With the eruption of conflict over Ukraine, the world’s eyes turned repeated to Berlin, the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Just three days after the begin of what Russia called “special military operation”, German Chancellor announced a “turning point” in Germany’s foreign policy. An extra defense spending of 100 billion Euros followed.
Later on, everyone focused on former Chancellor Merkel’s policy of energy cooperation with Russia – when the Nordstream pipeline in the Baltic Sea ‘exploded’.
And recently, all eyes were again on Berlin when the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine was proposed, discussed, delayed and finally approved.
A ‘traffic lights coalition’, so called because of the colors of participating political parties – the ‘red’ Social democrats, the ‘yellow’ liberals and the obvious ‘Greens’ is governing Germany.
Much debate occurred on the course of the coalition, on its internal divisions, on its course and it’s positioning in the broader great power competition.
We spoke about these issues with Ingar Solty. Solty is a research fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation affiliated to the Left party and a frequent expert to the German parliament’s public hearings on peace and security policy.
Our interview is divided into two parts: the first deals with the government’s ‘turning point’, the second with the great power competition, US-German relations and German-Chinese relations.
Let us begin with the 100 billion Euro fund for defense. Is that a ‘turning point’, as Chancellor Scholz claimed, or the continuation of policy? And is it a reaction on the Ukraine conflict, or does it go beyond that?
This decision reaches definitely far beyond the Ukraine conflict: It was taken just three days after the start of clashes. The weapons are not planned for Ukraine. And there was no need for urgent procurement action.
My evaluation is that the government has used the current crisis to announce decisions that were taken long ago. And I can prove that.
The traffic-lights-government has finalized its coalition agreement in November 2021. The first CIA reports of a possible Russian invasion arrived in December 2021. But the coalition agreement already included the military build-up.
The agreement’s according section is titled “disarmament initiative”. But this refers only to arms that Germany has not: Nuclear weapons. Moreover, as long as the necessary global initiative does not start, Germany wants nuclear armament in the context of nuclear sharing together with France.
The coalition agreement of November ’21 also postulates already the procurement of armed drones and the substitution of Tornado fighters – with F-35.
My conclusion is: As armament is unpopular in Germany, the government used the moment as a chance to announce this decision. And looking back from today, the massive peace demonstrations of those days turned out to be legitimizing that step.
Together with Members of Parliament, academics and trade unionists, I organized a public call against this 100-billion-defense-spending. We had four arguments: 1. Distributive policy, with cutting of social spending in the midst on an economic crisis; 2. Security policy, deepening of the asymmetry between NATO and Russian forces: I argued in my presentation in the parliamentary hearing that the justification of the spending is invalid, because NATO’s European members alone had double the number of soldiers and tanks as the Russian army; 3. Climate policy, where increased spending contradicts policy goals and 4. Democratic objection. If that project was really a ‘turning point’ ıf 180 degrees in foreign policy, as the government claimed, then it needed broad debate in the political parties and the society.
Government “blindsided” the parliament
But what actually happened was that Chancellor Scholz just announced the decision and connected his personal political future to it. In case of rejection, he’d have to resign.
There was no real debate in the political parties about that decision, and it was said that not even the chair people of the parties’ parliamentary groups were fully informed about the package. The decision to spend an extra 100 billion on defense was actually a slap in the face of the parliament.
2 MPs of the SPD signed our call, but we know that there were at least a dozen MPs supporting each of them. Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the parliamentary group, who has a clear background as supporter of the Détente policy, expressed his sympathy, stated that for his position, he could not sign the petition, but also said he would not enforce fraction discipline or retaliate in any way against them.
But at the end, Scholz forced all his MPs to support the decision and the necessary constitutional change. He blindsided the parliament.
Corruption in the military
How do you evaluate the effect of the decision on the German military?
During the according debate, it was argued that the German military was extremely underfunded. Some even claimed that soldiers had no underwear! That was an outright lie. The funding for the Bundeswehr (German armed forces, YS) has increased by 55% since 2014.
The truth is that the Bundeswehr has procurement problems. I told that in the mentioned hearing in the parliament: There is an incredible level of corruption in the Bundeswehr. In one case, 250 million Euros too much were spent for a battle ship. The F-35 show a number of errors and are becoming more and more expensive. There were also huge scandals concerning consultancy contracts.
German officers “open to critique of asymmetric transatlanticism”
I have been teaching officers from the leadership academy of the Bundeswehr for some years now. As part of their education for higher ranks, they come to Berlin and visit also the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and listen to the views of the Left regarding foreign and security policy.
I observe among them a very critical approach, because most of them have field experience. They have served in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mali and know pretty well the limits of what the military can achieve. They do not want to be sent on a suicide mission.
And these officers are very open to a critique of asymmetric transatlanticsm, that is, Germany’s dependency on the United States. But they also told me that, the higher the rank, the less the critical approach.
Besides, there is a strong esprit de corps: If the government commands, they obey. But concerning the Ukraine crisis, they are very critical of sending German weapons and escalating the conflict further.
Retired personnel speaks out more openly on that issue, while those on active duty do not dare to raise their voice.
And in my teachings to officers I also mentioned the corruption problem. They responded ‘Everybody knows what an inefficient crowd we are’, and laughed in a way that made me think they’re well aware of it.
Returning to the 100 billion: The parliament at the approved the decision.
Yes, they did. The 100 billion are extra spending, so there will be extra debt for it. As the constitution limits public debt, a constitutional change was necessary. For that, the support of the opposition was necessary.
In the end, there was a lot of rejection within the ranging from the left-wing of the SPD with past in the peace movement, former trade union leaders to youth organizations within the Greens. Everyone waited for the others to come and and reject it.
The oppositional CDU/CSU supported the bill reluctantly, with their leader Friedrich Merz possibly speculating on Scholz’ failure, the crash of the coalition and the establishment of the Jamaica Coalition (due to the national colors of Jamaica, YS), consisting of CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens. But in the end, when he approved the bill, he even further radicalized and militarized the budget.
How do you evaluate this bill within the German foreign policy?
Germany is already rearming since 2014. Since that time, we hear again and again that ‘Germany must take more responsibility’, that it must convert itself from a ‘consumer of security to its producer’, that we can no longer rely on the US.
The President of that time, Joachim Gauck, the Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen and – to a lesser degree – Frank Walter Steinmeier played a pivotal role there, as well as of course Angela Merkel.
Crimea’s annexation as a pretext
Three threats were presented as justification for armament: 1. ISIS, 2. Russia’s policy of changing borders by military means and 3. Ebola virus, to provide the military also with a civilian touch.
But in my investigations I found out that back then they did the same as today: They used the annexation of Crimea for plans that already had been made long ago.
The rearmament of 2014 is already announced in the coalition agreement of 2013 – before the annexation. And that agreement as based mainly on a very influential analysis of the think tank SWP’s (Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Politik, YS). The analysis was titled “Neue Macht Neue Verantwortung” (New power, new responsibility, YS) and was co-authored by the German Marshall Fund of the US.
The analysis mainly postulates the following: Germany is economically a giant, but in terms of foreign policy, it is a dwarf. Hence, as a globalization-dependent power, it need to protect its interests globally and better, eventually also using military power.
German interest to ascend in global power structure
Now, this paper’s research was ordered in November 2012. The research project was justified with the so-called diplomatic neutrality during the Libya intervention. Looking back, you’d say that neutrality was right, given that an existing state has been destroyed there, causing a huge humanitarian crisis. But they considered this neutrality as a “Sonderweg”, as the “exceptional German path” to abstain from war.
Again: In November 2012, there was no ISIS and no Crimea annexation. But they knew that armament is unpopular, hence they used these incidents later a pretext for long-planned steps.
Washington’s demand for a transatlantic division of labor
What is the main goal in this new foreign policy?
There is the interest in Germany to ascend in the global power structure. Germany wants a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. It wants nuclear weapons, hence the so-called nuclear-sharing with the idea of a European armed forces to get hold of French nuclear weapons. This logic is there.
But all these issues cannot be separated from the great and dominant conflict of our times: the one between the United States and China. In my view, all these issues – rearmament, the Ukraine conflict etc. – can only be understood in the context of the US-China conflict.
When Donald Trump was elected, voices were raised here in Europe demanding more ‘strategic autonomy’ and more defense spending. These seemed to be directed against the US – but they were actually fulfilling American demands.
Basically, Washington wants Europe to assume more responsibility so that the US itself can focus better on its rival China.
They wanted a transatlantic division of labor – and they got it now in result of the Ukraine war. And Washington needed that because it cannot succeed on its own.
Next part: Germany in the triangle with the US and China; growing transatlanticism; de-industrialization, cracks and conflicts with the governing coalition, opposition from the capitalist class and proposals way out.