Germany’s unserious and naïve foreign policy not only fails to appreciate the challenges of the 21st century, it risks the security of all Europe in the process.
Germany is the linchpin of modern Europe, dominating the Continent economically and politically. Since its unification in 1871 – and its reunification in 1990 – Berlin has been the region’s center of power. Territorially, it sits smack in the middle of Europe, straddling the Baltic and North Seas and incorporating several of the region’s major rivers, from the Rhine and the Oder to the Elbe and the Danube. It has major influence in the European Union, NATO, and the G7; oftentimes, this influence is enough to maneuver policy in a profoundly pro-German direction, as was seen after the 2009 financial crisis. Not counting nations on the European periphery (Russia and Turkey), Germany has the largest population in the region. It has the largest economy by far, exceeding its nearest competitor, France, by over a trillion dollars. Its major corporations export their goods across the globe, earning profits from every inhabited continent. In short, Germany is the most important nation on the European continent. Where it goes, Europe tends to follow – either by democratic choice or by bureaucratic fiat.
And that’s precisely why the Teutonic nation’s fundamentally flawed and foolish foreign policy is such a clear and present danger to the security and future prosperity of the West.
German foreign policy since the 1970s has revolved around a single main idea – Ostpolitik. This ‘eastern policy’ was initially meant to thaw frigid relations between the then-West Germany and the Soviet bloc to its east. A favored policy of the socialist parties which were in vogue in this era, Ostpolitik was implemented by the Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who became Chancellor in 1969. The policy was meant to increase West German trade with the Soviet bloc countries, especially the potentially lucrative Soviet market itself, in order to increase prosperity at home and build cultural ties abroad. The eventual purpose of this policy was to ease tensions between the capitalist and communist worlds, leading to the peaceful reunification of Germany and a future of comity on the Continent.
West Germany’s neighbors were none too pleased with this effort, as nations like France saw it as a repetition of earlier history with respect to German east-looking policy. The German Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries had its own version of Ostpolitik, seeking neutrality with Russia in order to move forward with security on its eastern front and build a global empire. The Weimar Republic, the government which ran Germany after the loss in World War I, ended its period of diplomatic isolation with the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo, in which it recognized and began to cooperate with the nascent Soviet Union. The most infamous pre-WWII version of Ostpolitik came with the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, uniting two of history’s most brutal dictators – Hitler and Stalin – in an agreement to work together to destroy Poland and annex its territory. One would forgive the French and British for their reticence to see the new Ostpolitik (Neue Ostpolitik in German) as benign given the previous century of German eastbound diplomacy.
Still, many see Ostpolitik in the West German context as a rousing success, as the two Germanies did indeed peacefully reunify in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a year before the demise of the Soviet Union writ large. (I would contend that the Reaganite/Thatcherite approach of ‘peace through strength’, the reform efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev which opened discussion without improving material conditions, and the genuine bravery and resistance of the ‘captive nations’ of the Warsaw Pact played a more prominent and critical role in the fall of Communism in Europe.) The generation of young leftists who were inspired by Brandt’s policies have now come of age and have been heavily represented in German government over the past decades.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor from 2005 to 2021, grew up in East Germany (GDR) and had a complicated relationship with its repressive communist regime, including a stint serving as (depending on who tells the story) a cultural official or an agitprop functionary. Her successor, the SPD leader and now Chancellor (since 2021) Olaf Scholz, was a Marxist activist in his youth, harshly criticizing NATO and those West Germans who did not seek rapprochement with the GDR. He led cross-border delegations to work with the East German government and was vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Both saw Ostpolitik as a model for international relations and diplomacy through trade, and their own policies towards the dictatorships of the East – Russia and China – in the 21st century draw significantly on that Brandtian inspiration.
The primary thrust of German foreign policy with respect to these authoritarian nations over the past 15 or so years has been Wandel durch Handel – change through trade. This policy was one of engagement with Russia and China, especially on the commercial front, and tighter links between those countries and Germany proper. Major joint projects in infrastructure, manufacturing, and natural resources have been promoted, and Germany has more tightly interwoven its economy with its eastern partners. As is clear to anyone who pays attention to geopolitics, the handel (trade) has not produced the desired wandel (change). This Ostpolitik has coincided with an atrophying of the German military and its consistent failure to live up to NATO defense commitments. Those outcomes, when taken together, present Germany as an indifferent and unreliable ally. This has only gotten worse since Scholz took over from Merkel in late 2021, despite florid rhetoric to the contrary.
Less than four months after Scholz took office, the 21st century Ostpolitik favored by he and Merkel faced its biggest challenge to date – some would say a direct refutation of the very idea itself – the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia was one of the primary beneficiaries of Ostpolitik, with the construction of the two Nord Stream pipelines meant to deliver gas to Germany as the biggest example of this. The conciliation with Putin’s regime, even after it invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, was opposed by many in Eastern Europe and the United States, but was pushed through regardless of these concerns. Germany was deeply reliant on Russian energy exports and thus set itself up as an easy target for blackmail or coercion into inaction. It certainly didn’t help that Russian corruption was embraced by some Germans, including the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who began work for various Russian state-owned energy firms immediately after his departure from high office (he continues to work for them today, despite the invasion).
Thankfully, it seemed like the renewed Russian offensive against the whole of Ukraine in February 2022 broke the German government out of its stupor. Scholz gave a major speech shortly after the invasion declaring it as a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point in geopolitics, and promising a new course in German foreign and defense policy. He promised that Germany would finally achieve the minimum 2% GDP defense commitment required by NATO members, inaugurating a special €100 billion fund to revamp the German military. Germany stated that it would join its NATO brethren in transferring arms and materiel to Ukraine to aid in its fight against the Russian invaders, breaking with its historical precedent of refusing to arm either side in an international conflict. It would shut down the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and look for alternatives to Russian energy, including keeping its own nuclear reactors running for longer than was initially planned. All of this was to the good, and many Western observers saw this as a sea change in how Germany would operate in the future.
A new era of more serious foreign policy seemed to have arrived in Berlin. But did it actually ever show up? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding no.
Since his Zeitenwende speech earlier this year, Scholz’s government has shown itself to be no different than it was before the February invasion, doubling down on Ostpolitik while still claiming to have changed its stripes. Germany has slow-walked various arms transfers to Ukraine, has made it more difficult for other NATO allies to materially aid in the fight against Russia, and has – along with France – constantly pushed for conciliatory peace talks with Moscow. It has backed off of its promise to reach the 2% spending threshold this year, pushing that required spending back until at least 2024 (if not longer). It has hesitated in procuring American-made F-35 fighter jets, failed to adequately replenish ammunition stockpiles known to be lacking, put up useless bureaucratic roadblocks to military growth, and even reduced the military budget for fiscal year 2023. This retrenchment into passive Ostpolitik comes as Scholz himself extols the virtues of German foreign policy after the supposed Zeitenwende.
In an article in Foreign Affairs, he declares Germany as “intent on becoming the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be, a bridge builder within the European Union and an advocate for multilateral solutions to global problems.” As we have seen over the past few months with respect to Russia, this intent seems unaffiliated with German actions. Despite these persistent letdowns, Germany has still shown itself as willing to somewhat assist in major European security crises and has at least seen Russia as the dangerous enemy that it has been for two decades now. If Germany continues on this path towards a sane Russia policy, it will reach a positive outcome, albeit very slowly. The larger problem, however, is that Scholz wants to take Ostpolitik worldwide. He writes:
“Russia’s war of aggression might have triggered the Zeitenwende, but the tectonic shifts run much deeper. History did not end, as some predicted, with the Cold War. Nor, however, is history repeating itself. Many assume we are on the brink of an era of bipolarity in the international order. They see the dawn of a new cold war approaching, one that will pit the United States against China.
I do not subscribe to this view.”
The subhead of the Foreign Affairs piece states Scholz’s idea bluntly: “How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era.” As I’ve written before, a new Cold War is essentially unavoidable; China has already chosen this path and if we refuse to understand the reality staring us in the face, we will only be engaged in a slow-motion surrender. As of now, German leadership has failed that critical test of comprehension. Scholz ends his piece by writing:
“But we must also avoid the temptation to once again divide the world into blocs. This means making every effort to build new partnerships, pragmatically and without ideological blinders. In today’s densely interconnected world, the goal of advancing peace, prosperity, and human freedom calls for a different mindset and different tools. Developing that mindset and those tools is ultimately what the Zeitenwende is all about.”
The world will divide into blocs whether Scholz likes it or not; the real question is on which side Germany (and with it the European Union) will fall. China has been cozying up to Russia throughout its war on Ukraine, Iran is deeply linked to both, and other authoritarian nations are seeking to join the fold. The blocs are being built, and conciliation only shows weakness against a rising threat. But weakness seems to be all that’s on offer from the German government. Disturbing developments over the past few months show that Ostpolitik in the China context is just ramping up, other European leaders are getting on board, and the lessons of failed Russia policy have not been learned at all.
This naïve Ostpolitik was on full display when Chancellor Scholz visited Beijing to kowtow to Xi Jinping. He was joined not by diplomats or defense officials, but by the CEOs of major German corporations with strong China ties, including Adidas, Bayer, BMW, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and Volkswagen. Worryingly, the head of the German industry lobbying group BDI, Siegfried Russwurm, who has been wary of entanglements with China, was left out of the delegation – something which was unprecedented in this sort of trip. Scholz claims to have hammered Xi on human rights, Taiwan, and other issues, but the happy tenor of the visit and the inclusion of so many German firms with China ties shows this to be at best an exaggeration. A German diplomatic official had this scathing assessment of Scholz’s voyage: “I don’t think there is any real strategy behind this trip. Scholz and his team haven’t thought through how it will be seen or what they will get out of it. They are being driven by what China and a handful of German CEOs want.”
The planning of the trip also created major tensions within Europe that speak to an internal competition as to who can engage with China more favorably. French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a joint Franco-German delegation to visit Beijing, but was denied by Scholz. The German leader desired a purely German delegation to match his nation’s preeminent status on the Continent. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated the French, who cancelled other joint Franco-German meetings in retaliation. Beijing has been trying to foment internal discord in the EU for years, and Scholz seems excited to comply with those wishes. After Scholz’s obsequious visit – labeled a “lovefest” by one European diplomat – other European leaders jumped at the chance to pay their own tributes to the CCP. European Council President Charles Michel took his constituents, the nations of the EU, by surprise in traveling to China himself to build stronger ties with Beijing. This shows a concerning lack of insight on the part of the European leadership. One commentator summarized this new Ostpolitik thusly:
“Russia, not China, is Enemy Number One; the United States is profiting from the war in Ukraine at Europe’s expense; and closer engagement with Beijing makes sense, as a cushion against the forceful economic headwinds unleashed by the conflict and because Europe must do all it can to try to pry Beijing away from Moscow.”
Again, this is a fundamentally wrong belief system; China is a far more serious threat than is Russia, and the two are largely inseparable. If a Sino-Russian split was in the offing, it likely would have come already, as Russia has made itself an international pariah by invading Ukraine. Instead, China has taken advantage of this situation to further bring Russia into its authoritarian orbit. Seeing these challenges as distinct and separate is a flawed vision of geopolitics.
This approach of conciliation and Ostpolitik has been obvious in an area of particular importance (and personal interest) – critical dual-use infrastructure. Scholz has led the way in this sector, and not only with China. He failed to understand the true nature of the Nord Stream pipelines until Russia was actually using them for the blackmail they were intended for from the start. As a career politician who made it into the upper echelons of power in Europe, this betrays a troubling lack of judgment on Scholz’s part. And that lack of judgment has easily ported over to China, a nation which threatens European prosperity, security, and freedom.
Earlier this year, Scholz forced through a highly controversial deal which allowed China’s immense state-owned COSCO shipping line to purchase a sizable stake in Germany’s largest and busiest port, Scholz’s hometown of Hamburg. Scholz pushed for COSCO to own a controlling stake in the port, but settled on a still-large share just under 25%. COSCO is not just any state-run firm, it has deep ties with the Chinese security state and its shipping fleet could easily be repurposed to aid in an invasion and occupation of Taiwan. China’s investment in ports is meant to prosper economically, yes, but in typical dual-use fashion it is also meant to exert control over foreign powers and could be used in a conflict to destabilize host nations or disrupt important maritime traffic. These are not lunatic conspiracy theories, but are a crucial part of China’s strategy of military-civil fusion, which it has been outwardly pursuing for years now. By closely integrating its civilian sector with its military apparatus, China seeks to bring all of its power to bear in case of a serious international conflict, taking advantage of its economic penetration to achieve military objectives.
The more concerning issue with respect to Chinese control of key German infrastructure revolves around the lifeblood of modern societies: wireless connectivity. Huawei, another Chinese company with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party, is a major global supplier of the advanced wireless communications technology needed to operate cell phone networks and wireless internet. They are heavily involved in the development and promulgation of 5G technology, and their products have been used throughout the world to enhance and run these critical communications networks. The company has also been involved in industrial espionage, has aided the CCP in domestic repression against dissidents and minorities, and has been credibly linked to the theft of sensitive information via its network apparatus. Huawei executives and employees have been criminally charged in the US, Canada, and Europe, and their technology has been banned in several nations. They have been sanctioned by the American government for their malign global activities and links to repression and espionage. In short, Huawei operates as an arm of the Chinese government and aids willingly in its quest for global predominance.
And, of course, all of this has made no impact on Germany’s willingness to rely heavily on Huawei technology for its own communications networks. Angela Merkel began this problematic policy, but it was repudiated by the German legislature; Scholz has refused to follow through on the legislative wishes and has doubled down on Huawei. German telecom companies have succeeded in pushing the Scholz government to allow more Huawei tech in its networks, and they have happily obliged. According to industry estimates, Huawei will control nearly 60% of the critical back-end systems which operate the German 5G network; that percentage rises to 100% when discussing the network in Berlin, Germany’s capital. Why does this matter? Well, it allows Huawei – a company already credibly linked to espionage and malign activities on behalf of the CCP – unfettered access to the communications of all Germans who use the 5G network. That includes government officials (recall that 100% of the network in Berlin relies on Huawei components), business leaders, and even foreign diplomats who use Germany’s network. Not only could China have access to these internal communications, they could disrupt, destroy, or alter communications as they see fit. Giving a hostile foreign power the ability to completely shut down your internal communication network is a terrible idea. Yet it fits perfectly within Scholz’s Ostpolitik paradigm.
Despite the abhorrent and idiotic policy of the Scholz regime, all is not lost in Germany. Ostpolitik, even with the promotion of the Scholz government, is not Germany’s inevitable destiny. There are several important politicians and intellectuals who refuse to accede to this flawed dream of world amity driven by nostalgia for the past. One such politician is the (yes, I’m shocked too) Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister. She has been outwardly hostile to China, has argued against Scholz’s policy of conciliation and partnership, and has supported stronger measures against the CCP. She has urged the adoption of a much harsher China policy, even going so far as to (likely) leak it to favorable press outlets. The China strategy which she has proposed is much more in line with that of the US, and is clear-eyed about the threat emanating from Beijing. But this policy is only as good as Scholz and his allies allow it to be – after all, he is still the decision-maker in Berlin. We will see if Ostpolitik is the word of the day in Germany over the coming months, and the struggle between Baerbock and Scholz will be fascinating to watch. Anyone who cares about the China challenge in the 21st century should follow this closely and hope for the triumph of reason over appeasement. If not, Germany may be in serious need of a Zeitenwende of its own.