Home / Dr. Steven E. Sokol / From Helmets to Hardware: Germany’s Major Policy Pivot by Dr. Steven E. Sokol

From Helmets to Hardware: Germany’s Major Policy Pivot by Dr. Steven E. Sokol

In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s reliability as a partner was called into question – and the pledge of 5000 helmets to support Ukraine was met with ridicule. But, after Russia’s invasion last week, there has been a tectonic shift in Germany’s foreign and defense policy in the space of just a few days. First, Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted Nord Stream 2 (probably for good). Shortly thereafter, the German government announced that it would provide weapons to Ukraine. And last Sunday Chancellor Scholz spoke before a special session of the Bundestag and committed to delivering weapons to Ukraine, increasing Germany’s defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, procuring dual-purpose aircraft and drones as part of a €100 billion investment in the Bundeswehr, and also reducing Germany’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.

After decades of refusing to export weapons to conflict zones, the German government has already sent 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft defense systems to Ukraine, with another 2,700 Strela anti-aircraft missiles on the way (as of Thursday, March 3rd). It has also authorized the Netherlands to send Ukraine 400 rocket-propelled grenade launchers. These lethal weapons are to be delivered immediately – and Berlin’s reversal could mean a rapid increase in European military assistance for Ukraine, since large portions of the Continent’s weapons and ammunition are at least in part “made in Germany.”

Zeitenwende: Catalyst for Change

Let’s put this in perspective: In 29 minutes, the German Chancellor changed 50 years of German foreign policy and provided a new blueprint for German foreign and security policy. In one speech, he fundamentally shifted traditional positions that have shaped Germany’s foreign policy for decades. Moving away from the detente of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and Wandel durch Handel (or “change through trade”), Olaf Scholz is showing leadership and taking the country in a new direction.

The guidelines that shaped German foreign policy throughout the second half of the 20th century do not fit with the challenges of the 21st century – and more than 20 years into the new century the Chancellor recognized this. Vladimir Putin’s staged attack on Ukraine provided an external shock for Olaf Scholz to do what his predecessor(s) could – or would – not. This has huge implications for Germany’s role in Europe and on the world stage. “Putin’s war” also underscores that the cooperative order that existed in Europe has now been replaced by a confrontational order of systemic rivalry, once again pitting East against West.

The war in Ukraine was clearly a catalyst for Berlin’s policy shift. This will also require a massive change in Germany’s mindset – one that moves from pacifism to an understanding that military power is a tool to maintain peace. German politicians and the German public will need to understand that they live in a world of power politics. It will spark a debate about German defense spending, Germany’s energy mix, and Europe’s security order more broadly. This Zeitenwende – change of era – has just begun and will be a long-term process and transformation that plays out over the next decade, if not longer.

What challenges lie ahead? – The Guest House’s View

Chancellor Scholz’s speech has been met with amazing support and unity within his Social Democratic Party, among his government coalition partners the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats – and even former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who are now in the opposition.

The question is what will happen when the acute crisis in Ukraine ends, allowing party differences to resurface in the coalition and resulting in the CDU assuming its opposition role. The same holds true for German public opinion. The most recent polls show that 78% of Germans support sending military arms to Ukraine as well as the increase in military spending – unthinkable just one week ago. But what happens when the sanctions imposed on Russia begin to impact the daily life of Germans with increased costs and potential energy shortages?

In the span of three weeks, the Chancellor has gone from “Where’s Olaf?” to showing he is in charge and that his government is ready to lead Germany and Europe. His challenge now will be to continue this leadership to prepare and educate the German public for what is to come in the months and years ahead. The Ukraine crisis was a wake-up call for much-needed change, but the implementation of this new vision will take years of sustained commitment and investment to the world order of the 21st century.


This article appeared in issue 76 of Krautshell. More information can be found here https://krautshell.com/issue-76.

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