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Toward a True ‘Zeitenwende’

Germany, the United States, and how today’s challenges are creating new opportunities for liberal democracy.
January 17, 2023
Toward a True ‘Zeitenwende’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a speech via video link to G7 leaders, including President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (in the foreground) on the second day of the three-day G7 summit at Schloss Elmau on June 27, 2022 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by Christinan Bruna - Pool/Getty Images)

We’ve just returned from a series of meetings in Berlin. While there we heard a fair amount of tough criticism of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s hesitancy on Ukraine, and quite a bit of skepticism about his proclaimed Zeitenwende. As the two of us have often been critical of our European allies and skeptical about their commitments to a robust defense policy of resisting dictators, we suspect our interlocutors expected us to echo the criticism.

And we do share some of the criticism and the skepticism.

But as longtime critics of a Europe that hopes for peace more fervently than it works to secure its conditions, we think it important to say this: We came back from Berlin encouraged and heartened. We see a glass more than half full. And we think Germany has a key role to play not just in going along with other allies but in shaping a more promising future.

We would have wished for more from Germany by now in military assistance to Ukraine. We’re astonished by the news that, even if Berlin decides this week to make Leopard tanks available to Kyiv, it is likely to take a year before they are combat-ready.

But it’s also true that the United States has dragged its feet as well over this first year. Brave Ukrainians should have had our Patriot missile defense, Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles months ago.

And however unevenly, Germany is making progress. In the early days of the war, we recall the widespread recitation in Berlin of the mantra, “We never transfer arms to active conflict zones.” We recall Germany thinking it significant to pledge 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, with many an official insisting that only dialogue with the aggressor could make peace.

Since then much has changed.

In less than a year, Berlin has delivered 28,000 helmets,100,000 hand grenades, munitions for firearms—plus IRIS-T SLM missiles, rocket launchers, howitzers, explosive devices, anti-tank mines, anti-aircraft guns, bunker-buster missiles, armored recovery vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and reconnaissance drones.

Another mantra of German foreign policy has similarly fallen by the wayside: Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), the idea that a web of commercial ties coupled with earnest dialogue can soften the heart of a cruel dictator. Note how rapidly and decisively Germany has been eliminating its dependence on Russia energy.

The change goes beyond the numbers and quality of arms. Germans who believe in the UN charter—with its prohibition against aggression and its commitment to a nation’s inherent right to self-defense—are now discovering the value of deterrence and hard power.

All this is close to an epiphany for a country that for so long had defined itself as a Zivilmacht (civilian power) in a world that was supposedly jettisoning geopolitics for a new era of geoeconomics and geocooperation.

The fact that struck us in Berlin is this: Germany’s shift in attitude in matters of foreign and defense policy is sudden, dramatic—and important.

The political conversation in Germany today would have been inconceivable a year ago.

It was on February 27, 2022, just three days after the war started and two months into his tenure as chancellor, that Olaf Scholz saw a watershed that would affect not just Germany but all of Europe:

Wir erleben eine Zeitenwende. Und das bedeutet: Die Welt danach ist nicht mehr dieselbe wie die Welt davor. Im Kern geht es um die Frage, ob Macht das Recht brechen darf . . . ob wir die Kraft aufbringen, Kriegstreibern wie Putin Grenzen zu setzen. Das setzt eigene Stärke voraus.

[We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before. The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law . . . whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check. That requires strength of our own.]

It’s striking, these words coming from a Social Democratic chancellor, from the party of Gerhard Schröder. We’re aware that a speech is just a speech, and a single year represents but a snapshot. We’re also aware that Chancellor Scholz is viewed by many as too cautious and still tied to the doctrines of the past. We too wish he were a bit more forward leaning.

But these transformations take time. No one expected Harry Truman, when he took over from Franklin Roosevelt, to be a world historical figure who would set a foreign policy for a new era. And surely Truman made some mistakes and hesitated many times along the way. But he—and we—got there.

Likewise today: We can turn a healthy reaction, a heartening response, to Putin’s aggression into a deeper understanding of our responsibilities and opportunities to shape the future. The Zeitenwende may have been provoked by Putin. But it needs to be thought through and executed by us.

If the West decisively defeats Russian imperialism in 2023, it would not only be a turning point for European security and for the transatlantic alliance—the groundwork would be laid for a true Zeitenwende for the post-Cold War world. After a couple of decades of retreat on the part of the forces of liberal democracy, liberal democracy would have pivoted not just to fighting back, but to shaping a better future for the world.

Many figures would share credit for helping steer us through such a watershed—above all President Volodymyr Zelensky and the brave people of Ukraine, but also many leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and President Joe Biden. And Chancellor Scholz and his government as well. The German Greens deserve considerable respect for opening up the possibility for a true transformation.

The chancellor has expressed well the hope, the promise of a Zeitenwende. Now Germany—along with other leading democracies—should act, boldly and consistently, deeply and broadly, to fulfill that promise.

William Kristol and Jeffrey Gedmin

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark. Jeffrey Gedmin is cofounder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. Last week’s meetings and roundtable in Berlin were cohosted by American Purpose and Renew Democracy Initiative.