What Is at Stake for France and Europe with Germany’s First Security Strategy?
The course chosen in Berlin will have major implications for France and its European partners, and especially for the future of European defense cooperation.
Three years ago, it seemed highly unrealistic to hypothesize that a Greens foreign minister could initiate the process to equip Germany with a national security strategy. While this objective was already anchored in the government coalition agreement signed in December 2021, its realization was accelerated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which profoundly challenged German strategic doctrine. Relying primarily on its economic weight and reluctant to use—or even reflect on—military force, since the Second World War Germany has rarely had a geopolitical or geo-economic conceptualization of international relations, as its dependence on Russian gas demonstrates. This approach and the pacifism strongly anchored in civil society also explain the lack of investment in the armed forces, whose condition, according to the opinion of many experts and senior military officers, is deficient.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has thus completely changed Germany’s analysis of the strategic environment, forcing it to fill the strategic void in terms of geopolitical thinking. In this context, Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered his famous speech in which he announced a Zeitenwende, a change of era in German politics, which will notably manifest itself through the investment of €100 billion in the modernization of the armed forces. While this announcement raised concerns about the possible risk of Germany becoming the leading military power in Europe, it should be noted that these investments will primarily serve to fill capability gaps and hence enable Germany to fulfill its obligations toward its partners.
Against this background lies the process of designing the security strategy, which is supposed to underpin the announced investments. This process may constitute an important window of opportunity for German security and defense policy, provided that Germany is prepared to approach the world from a geopolitical perspective and to drop several doctrines that have so far determined its foreign policy. The outcome of the process, and especially the level of German ambition for the European pillar of NATO, will have direct implications for France and the construction of European defense.
The “Franco-German Engine”
The last few months have demonstrated the significant difficulties for bilateral cooperation between France and Germany, hence questioning the ability of this tandem to be a driving force for cooperation at the European level. Apart from the Franco-German duo’s failed attempt to convince Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to halt his aggression against Ukraine, the most pressing issues for Europe today—defense and energy—have demonstrated the considerable gap that exists between France and Germany. Chancellor Scholz’s foreign policy is perceived as a “Germany first” approach in Paris, regardless of the implications for European partners, while the reaffirmation of the absolute priority of the partnership with the United States continues to cause irritation too. While France and Germany have traditionally held very different positions on a multitude of issues—nuclear energy or armament cooperation formats, to name just two—these differences could often be overcome thanks to political will at the highest level. Certainly, the working relationship between France and Germany is characterized by very close exchanges and a high degree of trust. Yet, the Merkel era has undoubtedly left its mark, as France was waiting, in vain, for a German response to the vision of Europe outlined in President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 Sorbonne speech. Apart from the European response to the pandemic, Franco-German initiatives or ideas for advancing Europe have been rare in recent years. It will therefore be revealing to follow closely to what extent Germany will include the ambition to give new impetus to such initiatives in its security strategy, especially since Franco-German cooperation is not mentioned in the coalition agreement.
A major issue for France remains Germany’s strategic positioning on the geopolitical chessboard.
A major issue for France remains Germany’s strategic positioning on the geopolitical chessboard. In this context, it is important to be realistic about German strategy in Paris. France’s new National Strategic Review clearly illustrates that the French analysis of the geopolitical order, and the conclusions that drawn from it, are based on three elements: France’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, its status as a nuclear power, and the fact that it has the leading army in Europe, making it capable of being a framework nation. Germany lacks all these strategic assets, which will have a considerable impact on the posture formulated in its security strategy. The announcement of the special fund for the armed forces and a higher level of ambition than before will surely find a way into this strategy. Nevertheless, economic weight and political influence are Germany’s main assets, and it seems unlikely that the country will move away from its general approach in the future by relying more on military strength.
Beyond its own positioning, Germany’s analysis of the geopolitical chessboard will determine to what extent a strengthening of Franco-German cooperation is conceivable at the highest level. Like France’s new National Strategic Review, many speeches of the German government emphasize its warning against the emergence of blocs. Nevertheless, the crucial question is whether the conclusions drawn on both sides of the Rhine will converge: while France insists on its role as a “balancing power,” one is unlikely to find such explicit wording in the new German strategy. Yet, the priority given to multilateral cooperation, especially in the Indo-Pacific, could allow France and Germany to continue their joint efforts in this area.
European Defense and Strategic Autonomy
Like France, other European partners should follow the ongoing process of elaborating Germany’s security strategy closely since it will also have a direct impact on the success of European defense as well as on the project of European strategic autonomy in the broader sense.
The special fund of €100 billion will be used primarily to fill capability gaps. According to various estimates, about two-thirds of the fund will be needed for this, while the remaining amount will be used for multilateral programs. In this context, it is above all Germany’s choices in terms of capabilities that could be either a catalyst or a brake for the European defense technological and industrial base. Germany’s initial procurement choices hint that the second scenario could become more likely. The purchase of 35 US-produced F-35 aircraft, described by Germany as an unavoidable choice, has already revealed one of the future guidelines of German arms policy. Although the government justifies this decision by the lack of European alternatives, this recent purchase of US systems will undoubtedly be taken into account by the government in future acquisitions. Consequently, it seems unlikely that Germany will prioritize European systems, which will continue to be a source of tension with its partners. This trend is already evident in the pursuit of the European Sky Shield project, a missile defense system composed of US, German, and possibly Israeli systems, led by Germany and 14 other NATO countries, while France and Italy develop their own system. If Germany’s approach and its preference for American systems are confirmed, this will be a considerable weakening of European defense. Indeed, there are already weak signals at the European level that other EU members may follow this approach. The latest version of the proposal for a regulation on the establishment of the instrument to strengthen the European defense industry through joint procurement (EDIPRA) now provides for the possibility of joint procurement of systems, regardless of their origin.
Germany’s approach to Beijing and Washington will also be crucial for Europe.
Beyond capabilities, the level of ambition of the German security strategy will also have a direct impact on the European strategic posture. In his speech in Prague at the end of August 2022, Chancellor Scholz emphasized Germany’s willingness to commit itself more to coalitions of the willing and able, which implies a certain openness on Germany’s part to ad hoc coalitions, especially within the framework of Article 44 of the Treaty on European Union. This article allows delegating a task of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to a group of capable and willing member states, and it can thus help overcome obstacles caused by the reluctance of some states to participate in a CSDP mission. Strong support for such coalitions, which were previously seen by Germany as an obstacle to European integration due to the risk of fragmentation, would be a real gain for European defense and allow the EU to act in a more flexible and agile way.
Germany’s approach to Beijing and Washington will also be crucial for Europe. While its China strategy is expected in 2023, the angle chosen to address this topic in the security strategy will give first insights into the future of Germany’s “change through trade” paradigm and will include the security dimension more systematically in the conceptualization of its relations with Beijing. This question is particularly relevant in the context of maritime security: following Germany’s announcements it would consider a regular presence in the Indo-Pacific from 2023, German participation in coordinated maritime presences, which are also foreseen in the EU’s Strategic Compass, could be an option. Like other ad hoc coalitions, this would benefit European defense cooperation through concrete action. Beyond that, it will illustrate the role that Germany is ready to play in contexts marked by important geopolitical tensions, as well as the level of ambition that it would be ready to bring to a reflection on China at the European level.
Finally, all these issues are directly linked to the German conceptualization of the transatlantic partnership. Despite a growing awareness in Germany that Trumpism could be a lasting political trend, the recent midterm elections also had a reassuring effect on some. Because of its very Atlanticist political culture and the absence of its own nuclear capabilities, Germany has no real alternative to the transatlantic partnership. Germany’s strong dependence on the United States also implies that it may be less enthusiastic than other partners, especially France, about strengthening security cooperation within the framework of the European Union. According to current German approach, security cooperation should rather be conceptualized around NATO, which should remain at the heart of the European security architecture. If the objective—strengthening the EU’s capacity to act—is shared among European countries, notably France and Germany, the path to achieve it is far from simple. One can only hope that pragmatic solutions and de facto cooperation will prevent Europe from falling into the impasse of inaction.
This is a translation of an article first published in November 2022 under the title “Première stratégie de sécurité allemande: quels enjeux pour la France et l’Europe?” by the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in Paris