Germany’s announcement on Saturday that it will send Ukraine another $2.9 billion worth of weapons—as much as it has previously sent in the 15 months since Russia’s invasion—is being hailed as the clearest sign yet of Berlin’s all-in support for Kyiv’s war effort.
Over the same weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to Italy, France, and Britain, as well as Germany, where more arms and unflagging support were pledged from all parties. Even Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni—who ran for office last fall as a populist friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin—declared, “We bet on the victory of Ukraine.”
The events, combined, bolster the impression that we are witnessing a significant shift happening in Europe. The old, post–Cold War Europe was marked by a casual attitude toward national defense and accommodation with Moscow (on the theory that open trade promotes peace). The new Europe—a phrase that popped up just days after the invasion, along with a Europe “profoundly transformed”—is boosting defense spending, severing ties with Russia, and forging tighter bonds of unity than the European Union or the NATO military alliance have ever felt.
But how deeply woven, how real, are the strands of this New Europe, not just in words but in deeds, and not just for the moment but for months and years to come? And to what extent is Germany—the continent’s largest, wealthiest nation and its most bountiful arms supplier to Ukraine—stepping up to what might seem to be a logical role as its leader? The answers to both questions have huge implications for the shape and unity of Europe; its relations with the rest of the world; and, most urgently, its success in helping Ukraine beat back Putin’s aggression.
I spent a month this spring as writer-in-residence at the American Academy in Berlin, trying to get a grip on these questions by talking (mainly on background) with foreign policy leaders in the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament), national-security advisers, think-tank specialists, and political journalists.
The conclusion I reached—based on a wide consensus across party lines—is that Germany’s pivot toward a more active, responsible role in European security has taken hold more widely and deeply, at least in the country’s self-image, than anyone could have imagined just a couple of years ago.
However, in terms of actual policy and priorities, the shift has fallen far short of transformative—and many of my sources have doubts about how long the shift will endure, especially after the war has passed.
The shift began with a sudden, startling jolt. On Feb. 27, 2022, just three days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—the leader of the dovish Social Democratic Party, who had held the country’s top post for not quite three months—delivered a speech to the Bundestag, declaring that, as a result of Russia’s aggression, Germany had reached a “Zeitenwende”—a historic turning point, the start of a new era. The invasion, Scholz said, “threatens our entire postwar order,” and so, it is “our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in its defense against Vladimir Putin’s invading army.”
In the most dramatic part of his speech, Scholz announced an immediate infusion of 100 billion euros (about $109 billion) to the German defense budget (which, that year, totaled about 50 billion euros) and promised, from that point on, to spend 2 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product on defense—a pledge that all the NATO allies had made back in 2013 but that most (very much including Germany) had not fulfilled.
“Turning point” was an understatement. For 75 years, since just after the end of World War II, Germany’s political leaders had avoided even talking about defense budgets or weapons of war, sensitive to their neighbors’ fear that the slightest hint of a military buildup might trigger a revival of its imperial or Nazi past. (Germany sent a few thousand troops to Afghanistan, but more as a token gesture of good standing in NATO. Sending arms to other nations in Europe was taboo.)
Claudia Major, a director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told me, “Before, defense issues were ignored or stigmatized. The defense industry and arms exports were described as ‘evil.’ The majority of Germans were pacifists.”
Russia’s invasion changed all that. In this sense, Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech was revolutionary, both in its acknowledgment of something new in the world and the need to confront it.
Still, his subsequent actions fell short of that standard.
For instance, it turned out that the extra 100 billion euros for defense, earmarked for a “special fund,” would be spent out over a period of at least the next five years, and possibly as many as eight to 10 years if not longer. In 2023, I was told, the government will spend just 8.3 billion of this fund. At that rate, it will take 11 years to dish out the full amount.
Meanwhile, as part of the deal creating the special fund, Germany’s baseline annual defense budget—now at 50.1 billion euros—will be frozen. And Scholz’s pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense will be deferred until after the special fund is depleted. Right now Germany is spending about 1.7 percent of GDP; given the budget freeze, if the overall economy grows, that percentage will decline.
Finally, the special fund is being used not to fill gaps in Germany’s defense forces or to refurbish its defense industry, but rather to buy high-profile, foreign-built weapons, such as F-35 stealth aircraft and heavy troop-carrying helicopters, neither of which speak much to Germany’s near-term defense needs.
At the same time, the weapons being sent to Ukraine—which are substantial and very useful—come mainly from Germany’s stockpiles. Because of the budget freeze, there is no money to replenish these stocks. Erich Vad, a retired German general who served as former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s military policy adviser, recently wrote that while Germany is finally focusing on NATO’s defense needs, it “lacks almost everything” to do much about it, citing massive workforce and munitions shortages. Further depleting these defense stocks to assist Ukraine means that these shortages are likely to intensify in the coming years.
The inconsistencies of Scholz’s policies—the incompletion of his pivot, especially in the defense realm—are due, in large part, to the nature of the German government, especially the particular government in power. Scholz presides over a three-party coalition (one more party than usual): his own Social Democratic Party, the centrist Free Democratic Party, and the Green Party.
Like all other Green parties, the German variant is avidly environmentalist, wanting to fund renewable sources of energy and slash fossil fuels. But it is unique in that it also supports military assistance to countries under particularly horrendous attack. This trait took hold in 1999, with the Serbian atrocities in Kosovo. The Green leader at the time, Joschka Fischer, declared that the party’s traditional support for human rights and pacifism couldn’t always both be observed, that extreme human-rights violations sometimes had to be met with armaments. So it was, as well, in February 2022, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a clear violation of human rights. The Greens, in fact, were the first to call for sending arms to Kyiv’s defending army.
Soon enough, all of Germany’s major parties—the coalition partners and the Christian Democratic Union (Merkel’s conservative party, which the 2021 election ousted from power)—joined in. Only the Left Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) oppose sending arms: the AfD because it supports Putin, the Left because of its onetime alliance with Moscow—it grew out of the East German Communist Party—and because it associates any form of German militarism with Nazism. I asked a Left leader if he was embarrassed that he held the same position as the fascists. He replied, “Yes, certainly.” (The AfD holds just 10 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, and the Left holds 5, just barely enough to hang on to any seats at all.)
However, all three coalition partners are also leery of higher defense spending. The Greens want to spend more on green energy; the Social Democratic Party wants to increase social-welfare spending; the Free Democratic Party wants to cut deficits. As part of the coalition bargaining after the election, the FPD’s leader, Christian Lindner, became finance minister. In Berlin, department ministers have ultimate authority over their domains. Chancellors cannot overrule them. Nor is there anything like the American National Security Council, where cabinet secretaries hammer out their disputes and the president decides the policy. (A German NSC has been proposed several times, but it has been voted down by those who—for understandable historical reasons—loathe giving too much power to a chancellor.) Lindner insisted that the defense budget be frozen at 50 billion euros—and the chancellor can’t do anything about it.
The irony here is that the FPD won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2021 election. It was invited into the government only because the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, which had hoped to form a coalition of their own, together fell 9.5 percent short of a majority. (The SPD won 25.7 percent; the Greens, 14.8 percent.) Tacking on the FPD gave them a bare majority without having to bring in the CDU (which ranked a close 2nd place in the election, with 24.1 percent of the vote). In other words, defense spending—spending of all sorts—is being held down by a party with a very small following.
Still, a bureaucratic squabble rages on about the military budget. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who has ordered various reforms within the military, is pushing for an increase of $6 billion to $10 billion in the baseline defense budget. Some of his supporters in the Bundestag think he might get $3 billion to $5 billion—which would help a little.
One of the big lessons of the war in Ukraine is that the security of Europe—old or new—remains dependent on the United States. Without U.S. weapons to Ukraine (worth $37 billion and rising), along with training and the sharing of real-time intelligence of the Russian army’s movements and orders, Kyiv would have fallen long ago. Scholz agreed to send Germany’s Leopard tanks to Ukraine only after President Biden agreed to send the U.S. Army’s Abrams tanks. Europeans stood up to Russian aggression in support of Ukrainian freedom, but they might not have done so, or been able to do so as efficiently or effectively, without leadership from Washington.
French President Emmanuel Macron has often advocated “strategic autonomy” for Europe, but Scholz has brushed this off as a pipe dream, and not a desirable one in any event—an attitude that has alienated Macron. While most EU leaders agree with Scholz’s dismissal of Macron’s idea, some complain that the chancellor ignores them too, bringing no German ideas to EU conferences. In part, this is because it’s hard for his coalition government to agree on new ideas. In part, it’s because Germans still feel reluctant—a hangover from their post–World War II guilt—to take a leadership role in Europe. But in part it’s also because Scholz prefers to deal with Biden. Except for Macron, this is true of many European leaders, who understand the true locus of their security.
The whispered worry in Berlin is that Biden may be the last American president who cares deeply about trans-Atlantic relations—and that the most prominent Republicans seem not to care much at all.
Germany may be the only country with the power and resources to take the reins in hand if Europe has to take up the slack and provide for its own security, but for all the reasons above, this isn’t happening.
Jana Puglierin, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me she’s worried that there’s “no sign of urgency” about the political developments in America. “We feel protected by the U.S., and there’s no sense that it might vanish someday. Many raised questions about this after 2016 [when Trump became president], but no one did anything. Germany has no Plan B for 2024 if Trump wins again.
“The war has brought Europe together,” Puglierin continued, “but it has also exposed these underlying tensions.” She sighed and added, “I wonder if Europe will ever get its act together.”