr. He called for the establishment of a €100 billion ($110 billion) fund for defense. To put that into perspective, it would make Germany the world’s third largest military spender. Germany will also meet its NATO commitment to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and send more forces to NATO’s eastern flank.
And Scholz went further. He also pledged to send weapons to Ukraine, breaking Germany’s policy of not moving arms into conflict zones. Yet, as it stands, this commitment has not been fully followed through. Only a fifth of the German weapons promised have actually arrived in Ukraine and some were too old to be deployed. Bureaucracy was apparently to blame, but this does not impress Ukrainians.
German politicians have yet to internalize this change. Even within the coalition, the Greens want to include a different definition of security that includes human and climate security. The forthcoming budget negotiations may be telling on how committed Germany is to this pivot.
A second seismic shift is that Germany will wean itself off its diet of Russian gas, which accounts for 32 percent of German usage, as well as oil. This will be tough but necessary. An independent energy policy is vital to be credible when standing up to Russia. Scholz has suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and committed Germany to building two major liquefied natural gas terminals on the North Sea. A deal with Qatar was announced this week. Yet, unlike the US, which has stopped buying Russian gas, Germany continues to do so. Berlin has highly ambitious energy goals, not least a target of 80 percent of energy needs from renewables by 2030. It is not impossible that there could be a temporary reversal of the country’s decision to abandon nuclear energy.
The German economy will be stretched and under stress. The fears are that the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine will push it into recession. Sanctioning Russia comes with costs and energy will be far more expensive, as will food and other essential commodities. This is the moment when the pressure to rethink these new postures will intensify.
How will Germany see its global role? It clearly starts with reappraising its role in Europe. The most vital relationship will be with France. Emmanuel Macron wants Europe to be more independent, aware that the US is becoming more isolationist. Ukraine has energized the argument of Europe having its own capabilities. The Germans will also start to consider that they can no longer relax under an American security umbrella without making a big enough contribution.
Germany’s allies in Europe and NATO will largely welcome these shifts, not least the countries in the east and the Baltic states. Gone are the days when other European states saw Germany as a threat. American leaders have, for a long time, complained about Germany’s lack of investment in its armed forces and its failure to commit to NATO spending targets. The Bundeswehr suffered from massive shortages of equipment and even once had to use broomsticks instead of guns in a NATO training exercise. To kick the process off, Germany has just made an order for 35 advanced American F-35 jets to replace planes that are more than 40 years old.
The rest of Europe knows that, to keep Russia at bay, Germany has to be at the heart of any security and defense policy, not least given that the UK has left the EU, raising questions about its reliability in the future. It is not academic, as Ukraine could fall to Russia, with Belarus also hosting Russian military forces.

The country’s leaders have been forced into a seismic shift as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Chris Doyle

We do not know if this new, more assertive Germany will survive the current crisis with Russia. It opens up the possibility that Germany will also start being more active elsewhere. Will it develop capabilities that could see forces deployed in conflicts in the Middle East or in the Sahel, for example? Will it just increase its defense budget or actually share the dangers? As Germany rearms, will the German arms industry figure more prominently across the world? Much of the country’s new defense funding will have to be spent domestically.
It is simply too early to tell if Germany will remain a dove on the sidelines or if it will develop into a more hawkish power. Hopefully its leaders will manage the balance between the two extremes and perhaps the country could become the sort of responsible global power the world has been lacking in recent times.
One thing still needs to happen, however. The Germans themselves need to engage in a philosophical debate about their country: What are Germany’s real aims and priorities? For too long, such strategic discussions were avoided. It was, for many, a taboo. Yet, for such a major power to transform in this way, weighed down by historical baggage, this national debate on Germany’s future cannot be held back.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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