A newly confident and audacious Germany

Editors’ Note: The new “White Book” policy framework the German Defense Ministry published last week—its first in a decade—is of interest not only to policy wonks and academics, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. It delivers a ringing message that Germany will assume greater responsibility for defending the liberal international order. This post originally appeared in

The Washington Post.

Germany’s neighbors and allies mostly concede that the country has taken responsibility for the horrors of its past. What they really worry about is what course it charts for the future. As Europe’s largest economy and its de facto leader, as well as the United States’ current partner of choice on the continent, Germany’s actions are of consequence not only to itself. Or as Poland’s then-Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski memorably said in Berlin in 2011: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

So the new “White Book” policy framework the German Defense Ministry published this week—its first in a decade—is of interest not only to policy wonks and academics. It delivers a ringing message that Germany will assume greater responsibility for defending the liberal international order—and its potential weight as a fundamental statement of government policy is all the greater because it comes only a few weeks after foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s widely criticized, misguided remarks about NATO “saber-rattling” and the need for a “responsibility partnership” with Russia.

Skeptics have excellent reasons to dismiss this document out of hand. Brexit has just thrown a huge wrench in the political machinery of Europe. Germany is visibly struggling with its role, from holding together the consensus on sanctions against Russia to managing migration. Many neighbors and allies are mistrustful of or hostile to Berlin’s policy prescriptions, and its armed forces have been underfunded for decades. Germany, too, will become more introspective as the battle lines are drawn up for the fall 2017 elections.

And yet it is worth taking the trouble to read the White Book at face value, as it clearly intends to serve as a blueprint for designing national strategy and as a benchmark for measuring Germany’s future performance. That itself is a startling departure from the past. Germany, the White Book says, is willing to contribute “early, decisively and substantially” to the protection of Western security. It promises reliability—and to match its funding to its words. At the very least, this is a welcome attempt to face up to repeated (and justified) criticisms.

The White Book affirms Germany’s commitment to NATO, calling the transatlantic alliance with the United States “indispensable for the security of Europe.” Allied solidarity, it states, is a “duty and a responsibility” for Germany. It’s probably safe to read that as a direct admonition to those 58 percent of Germans who opined in a 2015 Pew Research Center poll that their country should not use military force to defend an ally against attack.

The White Book also notes that Europeans need to make their societies, economies, data flows and institutions more resilient and to take on a greater share of the security burden, not least by investing more (much more) in their own military capabilities. It pledges that Germany will work harder to fulfill its NATO promise to invest 2 percent of its gross domestic product in defense. Russia, it says, is challenging the European security order “for the foreseeable future” and emphasizing its strategic rivalry with the West.

The appropriate response? A “willingness to dialogue,” yes—but above all, national resilience and a credible allied defense and deterrence. That explicitly includes nuclear deterrence; so those U.S. nukes based in Germany (which a recent German foreign minister wanted to throw out) can stay.

What’s really new about this policy document, however, is how it moves the goalposts for how Germany talks about itself. The Germany of earlier White Books defined itself in reference to history, norms and alliance obligations. But it also often hid its own interests (or evaded responsibility) behind these constraints.

The Germany of 2016 as portrayed in this document understands its power and makes deliberate choices. It seeks to shape its strategic surroundings, rather than be shaped by them. It embraces its interdependence with neighbors, allies and the world, rather than shying away from them. It pledges to work harder to bridge divisions in Europe. It sees legal, managed immigration as a necessity. This Germany is pragmatically confident and self-aware. It knows its weaknesses and limitations but wants to rise to its responsibilities.

Much of this reflects the ambition—and the audacity—of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Her ministry is the traditional ejector seat of German politics, but she clearly sees it as a stepladder to the Chancellery. Moreover, Germany is increasing its defense budgets as well as its troop levels and making significant commitments to NATO reassurance and defense.

Still, Steinmeier’s criticism of NATO (and the praise he received from many Germans for it) shows that this new narrative of greater responsibility remains hotly disputed. The national elections looming in September 2017—and the fact that the minister’s Social Democratic Party is polling at a historic low of 20 percent—are just a trigger. The German Question remains contested—including in Germany.