Germany has its very first National Security Strategy. The strategy was presented in a press conference last week by the chancellor as well as the defense, interior, foreign and finance ministers; the star power is a testimony to the importance of the document. That the strategy got delayed several times — it was initially planned to be presented at the Munich Security Conference in February — shows that many internal fights had been fought and compromises had to be found.
Berlin’s three-party coalition government, the so-called traffic light-coalition, had vowed to publish a comprehensive national security strategy in the first year of its mandate. Its writing thus coincided with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but the war was not its impetus. And ostensibly, the war in Ukraine does not take center stage.
“Today’s Russia” is designated as “the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area,” and the invasion of Ukraine is called “a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and of the cooperative European security order.” But the focus of the strategy is much wider.
As the title “Robust. Resilient. Sustainable. Integrated Security for Germany” suggests, security is defined in the most inclusive way. “In the 21st century, security also means making sure our heating works in winter. Security means being able to find medication for our children in our pharmacies. Having smartphones that work because supplies of the necessary microchips are reliable. Getting to work safely because our trains are not paralysed by cyberattacks,” Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock writes in her introduction.
She doubled down on this during the press conference when she called the ability to take a hot shower in the morning a security issue. This received some ridicule, and the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung complained that calling everything security just increases insecurity.
But despite academic discussions over the dangers of securitization, Germany’s integrated security approach should be welcomed in a country which until recently considered a project like Nord Stream 2 solely an economic project.
Germany doesn’t stand alone with this: The U.K. adopted a similar approach in its “Integrated Review” in March 2021. And it is not only in this respect that the German strategy is similar to comparable documents published by other countries. In fact, the strategy overall does not read as massively different than strategies from the U.S., the U.K. or France. Of course, these strategies do not all share the same content; every country has its areas of interest, idiosyncratic tilts and national pivots.
There are interesting differences as to which countries get name-called, and which institutions receive more attention than others (see table below). But this first German National Security Strategy is no document of a German Sonderweg. It does not present the somewhat hubristic we-are-more-enlightened-than-you approach to security and defense that Germans liked to adopt in the past. Defence Minister Boris Pistorius during the press conference even suggested that arms exports are “part of the strategic toolbox” — a reasonably banal statement internationally, but not something that many German politicians will have said.
It is in this apparent “normality” that the war in Ukraine, and indeed the “Zeitenwende,” makes its appearance. Because in an alternative universe, where Russia did not invade Ukraine and Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not have to ascertain a turning of the times, this first German national security strategy might have looked quite different. Foreign Affairs Minister Baerbock of the Greens political party would in all likelihood not emphasize the need for more wehrhaftigkeit — the German word for the ability to defend, and a central tenet of the strategy.
It might not have included a promise to close the Bundeswehr’s capability gaps and structural deficits, nor a commitment to nuclear deterrence. It may not have included the commitment to further expand, and put onto a more permanent basis, Germany’s military presence in Allied territory for the protection of our NATO allies. And the promise to reach NATO’s goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product would certainly have been weaker — though unfortunately the phrasing that German will spend 2% on defense “as an average over a multi-year period” feels like a way out for continued spending below the level.
The strategy is thus clearly a post-Ukraine invasion document and testifies of a process of change, which admittedly started from a low level but is clearly happening. Strategic documents are rarely the moment to introduce any major bold changes that are surprising. They introduce tilts, like the U.K.’s increased Asia focus, or add new priorities, like the U.S. noting the importance of internal stability for geopolitical power. The German strategy tilts toward normalization.
There are several notable statements from the strategy:
On integrated security: “In the 21st century, security also means making sure our heating works in winter. Security means being able to find medication for our children in our pharmacies. Having smartphones that work because supplies of the necessary microchips are reliable. Getting to work safely because our trains are not paralysed by cyberattacks.”
The German government recognizes that it is impossible to compartmentalize issues and pretend they have no security relevance (Nord Stream 2). There is, however, a danger that by securitizing everything, things become nebulous and confusing. Plus, it is crucially important that with this integrated security approach, Germany does not turn its attention away from hard security — its military capabilities — yet again.
On multipolarity: “We are living in an age of increasing multipolarity. Some countries are attempting to reshape the current international order, driven by their perception of systemic rivalry.”
The mentioning of multipolarity is maybe the most surprising and one of the most controversial elements of the strategy, as multipolarity has been used as a fighting term by Russia and China against U.S. hegemony. The German strategy, however, mostly employs it to give a nod to the countries of the global south — a term thankfully not employed in the strategy — and to acknowledge the rise of other actors.
On China: “China is a partner, competitor and systemic rival. We see that the elements of rivalry and competition have increased in recent years, but at the same time China remains a partner without whom many of the most pressing global challenges cannot be resolved.”
Germany is walking on a tightrope between the United States’ decoupling approach and a more business-friendly, cooperative approach. The government particularly cares about not alienating China so much that cooperation on the climate front becomes impossible.
On France: “The profound friendship with France is of particular importance to Germany. We are aware of our joint responsibility to further the EU’s integration and ability to act at international level. We are united with France by a profound friendship, which arose through the overcoming of historical perceptions of enmity and is also expressed in terms of security policy in the mutual assistance commitment under Article 4 of the Treaty of Aachen and in our cooperation on major arms projects.”
France is the most-often mentioned partner, and the language describing the relationship with the partner on the other side of the Rhine is very positive — possibly overly sweet, as none of the current problems are mentioned, nor ways out of the current impasse proposed.
On the 2% goal: “We will allocate two percent of our GDP, as an average over a multi-year period, to reaching NATO capability goals, initially in part via the newly created special fund for the Bundeswehr.”
Germany’s commitment to reaching the 2% goal becomes stronger. But the strategy’s language still leaves loopholes, and the current government budget does not point in the right direction.
On feminist foreign policy: “In line with our feminist foreign and development policy, we will take the interests of women and disadvantaged groups particularly into account when drawing up integrated peace-engagement measures.”
Germany has officially adopted a feminist foreign policy. This is mentioned in the strategy, but not overly so. The importance of putting a focus on the individual and marginalized groups is emphasized, but the strategy does not read as overly ideological.
On mutual defense clauses: “We stand resolutely by our mutual defence pledge under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Our commitment to NATO and to our obligations within the Alliance is unshakeable, as is our commitment to the EU’s mutual assistance clause in Article 42 (7) of the Treaty on European Union and our mutual assistance commitment with France under Article 4 of the Treaty of Aachen.”
The two times the strategy mentions the mutual assistance commitment with France are problematic. The strategy did not invent this agreement — it was codified in the Treaty of Aachen. But putting it alongside NATO’s Article 5 and the EU’s Article 42.7 risks weakening both, as one wonders why a specific commitment to France is needed, as its defence is already covered under NATO and EU insurances.
On European defense: “The Federal Government wants to further strengthen the European pillar of the transatlantic defence community. The more our European allies contribute militarily and politically to NATO, the more solid the transatlantic Alliance will be. Europe’s ability to act on its own is increasingly a prerequisite for German and European security. This ability to act entails modern, capable armed forces in the EU member states, as well as a high-performance and internationally competitive European security and defence industry that creates the foundations for the armed forces’ military capabilities. Joint arms projects and their exportability in accordance with the benchmarks set out in the future arms-export control law play a part in furthering Europe’s ability to act and thus strengthen the European pillar in NATO.”
The strategy does a good job of reconciling the idea of European sovereignty (or European strategic autonomy) with Germany’s continued preference for a strong NATO presence in Europe. It emphasizes what is important: actual European national capabilities, which help both the European pillar in NATO and any EU/Europe-only missions.
On funding: “We will include the projects described in this Security Strategy in the relevant ministerial budgets within the federal budget by means of prioritisation, should funds not already have been allocated to them. Given the considerable demands on our public finances at present, we will strive to implement this Strategy at no additional cost to the overall federal budget.”
Germany is trying to do a lot — with no extra funding. This is problematic.
Unfortunately, the German strategy is also plagued by similar problems experienced by its international counterparts: It lacks in concreteness. The funding of many of the (overall good) ideas is in question. It is strong in analysis and light on solutions.
In typical German fashion, the strategy is a compromise document. It is a compromise between the three coalition partners (this led to the national security council idea being scrapped), it is a compromise between the different ministries (that led to a middle-ground balancing approach to China), it is a compromise between the German Länder (which scrabbled over competencies regarding cyber), and its genesis included views from the wider population.
Most importantly, the strategy struggles to prioritize: Everything is security-relevant, everything is connected, and the world is complex. Though as an analysis, this is probably correct, it’s the government’s task to propose ways to deal with this. But one can hope that the process behind the curtain — the processes at whose end stand somewhat bland statements that don’t seem to say that much — have gotten the people in charge thinking. As the document itself notes, it is only a beginning, not an end.
Ulrike Franke is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.