The writer is a columnist at Le Monde and fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin
Germany is having its perestroika moment, and, like Russians under Mikhail Gorbachev almost four decades ago, Germans are unsure where it is going to take them.
“Perestroika” literally meant reconstruction, but it was a code word for radical change. In Germany’s case today, the code word here is Zeitenwende, or “turning point”, as announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a speech delivered to the Bundestag in February, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The turning point in that speech was the creation of a special €100bn fund to equip the German armed forces, as well as a commitment to meet Nato’s defence-spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product. This war has shaken Europe, but to Germany, and its foreign policy, the shock is even deeper. It has upended the country’s crucial relationship with Russia, it is forcing it to overturn its energy policy, and most of all, it is leading to a complete recalibration of its security strategy and its role in the world.
Germany’s European partners are watching all this unfold with great curiosity, though any excitement tends to be met with circumspection in Berlin. As Wolfgang Schmidt, the chancellor’s chief of staff, warned at a European Council on Foreign Relations conference last Sunday, “[The] Zeitenwende is not a static thing, it is a dynamic situation. We are still trying to find out what it really means.” Inevitably, critics, at home and abroad, find the process excruciatingly slow and lament the chancellor’s inability to give the notion more concrete content.
Yet the change of direction is staggering. Contemplating the ruins of his Social Democratic party’s Ostpolitik, Scholz had to admit this week that partnership with “Putin’s aggressive, imperialist Russia is inconceivable for the foreseeable future”, after his diplomatic adviser Jens Plötner was criticised for musing publicly about the country’s future relationship with Moscow. The chancellor’s long overdue trip to Kyiv, along with president Emmanuel Macron, the Italian prime minister Mario Draghi and the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, and his support for Ukraine’s accession to the EU, finally cleared up an embarrassing ambiguity.
The failure of the old German mantra of “change through trade” is now so widely accepted in Berlin that Angela Merkel’s stubbornness in protecting her legacy sounds awkwardly out of kilter with the prevailing mood. The former chancellor had barely turned her back when her successor had to kill Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline built with Russia that she supported. With Putin now switching off the taps, Germany is scrambling to manage serious energy shortages as it ends its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Warning German consumers last week about difficult times ahead, economy minister Robert Habeck had a bold message for them: this is the price of freedom.
There is also a big price tag attached to the huge effort needed to rebuild the Bundeswehr, along with a new mindset for German citizens. This is a country which over the past century, either attacked others or relied on its allies for its defence. Now it has to step up to defend another country, Ukraine. And it discovers that its shelves are empty — at least this is the official explanation for the dramatically slow pace of delivery of weapons to Ukraine.
Out of its comfort zone in a foreign policy no longer led by trade, Germany also faces expectations from its partners about its leadership — for which, revealingly, Germans prefer to use the English word. It is an old question, but it is now pressing.
Conversations with politicians tiptoeing around the meaning of German leadership usually involve a range of considerations about responsibility, ambition, culture or co-operation. But they will have to come up with a more precise definition for the new role that SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil envisages for Germany on the world scene, “after 80 years of restraint”. An initiative from Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock might help: she will soon launch a public debate to include German citizens in the creation of the country’s first “National Security Strategy”.
But many questions remain unanswered. Will there also be a Zeitenwende where Germany’s policy towards China is concerned? How will the change in posture prompted by the war in Ukraine affect the new dynamic inside the EU? Will the €100bn fund help to shape a new European defence industry?
Wait, German officials say, the Zeitenwende is still a “learning process”. But Europe these days does not have the luxury of time.