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Olaf Scholz, Federal Chancellor of Germany speaking in the Special Address by Olaf Scholz, Federal Chancellor of Germany session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022 (Source: World Economic Forum/Flickr)
The term “Zeitenwende” was used by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in response to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The word translates to “turning point” or “crossroads” and refers to Germany’s need to rearm itself in the face of new threats to European security.
One year after Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a rousing speech to the Bundestag in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as he visits the White House on Mar. 3, 2023, it is necessary to evaluate the progress of Germany’s proclaimed “turning point” in defense spending. Scholz had made it clear that due to Putin’s aggression, Europe had entered a new era of war, and nations like Germany, which had cut down their defense budgets for years, needed to rearm.
The first step is for Germany to continue increasing its defense spending. While it has made some progress on this front, it still needs to catch up to other European countries like France and the United Kingdom. This is partly due to a reluctance on the part of the German public to increase military spending, but it is also because Germany has been slow to modernize its armed forces.
The outcomes of the energy diversification initiatives by Germany are still being determined. However, the International Energy Agency forecasts a reduction of around 57% in the European Union’s imports of natural gas from Russia from 2021 to 2022. In 2021, the EU imported nearly one-quarter of its petroleum oil from Russia; however, EU imports of Russian seaborne oil are currently prohibited.
If Germany is to play a leading role in European security, it needs to have a modern and well-equipped military. This will require significant investment, but it is essential if Germany wants to be considered a defender of European values.
In contrast to other nations, Germany’s rearmament plan has yet to be implemented, despite Finance Minister Scholz’s commitment to reach NATO’s 2% spending goal on defense and allocating €100 billion (US $106 billion) for the Bundeswehr. Berlin later announced that it would not meet this goal until 2025, and not a single cent has been spent from the special fund yet.
The German government has been unable to act on its promises due to the complex bureaucratic system of weapon procurement, the frequent shifts in coalition politics, and the contentious dynamic between the authorities in Berlin and defense firms.
In addition to increasing its defense spending, Germany needs to do more to diversify its energy sources away from Russia. This is an area where Germany has already made some progress, but more work still needs to be done.
One way in which Germany could further reduce its dependence on Russian energy would be by investing in renewable energy sources. This would not only help to reduce emissions but would also make Germany less reliant on Russian gas and oil.
The new German defense minister, Boris Pistorius, is now responsible for fulfilling the promises made by Scholz in order to turn the Bundeswehr, which has been neglected for a long time, into a formidable military power. Nevertheless, it could be challenging as the German people have a deep-seated resistance to increasing defense spending.
Another way in which Germany could reduce its dependence on Russian energy would be by investing in domestic shale gas production. This would allow Germany to produce its own natural gas, making it less reliant on Russian supplies.
At first glance, the absence of urgency from Germany in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine appears to be confounding. After all, Europe is facing its most deadly war in nearly 80 years. Yet, for a long time, the Bundeswehr has been a source of ridicule among defense experts in Europe and the United States due to aircraft that cannot fly because of a lack of spare parts and tanks malfunctioning during training. Furthermore, the German soldiers manning NATO’s eastern front are often without essential items like bulletproof vests or coats for winter, let alone the required armaments to battle a powerful opponent.
Eva Hogl, the Bundestag’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, has been highly critical in her recent annual assessment. According to her report, she was “shocked and dismayed” by the reports of material deficits she heard from servicewomen and men. Hogl notes that only a single visit or conversation goes by with shortages or deficiencies mentioned.
The economy of Germany, worth $4.3 trillion, is the fourth largest on the global scale, so there must be some other factor rather than economic scarcity that contributes to the deplorable condition of the nation’s military.
The fault could easily be assigned to Germany for the current circumstances; however, that would be an inaccurate conclusion. The lax attitude on defense from Berlin continues partly due to the American policy of treating its European allies like immature individuals who cannot handle their defense. Despite the US’s protests about disproportionate burden sharing, it continues to support it.
At the start of 2022, the United States had a record 38,500 troops located in Germany, almost 40% of the total number in Europe. This number was part of the nuclear umbrella protection that the US has been offering to Germany and other NATO members since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each presidential administration since then has reiterated this commitment.
With little jeopardy to the country, Germany has opted to keep a military unfit for battle over the past thirty years. As a result, the size of their active duty personnel has decreased by 60% since 1990, the amount of fighter aircraft has lowered by 47%, and the quantity of main battle tanks has decreased drastically by 93%.
In addition, the United States insists that Germany and the rest of Europe abide by Washington’s lead when it comes to security matters. The US quickly criticizes the Europeans for skimping on their defense expenditures. However, they have never favored the Europeans becoming self-sufficient and independent regarding defense. Washington has not supported such attempts, whether the 1998 proposal from Britain and France to form a rapid-response, credible EU military force or the project two decades later that aimed to synchronize military research and development among the EU countries.
Ultimately, whether or not the Zeitenwende is an effective strategy depends on how well Germany implements it. If German leaders can increase defense spending and diversify their country’s energy sources, they may succeed in making Germany a leading player in European security. If they fail to do so, however, the Zeitenwende will have been nothing more than a missed opportunity.
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