Just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Germany’s approach to defence and foreign policy would undergo a Zeitenwende (epochal change). And in various commentaries and speeches since then, he has reiterated his commitment to deeper European security integration and economic coordination. Then, in September, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced that Germany would adopt a more values-based feminist foreign policy to defend the liberal order against autocracy.
The intended message is that Germany will abandon a foreign policy that many others have criticised as being too passive, intransigent, and ambiguous. For many decades, Germany was all too willing to do business with autocrats, despite its professed commitment to a foreign policy based on European liberal values. It was a free rider in matters of hard power, and it frequently failed to consult its allies or pay due attention to their legitimate concerns. It clung to this ambiguous position because there were massive benefits for Germany in doing so.
From Helmut Kohl in the 1990s to Scholz today, German chancellors have consistently believed that trade policy and dialogue would improve ties with actual and potential adversaries. Defying key allies such as the United States and France, Germany fostered economic dependencies that ultimately could be used against it. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin had an iron grip on Germany’s natural-gas supply, and by the time Xi Jinping became all powerful in China, Germany’s massive export sector had become critically dependent on China.
Is the current German government serious about adopting a more assertive and less ambiguous foreign policy? Unfortunately, the early evidence suggests otherwise. The same old gap between Germany’s stated aspirations and its actions remains. After announcing support for Ukraine, the government has been slow in granting military and logistical aid, and its promised strengthening of the Bundeswehr (armed forces) is already far behind schedule.
Moreover, by moving unilaterally to soften the blow from higher energy prices, Germany is increasingly isolated within the European Union. This lack of consultation has increased Franco-German tensions to a worrying degree.
As for the values-based feminist foreign policy, Baerbock’s office already failed its first test by being too slow to respond to the women-led protests in Iran. And Scholz added to the ambiguity of Germany’s position with his visit to China this month. He said his goal was to convince China to pressure Russia not to use nuclear weapons. But if that was really the point of the visit, why did he also bring a host of German corporate executives with him?
More broadly, why has Germany constantly managed to alienate its closest allies while going soft on adversarial powers like Russia and China? I see four interrelated reasons. First, there is Germany’s lack of long-term strategic thinking in foreign policy, which blinded it to a fundamental rule of geopolitics: conditions can – and often do – change radically.
Until Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine earlier this year, Germany had no “plan B.” It had scarcely even considered the possibility that there might be some alternative to the post-Cold War dispensation of endless economic globalisation driving the spread of liberal values and democracy. The German foreign ministry remained beholden to groupthink through the rise of Trumpism, illiberal democracy, Russian bellicosity, and a thoroughly autocratic China.
The second reason is the close connection between German corporate interests and German foreign policy. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that what Germany calls its foreign policy is in fact primarily a trade policy. That is how it ended up so precariously dependent on Russian energy and exports to China. The governments of Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel were pushed that way by corporate interests.
It was German big business that wanted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, with its promise of cheap Russian gas, and it is German exporters that have made the country even more dependent on the Chinese economy than on Russia. Some of the same corporations that want Russian gas shipments to recommence also had representatives travelling with Scholz to Beijing, with chemical giant BASF as a prime exemplar. The German government’s unhealthy proximity to big business consistently compromises its other commitments to national and European interests.
The third factor is the “permacrisis” phenomenon. After coming to power a year ago, the current Scholz government had no time to get into operating mode and start implementing the reforms outlined in the coalition agreement – many of which were meant to overcome the inertia of the Merkel years.
Instead, the government has been dealing with the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis, the influx of a million refugees, inflation, a slowing economy, infrastructure problems, lagging digitalisation, and demands by Poland for World War II reparations. Overburdened and lacking the capacity to handle so many crises at once, Germany’s government has failed to stay on top of more routine diplomatic matters, such as co-ordinating weapons procurement with France.
Lastly, Germany has a complex, fragile coalition government that is often working at cross purposes, having been forged under the fairer-weather conditions of late 2021. Plodding debates among various sub-coalitions are delaying decisions, frustrating German voters and allies abroad, and often producing bad results.
The three main ministries involved are headed by the two coalition parties that have the least in common. With the Greens leading the foreign and economics ministries, and the Free Democrats leading the finance ministry, co-ordination failures have been legion. These factors were evident in the move to cap gas prices, Scholz’s trip to China, and energy purchases at high prices, which crowded out other European countries.
Once again, Germany is showing a troubling lack of empathy to allies and boldness to adversaries. There can be no Zeitenwende without both. — Project Syndicate

l Helmut K Anheier, Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, is Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.