Germany’s Unkept Promise

Olaf Scholz has not delivered on his sweeping vision for a more modern, more active German military.

A photo of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz giving a speech
Florian Gaertner / Photothek / Getty

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz summarized his country’s approach to the war in Ukraine. “Despite all the pressure to take action,” he said, “caution must take priority over hasty decisions, unity over solo actions.” The line provided Scholz’s most explicit defense to date of Germany’s cycle of denial, delay, and cautious delivery of new weapons technologies to assist Ukraine’s effort against Russia. What appeared to be hand-wringing over sending Leopard 2 tanks earlier this year, Scholz assured the audience, was in fact his government’s latest prudent measure to achieve a decisive victory for Ukraine in the war raging east of the Dnipro River.

Scholz’s allies in Kyiv and elsewhere surely paid careful attention to the evolution that the Munich speech represented. Nearly a year earlier, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the chancellor had boldly declared in another speech that Germany had reached a Zeitenwende, an inflection point in history. During a special session convened in the Bundestag last February, he said his country would have to transform decades of conciliation toward Russia into a clear-eyed will to dissuade President Vladimir Putin from further aggression. Scholz identified the war’s central struggle as “whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the 19th century … or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.” The challenge “requires strength of our own,” Scholz stated.

The standing ovations that erupted after these key lines echoed the world over, as leaders throughout Europe and North America applauded the chancellor’s remarks. Yet in the intervening 12 months, he has not delivered on his sweeping vision for a more modern, more active German military.

Three days after the war began, Scholz made a promise he repeated this month in Munich: “Germany will increase its defense expenditure to 2 percent of gross domestic product on a permanent basis.” But his government failed to meet that objective last year, and it will likely fail again this year and next year. Germany now spends the second-largest amount of all governments supplying Ukraine’s defense, but it still spends less on a per capita basis than countries that are smaller and less affluent. Germany finally sent tanks to Ukraine earlier this year, but those donations have proved easier than genuine reform at home. Although Berlin has made good on its promise of a boycott of Russian fossil fuels, its contribution to NATO’s “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force”—a German-made infantry fighting vehicle called the Puma—floundered. In training exercises, the Puma earned the nickname Pannenpanzer, or “breakdown tank.”

A year ago, Scholz announced a special investment fund of more than 100 billion euros to strengthen the German military, but less than a third of those euros have been assigned to contracts. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius recently aired concerns that Germany’s stockpiles have been depleted by its generous transfers to Ukraine. These comments strain common sense when most of the “special funds” remained unspent until December, when lawmakers finally approved the first procurements. This month, Scholz also abandoned plans to establish a National Security Council, a body that would have been well suited to manage an expanded role in the defense of Europe.

The lumbering pace of change that Germany has adopted to improve its military competence has immediate consequences for the war in Ukraine. It gives Putin leverage by demonstrating that the continent’s wealthiest society lacks the tenacity to stand firm against revanchism. Fewer than 1,000 miles separate Germany from Ukraine’s borders, and Russia still governs a chunk of the former East Prussia—Kaliningrad Oblast. Berlin can’t project power in these close geographic quarters merely with words.

In Europe more broadly, the implications of a shrinking Zeitenwende are just as dire. As Germany shirks on military modernization, it makes way for governments seeking a greater say. Shortly after Brexit, French President Emmanuel Macron articulated a new guiding principle for his country—“strategic autonomy,” the idea that the continent should conduct its external relations independently of American designs. Macron has championed the idea particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, during trade tensions, and following Russian nuclear threats. His controversial one-on-one calls with Putin since Russia’s invasion imply that Macron feels fit to lead negotiations with Russia on Europe’s behalf. After all, France is the European Union’s sole nuclear power, controls the bloc’s most powerful military (underwritten by a potent defense industry), and has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Yet this vision of Europe’s future sounds obtuse given that, without the United States, Europe’s response to Russia’s most recent incursions would be woefully inadequate. European forces rely on American infrastructure to coordinate basic tasks. NATO, which binds the United States to European security, bolsters that work. Scholz can’t seem to decide where Germany fits in. He placates French counterparts preening about the EU’s supposed geopolitical self-reliance. But his government also always defers to America’s stabilizing position. If Germany were to spend more on defense, it would have the authority to advocate for a position somewhere between France’s vision of autonomy—epitomized by Macron’s 2019 declaration that NATO was becoming “brain dead”—and its own preference historically to work with the United States to promote Europe’s security.

Of course, a stronger German military will take time to mature. Reaping its dividends will take even longer. Abandoning that job prematurely, however, will leave the larger threats posed by Russia and its imperialist ambitions unanswered. Although Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, has remained reticent on the conflict, she astutely typecast Putin last year by saying, “Military deterrence is the only language he understands.”

Germans explain their difficulty in increasing defense spending by pointing to bureaucratic hurdles. These excuses have become less credible as the war in Ukraine has dragged on. The chancellor is willing to sidestep procedure when tending to Germany’s economic interests. He tried to preempt debate in his cabinet when selling a significant share of a terminal in Hamburg’s port to a Chinese-owned company last fall, for instance. (He renegotiated the sale only after public furor.) The same urgency seems to fail him when fulfilling his declared goals of military modernization.

Shortly after admitting that his government had not spent 2 percent of its GDP on defense last year, the chancellor wrote a 5,000-word article in Foreign Affairs aiming to elaborate on what he had meant by the word Zeitenwende in his Bundestag speech. Instead, he redefined the term. Rather than a roadmap for his government, it became a worldwide phenomenon. All states, he wrote, have to contend with a “new multipolar world,” an era in which “different countries and models of government are competing for power and influence.” His crisp statement a year ago about how Germany could overcome obstacles had morphed into a lengthy meditation on their intractability. Diluting the original Zeitenwende will not wash away what catalyzed it.