June 15, 2023 - 3:00pm

On Wednesday German Chancellor Olaf Scholz presented the country’s first “comprehensive national security strategy,” a document that repeats his by now well-known remarks that Germany is going through a geopolitical “watershed era, a Zeitenwende.” While the term Zeitenwende has since then made it into the English language, there is another saying in German that would probably be more appropriate: “Papier ist geduldig” — which translates into “paper is patient”. In other words, it is easier to write down plans than to actually follow them through.

Unfortunately, this national security strategy seems to fall into the same category. A document full of platitudes without any real commitments: China is mentioned six times, just as often as a new “feminist foreign policy,” while climate appears an impressive 71 times, leaving no doubt that Berlin is still obsessed with the delusion that it will take a leading role in saving the world. How serious this is taken by the rest of the globe was recently demonstrated by Brazil: when German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock visited the country in early June, neither President Lula nor her Brazilian counterpart Mauro Viera took the time to meet her, indicating that Brasilia was in no mood to be lectured on “feminist foreign policy” or climate change. 

In the report, China is described as being simultaneously a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival” that disregards “human rights” while also being a partner “without whom many of the most pressing global challenges cannot be resolved.” Translated into plain language this means that Berlin would like to continue criticising Beijing to appease Washington, but also keep asking China to please not threaten Germany’s economic interests. 

This kind of doublespeak also applies to NATO: the document emphasises Germany’s “unshakable” commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance, but only up to the point where it comes to actual financial commitments: the 2% of GDP for defence goal will be reached as “an average over a multi-year period,” which is about as non-binding as one could imagine. A country that set aside 12% of its national economic output on energy alone in 2022 apparently is incapable of putting forward a clearly defined schedule regarding its defence spending. At current pace it would take “half a century” to upgrade Germany’s military to where it should be — which likely won’t give Berlin’s partners much confidence in its future security commitments.

In many ways, this document reaffirms the wobbly approach Germany takes on matters of international relations and security issues. Despite the rhetoric, it lacks any substance on how these ambitious goals are supposed to be achieved. Diplomacy and the art of persuasion are important elements in a country’s toolbox, but so are binding financial commitments and clear language — both of which are almost entirely missing. It seems all but certain that Berlin’s allies will take notice of this, and conclude that Germany probably cannot be counted on as a reliable partner in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment.