Germany’s new strategies are important foreign policy markers, but they shy away from establishing the country as a leader among European powers.
This summer, Germany released its first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS) and first China strategy.
Both documents mark a milestone in German foreign policy, but while the China strategy is more forward leaning than expected, the National Security Strategy under-delivers on the ambitions of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende—or change of an era—speech last year and fails to position Germany in a military leadership role in Europe.
Germany’s First National Security Strategy
Centered around the themes “robust,” “resilient,” and “sustainable,” Germany’s first national security strategy takes a comprehensive approach that is understood to be broader than just hard security and defense.
Its scope encompasses subjects as diverse as the dangers of climate change, the implementation of a feminist foreign policy, and altering the largely negative public perception of security policy and military power in post–World War II Germany.
The NSS emphasizes the importance of Germany’s partnerships within the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and it specifically mentions the relationships with Washington and Paris as fundamental to Berlin.
It also identifies Russia as the “most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area,” and criticizes China for “remoulding the existing rules-based international order,” while at the same time calling for continued cooperation between Berlin and Beijing.
Notably, the NSS confirms Germany’s commitment to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, a NATO benchmark Germany has missed for many years. The increase in defense spending will be financed by a five-year, one-hundred-billion-euro fund for the modernization of the army, which was approved in June 2022.
However, the NSS remains unclear on how the increase in defense spending will be sustained once the fund runs out after 2026. So far, the regular annual defense budget, which is currently around fifty billion euros (according to NATO estimates [PDF] in constant 2015 prices), has not been substantially increased, which will result in a finance gap of around thirty billion euros [PDF] by 2027.
Without increases in the regular defense budget, there is a risk that Germany’s spending commitment—the hallmark of Scholz’s Zeitenwende—will remain unfulfilled until a new German government takes stage after parliamentary elections in fall 2025.
National Security Apparatus
Germany’s new NSS also fails to create an institutional body tasked with coordinating national security and implementing the strategy.
Suggestions that Germany would form a national security council, as many of its Western allies and other partners have (for example, Japan created a one in 2013 after releasing its first-ever National Security Strategy), did not come to fruition.
They fell victim to the power politics within Scholz’s coalition government. A national security council would logically reside in the Chancellery, controlled by Scholz’s Social Democrats. The Greens, who control the foreign ministry, refused to cede further decision-making power to the Chancellery.
Without a high-level coordinating body, the government will likely experience additional infighting and implementation challenges in executing the new strategy. This is especially probable in a three-party coalition, which will likely remain the governing model in Germany for years to come.
A New Strategy Toward China
Germany’s new China strategy [PDF] drafted by the foreign ministry, provides an important basis for anchoring Germany in a new European consensus that favors “de-risking” over decoupling.
The strategy defines de-risking as “reducing dependencies in critical areas, keeping geopolitical aspects in mind when taking economic decisions, and increasing our resilience.” It also speaks briefly on security matters regarding China.
In the months leading up to the strategy’s release, Chancellor Scholz’s visit to Beijing had raised concerns about how far Germany would take its Zeitenwende, and whether Germany’s business interests in China would undermine the lessons it had painfully learned about economic overreliance on Russia ahead of the invasion of Ukraine.
Chinese-German governmental consultations in Berlin a few weeks ago also suggested a backsliding on the de-risking agenda, which has been promoted by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. During those talks, Scholz described the need to diversify away from China and reduce exposure as the responsibility of companies, not governments.
The new strategy outlines an array of measures to achieve its goals, including on export controls and outbound investment screening. However, some draft proposals—leaked last November—were watered down.
Obligatory stress-test and reporting duties for German companies with heavy China exposure do not appear in the final strategy. In spite of de-risking rhetoric, German firms have continued to invest in China in recent months.
Much like the EU, the strategy leans heavily into rhetoric of economic de-risking and is more clear-eyed on the challenges China poses than in the past, but it also strongly emphasizes the need for cooperation with China.
Germany points to climate change and person-to-person exchanges as important areas for cooperation, and it adheres to the EU’s “triptych” policy classifying China as a partner, competitor, and rival, although it notes an increase in “rivalry and competition” in recent years.
Beyond de-risking, the strategy deals with security policy in a few much-shorter paragraphs. It describes more assertive Chinese behavior regionally and internationally and identifies China’s relations with Russia as an “immediate security concern” for Germany.
China is “not credibly defending” the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and is instead supporting Russian narratives against NATO. The strategy warns against Chinese arms deliveries to Russia, which would have an “immediate impact on relations between the EU and China” and bilateral ties.
On the Taiwan Strait, the strategy only notes that Germany is “working for de-escalation” and supporting the status quo. The situation in the South China Sea is described only in vague terms as showing “increasing militarization.”
A More Strategic German Foreign Policy?
Germany’s new strategies are an attempt to bring Berlin in line with an emerging European and transatlantic consensus on security and defense policy and on de-risking from China. However, while the NSS adequately describes the status quo, it lacks the ambition to put Germany in a military leadership position on security and defense in Europe.
The NSS avoids the term “leadership” all together, cloaking Germany’s duties in Europe as “special responsibilities,” a prominent term used in the pre-2022 German political discourse to avoid mentioning hard power and leadership.
On China policy, the new strategy provides a new tone and an important baseline Germany should not fall behind, but it does not push the envelope on European China policy. This is at odds with the ambition of Germany’s Zeitenwende.
If Germany is to become a guarantor of security in Europe, one at the forefront of European China policy, it will need to position itself as a leader, not a follower—and to reflect this ambition in its strategic documents.