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Olaf Scholz and Why Germany Is Failing to Lead

It turns out that his robust initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wasn’t a real strategy—it was just messaging.
September 30, 2022
Olaf Scholz and Why Germany Is Failing to Lead
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz joins a press conference on energy supply, per video due to a Covid infection, with the German Minister of Economics and Climate Protection and German Finance Minister (Not in picture) at the Chancellery in Berlin on September 29, 2022. - Germany said it would plough 200 billion euros into shielding households and businesses from skyrocketing energy costs in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

It may be a long time before it is known with any degree of certainty who blew holes in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, although, to anyone other than Tucker Carlson, Russia is the most likely perp. But even if the attacks remain in the murky waters of “gray zone warfare,” they do make one thing undeniably clear: Any hope of a post-Ukraine-war return to “normal” in Europe is likewise broken beyond repair.

This is particularly unfortunate news for Germany and the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a rather shaky coalition of three parties: Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democrats. After sixteen years of Angela Merkel, the lack of experience was always going to be a problem; German pundits often deride Scholz as the small-minded “mayor of Hamburg”—which was his sole executive post prior to the chancellorship—or as an SPD party functionary.

In power only since last December, the Scholz government would have been hard-pressed even under benign circumstances. But Russia’s February assault on Ukraine created a crisis of European security for which Germany and its new leader were especially ill prepared and with which they have yet to come to grips.

Indeed, Germany’s traditional policy of Neue Ostpolitik is the flower child of the SPD of the 1960s. The outreach to the East—including to Russia at the height of the Cold War—helped win a Nobel Peace Prize for party leader and former chancellor Willy Brandt. To achieve the goal of normalization, Germany formulated a strategy of Wandel durch Handel—“change through trade.” The Nord Stream pipelines epitomized German geopolitical and strategic thought.

Thus Berlin has striven mightily to avoid dealing with the serial aggressions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even as they crept westward from Georgia to the Donbas to all of Ukraine. In 2014, Merkel played a leading role in brokering the so-called Minsk agreements, the ceasefire that secured Russia’s puppets, the separatist governments in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The renewed Russian offensives of February were of a scale and obvious intent—erasing Ukrainian sovereignty and independence—that Scholz and his coalition partners could not ignore. Within three days, the chancellor made his dramatic Zeitenwende—usually translated as “turning point”—speech. In addition to decrying the invasion and halting the certification of Nord Stream 2, Scholz proposed a special defense reinvestment fund of €100 billion and thereafter to meet the NATO target of defense budgets of 2 percent of gross domestic product, a level Merkel agreed to but never came close to meeting.

But it also became plain that this was a response cobbled together in two hurried days with little planning; it was a message, not a strategy. Germany is finding its old habits hard to break. Scholz seems now to have given up on his periodic phone calls to Putin, but it was not for want of trying nor for want of patience in tolerating Putin’s harangues. German weapons transfers to Ukraine have been both substantial and insufficient; in particular, Berlin has put the brakes on the provision of modern tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, not only those in the German arsenal but German-made models sold to other European armies. The verb “Scholzing”—meaning slow-rolling promises and otherwise dithering—has entered the Kyivan lexicon and is probably making its way into most of the languages of Central and Eastern Europe.

All in all, geopolitical angst and strategic self-indulgence is paralyzing Germany at the moment when the future security order of the European continent is being defined. But what if this is a feature and not a bug?

The modern history of Europe has been defined by a series of imperial aspirations and failures; the landscape is littered with the corpses of would-be hegemons. For Spain’s Philip II, it could be said (as it was of Alexander the Great) that the “world was not enough.” On his deathbed, Louis XIV is believed to have lamented he had “loved war too much” and no doubt Napoleon would have concurred. Kaiser Wilhelm II craved Weltmacht, Hitler Lebensraum. Russian tsars and commissars likewise feared Western “expansionism” and sought strategic depth from the Baltic to the Black seas. Most of these styled themselves as the heirs of the Roman Empire, yet none were strong enough to establish a durable imperial peace.

This mosh pit of middling European powers was mostly calmed by the exercise of American and British power—and the “offshore engagers” of the Anglosphere—through World War II. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought security and prosperity and even increased liberty. The limitations of the European Union (exacerbated by Brexit) strongly suggest that the continent’s challenges in policing itself persist and that any “concert of Europe” could not stay in tune.

The Ukraine war indicates that a concert of Anglos and frontline Northern and East Europeans can both preserve the safety of their neighbors to the west while withstanding the danger to the east. Preserving the post-conflict café societies of Western Europe may incentivize their strategic “free ridership,” but it’s also probably the easiest, most efficient and effective way to get the job done.

Finally, the militaries of Germany and the rest have been so let go since the end of the Cold War that they have little to contribute in a timely way. Germany has built only about 100 of the latest version of its Leopard II tanks, and the overall readiness of the Bundeswehr has long been abysmal; in 2018 the military commissioner of the German parliament—Social Democrat Hans-Peter Bartels—reported that, for example, none of the country’s large transport aircraft was operational. The total fleet of such planes was just 14.

Thus, while there has been constant complaint about Germany’s timidity since February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has remained remarkably restrained in his public comments. Perhaps he’s counting on Germany’s ingrained guilt to prod it to step forward during the long and expensive project of postwar reconstruction that Kyiv’s victory would bring. Indeed, there is much to do across the eastern front to realign its flows of energy and commerce while protecting against further Russian revanche. It would be a truly new kind of Ostpolitik, reaching not over the heads of the endangered democracies of Eastern Europe but to clasp their hands and pull them finally into the West.

Giselle Donnelly

Giselle Frances Donnelly is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a co-host of AEI’s ‘Eastern Front’ podcast, and the author of Empire Imagined: The Personality of American Power. Twitter: @DonnellyGiselle.