Germany Adopts a National Security Plan. Critics Call It ‘Weak.’

Haunted by its responsibility for World War II and Nazi tyranny, Germany embraced the pursuit of peace with the fervor of a convert. But on Wednesday, its government took an important step toward shedding that legacy as war once again transforms the European continent.

For the first time since the world war ended, the government unveiled a comprehensive national security strategy meant to confront Germany’s vulnerability to new military, economic and geopolitical threats, including climate change.

With the war in Ukraine in its 16th month, Chancellor Olaf Scholz touted the security plan as “a big, big change in the way we deal with security issues.” The goal, he said, is to combine foreign, domestic and economic priorities, and to increase spending on the military.

The strategy was announced as a key part of the coalition agreement of the government when it took office in December 2021‌. But Mr. Scholz’s three-party coalition has been hobbled by increasingly public squabbling that both delayed the new plan and left it vulnerable to criticism that it has been overly watered down.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which took place months after the German government took power, has only heightened the sense of urgency that it must take up its military responsibilities in a way it had avoided since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the document got relatively positive reviews from analysts as a statement of how far Germany has come in changing its strategic culture since the invasion, they questioned whether the ministries of a rivalrous coalition government will carry through the document’s ambitions or put money behind them.

A pledge made by Mr. Scholz in February — to reach the NATO spending goal of 2 percent of G.D.P. by next year and to maintain that spending — is hedged, with a promise now to attain that goal as an average over a multiyear period.

At the same time, the coalition rejected a request by the defense minister, Boris Pistorius, to increase his own budget by 10 billion euros (about $10.8 billion) to make a decent start in rebuilding the Germany military. Instead, he promised that his budget will not be cut — which means it will be eroded by inflation.

China has been such a contentious issue that the coalition kicked it down the road, and it will be dealt with in a separate paper scheduled to come out next month.

And after arguing fiercely about creating a German national security council, the parties dropped the idea.

“It’s hard to be ambitious with so many cooks,” said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst. The vagueness in the document about how Germany intends to meet its ambitions is deliberate, he suggested, a way for Mr. Scholz, a Social Democrat, to keep freedom of action on the big issues of foreign policy inside the chancellery and not cede them to the Foreign Ministry and Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a Green.

In general, the strategy focuses on three pillars of German security. First is an active, “robust” defense, including a new strategic culture, commitments to high military spending, including reaching the NATO spending goal, at least as part of multiyear average, and a concentration on deterrence, not disarmament.

Second is resilience — the ability of Germany and its allies to protect their values, to reduce economic dependencies on rivals, to deter and defeat cyberattacks and to defend the United Nations Charter and the rule of law.

Third is sustainability, a pillar that includes issues like climate change and the energy and food crises.

“To call it a status quo document sounds unfair, but it does try to take stock of where we stand now, and it’s already an achievement to say how far Germany has come,” said Claudia Major, head of the International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Strategies should be forward-leaning and connect means and ends, she said. “But to a certain extent, this strategy is not able to do that because it’s not linked to clear budget consequences,” she said. “Ambitions are nice to have, but they are hard to judge without the means.”

Christian Lindner, the country’s finance minister and head of the Free Democrats, acknowledged on Wednesday that new commitments proposed in the strategy — notably the 2 percent spending on defense — would require new financing, but he was unable to give projections on the cost.

Germany has always considered its national interests as secured inside the NATO alliance, the European Union and its relationship with Washington. So it never before felt the need to outline its own security strategy.

But that changed with the complicated U.S. presidency of Donald J. Trump, who at different points talked of leaving NATO and accused Germany of being a free rider and not spending enough on its own defense.

Producing a strategy was a major element of the agreement among Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats and their two coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats. But the Russian invasion in February 2022, only a few months after the coalition took office, brought new urgency, attention and controversy to the effort.

Norbert Röttgen, an opposition legislator from the Christian Democratic Union and a foreign-policy expert, was sharply critical of the document, which he called “the lowest common denominator” of a divided coalition government, “a description of the undisputed part of the status quo” and “essentially without strategy.”

On key questions, he said, there is no answer. He noted the postponement of a China strategy until next month because it has been so controversial, while the current paper simply echoes received European language about China and never mentions the word Taiwan.

“What is the German idea of a European security order postwar?” he asked. “What about NATO membership for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova? Not a word,” he said. One of the vital challenges to Germany is “the reduction of our trade and investment in China and vice versa, which requires an economic growth strategy to compensate,” he said.

But the links between foreign and economic and technology policy are also left unconsidered, he said.

Daniela Schwarzer, a foreign-policy analyst and a member of the executive board of the Bertelsmann Foundation, said that the strategy document was an important “next step” for Germany. Even if disappointing to many, “it’s as ambitious as it can get for this coalition,” she said.

It is thinnest on how to pay for new goals with a static budget, she said, but it shows that “Germany is more serious about defending itself, even if it hopes not to spend more, which won’t work, of course.”

But it also sets out important goals in areas like cybersecurity, toughens language slightly on the nature of China as a troubling if necessary partner and “is a call to action” to the ministries and to industry.

For Anna Sauerbrey, the foreign editor of Die Zeit, the paper was “somewhat disappointing,” but tried to take “a holistic view of security combining foreign and domestic issues, but it needs to be filled by tangible policy.”

She did note a new commitment to E.U. enlargement for Ukraine and Moldova, beyond the Western Balkans, but said the major weakness was “no commitment to increases in budget spending.”

Mr. Speck, the analyst, said that the document described the problems broadly, “but what is mostly missing are clearly set goals and priorities to decide where to put resources.” It will help different parts of the government to have a joint understanding of major goals.

But in the end, he said, “it’s too weak to make a real difference in foreign policy and won’t be very consequential in setting a future course,” which will be decided in the chancellery.

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