To Succeed, Germany’s National Security Strategy Needs to Spark Public Recognition of the Country’s Changing Security Environment

Opening Argument

June 26, 2023
4 min read
Photo credit: Heide Pinkall /
Germany’s first-ever national security strategy, which was released June 14, contains many goals, intentions, and aspirations.

But it does not delve into their implementation, which should generate a much-needed public debate about the document. The strategy is better seen as a preface in need of subsequent chapters if the country is going to recognize and accept what is at stake. 

The document offers a multidimensional portrait of German security. It is also an analysis designed to deliver a message of stability, reliability, and assurance on which Germans can rely—and a confirmation that others can rely on Germany—amid much uncertainty on global challenges including energy supplies, terrorism, cyberattacks, climate change, and, ultimately, the war in Ukraine. It notes that all these issues, and the responses to them, need to be approached as interconnected components of foreign policy. Unfortunately, the strategy provides few details on how to do that. 

Still, the outlined agenda is indicative of how Germany should see itself, its responsibilities, and its capabilities.

That may be unsurprising, given that three political parties often at odds with each other lead the German government. The document’s language is a compromise among competitive and conflicting priorities of multiple agencies and ministries whose administration is split among the parties. 

Still, the outlined agenda is indicative of how Germany should see itself, its responsibilities, and its capabilities. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s notable “Zeitenwende” speech in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for acknowledging all that must be achieved to make Germany robust and resilient, and act sustainably, three objectives to which the document devotes entire sections. 

A mix of short-term and long-term challenges follow from that admission. Of central importance is the need for Berlin to rebuild its defense capabilities, meet its alliance obligations, and strengthen European security. That is the primary meaning of “robust”. “Resilient” focuses on a commitment to defend a healthy democracy at home and a rules-based order abroad. “Sustainable” stresses the commitment to dealing with the climate crisis and its many consequent challenges. But advancing this agenda requires hard decisions on budgetary allocations that a squabbling governing coalition will find difficult, perhaps even impossible, to make. There is currently no indication that significant budgetary increases are imminent, let alone politically digestible. 

German security without Germans’ buy-in is an illusion.

Implementing the strategy must also consider getting the German public to accept that they inhabit an increasingly dangerous world, one that requires long-term commitments to shoulder greater burdens to confront threats and genuine enemies, some in geographical proximity. German security without Germans’ buy-in is an illusion.

The national security strategy aims to define Germany’s role as Europe’s largest and wealthiest country just as war rages on the continent. As the document notes, “Germany bears special responsibility for peace, security, prosperity and stability as well as for sustainable use of our resources.” But its foreign policy has long been based on an assumption that its security is embedded in the European and transatlantic webs that surround it. The country has perceived its role as a facilitative partner, not a leader. All that is now in doubt with a Russia that subordinates international law to military force and a politically riven United States whose security guarantees and ability to deal with global challenges no longer goes unquestioned.

Germans now confront myriad security risks unseen in the post-World War II era.

The national security strategy recognizes the need for Germany to revise its role and responsibilities by emphasizing a strengthening of the European pillar of the transatlantic defense community: “The more our European allies militarily and politically contribute to NATO, the more solid the transatlantic Alliance will be. Europe’s ability to act on its own is increasingly a prerequisite for German and European security.” The statement is a recognition of a long-standing expectation that Germany must step up to a leadership role as the United States reexamines its capacities in the face of growing challenges from China. 

Many such declarations in the document will prompt public debate beyond Berlin. Germans now confront myriad security risks unseen in the post-World War II era. They need to understand these risks and the necessary responses, and the impact of both on their society. They will need to adjust to these changes if they are to be proactive in shaping their national security strategy. 

As the document concludes, “Security is an issue of relevance to everybody in our country; everyone shares responsibility for it and can contribute to it.” Only a comprehensive national dialogue will successfully hammer that necessary message home. That may be the first chapter to follow the government’s national security preface.