Learning the language of power – to regain the language of peace?


Defence was not at the centre of the new German government’s progressive agenda. Yet, with the onset of the NATO-Russia crisis, Berlin has learned that capabilities matter. By evaluating and democratically controlling the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations and making feminism its leitmotif, the traffic light coalition can change EU defence policy for the better.

“Daring to make more progress”, the slogan of the new German government, speaks of extraordinary ambition – the ambition to lead the country, for at least a decade, towards profound changes in all areas necessary to meet the multiple challenges of this century. The traffic light coalition partners have also set high goals for the EU. The Union should be more democratically stable, more capable of acting, and strategically more sovereign; it should better protect its values and the rule of law internally and externally, and stand up for them with determination. The European integration process should lead to a European federal state that is decentralised and organised according to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. One can hardly aim higher.

Defence policy, however, was not among the priorities of the new government’s agenda for change. The coalition partners did not include the target of allocating two per cent of Germany’s gross domestic product to NATO in the coalition agreement. Instead, the three parties favoured ‘a networked and inclusive approach’ to international politics. They agreed to spend a total of three per cent of the GDP on diplomacy, development policy and the commitments made in NATO. This subordinate role of defence policy may explain – though not excuse – Berlin’s cautious response to Russia’s military encirclement of Ukraine. Its late concession not to put the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into operation in the event of an armed attack by Russia on Ukraine, and its refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, once again put the question of Germany’s reliability at the centre of the debate. It also weakened the EU’s security and defence policy.

The learning curve for the new government is steep. Firstly, Berlin has understood how far away the coalition treaty goal is of a ‘sovereign EU as a strong actor in a world characterised by insecurity, and systemic competition’. Even if the EU member states – especially Germany and France – succeeded in asserting, in the wake of the January 2022 Geneva talks between the USA and Russia, that there is no decision on security in Europe without Europe, their path to Kyiv and Moscow has always led via Washington. 

However, it took the Russian war against Ukraine for the German government to initiate a ‘turn of the times’. On 27 February 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz profoundly revised Germany’s security and defence policy. He formulated five ‘mandates for action’ for his government. Among other things, Germany would supply Ukraine with ‘weapons to defend the country’ and exclude important Russian banks from the SWIFT banking communications network. In addition, Germany would make ‘significantly more investments’ in domestic security. A special debt fund of 100 billion euros is announced for investments in the Bundeswehr, the German army. The defence budget will be increased continuously over the next years, which, according to Scholz, “should be achievable for a country of our size and our importance in Europe”. Finally, Berlin will exceed the NATO spending target of two per cent of the gross domestic product for the Bundeswehr in the future. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have two decisive consequences. First, as the Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock put it, it could help “Germany […] to leave behind a form of special and unique restraint in foreign and security policy”. Secondly, the government in Berlin seems to have understood that Germany’s national interests can no longer take precedence over those of the EU. Due to the country’s energy dependence, the German government had long delayed Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT system. Now, however, the government seems willing to abide by its coalition agreement, in which the traffic light coalition promised to assume Germany’s special responsibility for the EU as a whole in a spirit of service. 

If the new government sticks to this turn of the times, it will be able to influence EU defence decisively, beyond the current processes to improve capabilities and strategic orientation. On the one hand, Germany wants to subject its missions abroad to a continuous review. Such a process is also overdue in the EU, at least if operational engagement is to be given new impetus. Against the backdrop of the end of the French mission in Mali – which also marks the end of Task Force Takuba, in which numerous EU member states participated – regular assessment is needed on whether the military objectives of a foreign mission are being achieved. For whom and what are the EU and its member states militarily engaged? Does an EU operation support those who respect human rights and strive for democracy? The quest to improve the EU’s operational capability must not lose sight of the fact that the EU’s foreign policy engagement is committed to peace, international human rights, and conflict prevention. The democratic control of EU security and defence policy that is called for by Germany’s new government could also make an important contribution to this.

The new priorities that Berlin wants to set, especially in foreign policy, could also serve as a leitmotif for the EU’s security and defence policy. Like Sweden, France, Luxembourg and Spain before it, the traffic light government is committed to a ‘feminist foreign policy’. This concept is based on the understanding that ‘business as usual’ has failed to foster just and effective solutions to the most urgent global crises of our time, such as the climate crisis, human rights attacks or (nuclear) armament. Instead, it perpetuates existing injustices. Like the EU’s security and defence policy, a feminist foreign policy aims to create sustainable peace and a world where no one is left behind. It seeks new approaches, perspectives and rebalanced power dynamics where cooperation trumps domination over others. This view of international relations could not only give a new direction to EU operations, whose focus could be directed towards preventing or ending militarised power conflicts, but it could also return the EU to its role as a pioneer of disarmament policy and arms control. Germany could give its partners an incentive to invest in peace by pursuing a foreign climate policy – for example, if third countries are supported in expanding their trade and economic policies to include climate-friendly projects and technologies and reduce their dependence on the export of certain (raw) materials.

The German government’s contribution to EU defence policy could thus, in the short term, be to help the EU learn the language of power – to give it back the language of peace.

Photo credits: Bundestag / Photographer: Florian Gaertner / photothek

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