The historic turn in German foreign policy: the “Zeitenwende” that will make Germany’s military budget the third in the World

By Veronica Stassi

The awakening of Chancellor Scholz

Three days after Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the biggest shift in German foreign policy since the Second World War. It seemed that the often described as “robotic” and “boring” Chancellor decided to guide his country into a new era, as he said in front of an emergency parliamentary session, destroying Germany’s historical custom of not rising its military capacities. 

Even if Scholz surprised the press and observers before as well, this time his statement caused several consequences to his never-seen-before three-way coalition, made of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP. Scholz’s move unveiled his estrangement from former SPD leader Schroeder, who has always entertained close ties with Putin.

The implications of Zeitenwende: the German arms race

Scholz’s decision showed that, in a country still haunted by guilt, it was the right time to stand on the right side of history and support Ukraine. However, not all that glitters is gold. In fact, in May, the SPD lost regional elections due to his foreign policy moves, especially regarding the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine and banning energy imports from Russia.

The Zeitenwende – or watershed moment – will mean increasing Germany’s military budget to 2% of the GDP, making it the third military budget in the world after that of the United States and China but above countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and India. Scholz’s move towards militarization and the achieving of NATO’s 2% spending goal seems to “make amends” for Germany’s perceived failures in defence.

Although Zeitenwende will not have a significant impact on the Ukrainian situation, it ensures that Germany can become a pivotal state in security matters in the future. A more militarized Europe can tighten its links with NATO and the U.S. Consequently, Scholz’s decision implicitly enshrines the acceptance of U.S. dominance on the continent, thus undermining the concept of European strategic autonomy. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to think that Europe will not rely heavier on U.S. oil since neither U.S. nor non-U.S. oil companies will increase their extraction capacities. Indeed, “Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have also refused to pump a lot more oil since Russia’s war in Ukraine began in late February”. The major motive behind this “uncharacteristically caution” of oil companies is that there is no assurance that prices will remain high for long enough to be profitable for them to drill new wells.

Arms sales before Scholz took office: a real novelty or confirming an existing trend?

The strongly discussed move by Chancellor Scholz brings some considerations to the table. Indeed, it is reasonable to discuss whether his decision distinguishes him so much from his predecessor or not. 

Former Chancellor Merkel also approved important defence deals just before leaving office when the government usually avoids taking important decisions. At that time, Scholz was finance minister and Vice-Chancellor. These “last-minute” deals expanded, even more, the German arms export. The details of the deals were released just the day before Scholz’s election and, after that, the new government coalition declared to be in favour of a more restrictive arms export. Nevertheless, Russian attack against Ukraine convinced the Chancellor to consider “the notoriously limited defence capability of the Bundeswehr” and change the consolidated strategy in German politics consisting in ignoring the private arms industries, which were considered like “pariahs” from both the people and the political sphere. 

However, it remains a mystery how the government will shape the rearmament and how this process will affect German military and industrial complex. Indeed, according to many sources, the prolonged time of military inactivity rendered the Bundeswehr “helpless”, inefficient and understaffed

It is correct to ask whether the fourth-largest economy in the world can afford the huge makeover envisaged for the Bundeswehr by the Zeitenwende, especially considering that Berlin has never considered the military as a separate branch of politics. However, now, thanks to the new budget put forward by Chancellor Scholz, the Bundeswehr will help reinforce the German military-industrial complex

Nevertheless, such an unprecedented move also implies several considerations. Even if Germany is to develop its military capacities with its allies, this process can ignite divisions among the EU members and lead to fractures inside Germany itself, thus affecting its image abroad. Germany is therefore dealing with a major shift in its foreign policy, and it will have to face expected and unexpected outcomes originating from that.