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Germany: Government struggles over new security strategy

January 14, 2023

How should Germany define its security interests in the future? The coalition government is divided over this issue — especially when it comes to dealing with China.

Annalena Baerbock during a visit to Kharkiv, Ukraine in January 2023
Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock would like to see a tougher line on ChinaImage: Xander Heinl/photothek/picture alliance/dpa

How can Germany secure its future? What strategy does the German government have with regard to its allies such as the United States, and what strategy vis-a-vis Russia or China? 

Formulating a comprehensive strategy, a plan, is something the ruling coalition of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) had already set out to do when it took office in late 2021. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has given the issue new momentum. And the first draft of such a strategy is already ruffling feathers.

First draft from the Foreign Ministry

Germany has never before had a comprehensive, clear and binding description of its own security interests. The policy has always been determined by short-term and, above all, economic considerations.

But now everything is to change: A concrete description of Germany's security interests, ideally supported by all government ministries, is what Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) has in mind. 

Now her ministry has produced a 60-page draft document — but it still lacks approval, for example, from the chancellor's office.

Some feel that the draft document's criticism of China, in particular, is too strong. 

Now, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), Baerbock, and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) have appointed representatives to work on the document with the aim of putting together a version of the strategy that will pass through the Cabinet before the start of the important Munich Security Conference on the third weekend in February. 

But it cannot be ruled out that things might take longer, they say.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht and a Bundeswehr soldier standing next to a Puma infantry fighting vehicle
Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht would like to see guarantees for substantial defense spendingImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Dispute between the Greens and the Defense Ministry

How to shape relations with China is the most contentious issue: Should Germany continue to focus primarily on economic interests, as it has in the past, or will the new government formulate a strategy that focuses more heavily than before on human rights and responds to the permanent pressure China puts on Taiwan?

Military spending is another controversial issue: The SPD-led Ministry of Defense wants to enshrine in the strategy the principle of spending 2% of the gross domestic product on defense each year. 

The political opposition is urging the government to formulate a clear definition of the country's own interests. 

Roderich Kiesewetter is a lawmaker with the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), who were in power in Germany for most of eight decades since the end of World War Two. Kiesewetter says that German foreign policy was long built on three lies: "Cheap security from the US, cheap supply chains from China, cheap energy from Russia." 

"The new strategy must present concrete political instructions on how to enable the Bundeswehr to defend the alliance and the country, how to diversify our energy supply, and how to reduce dependence on China," Kiesewetter says.

Roderich Kiesewetterr speaking in the Bundestag
Kiesewetter, a former Bundeswehr general staff officer, wants the new government to develop a national security policyImage: Frederic Kern/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

The conservative politician would like Germany to learn from the United States: "We urgently need a national security council that is independent and not bound by directives. That would ensure that the national strategy is regularly reviewed and evaluated, regardless of government configuration, and can actually ensure the implementation of the national strategy and thus finally implement a strategically forward-looking security policy in Germany," Kiesewetter said. 

Unlike other countries, such as the US or Lithuania, for example, Germany does not have such an independent national security council.

Criticism from federal ministries and states

The Finance Ministry and the 16 federal states have also expressed some reservations about the Foreign Ministry's initial draft. 

The Finance Ministry, headed by FDP leader Christian Lindner, wants it to include clear statements on problems such as money laundering and international counterterrorism activities.

And the federal states feel they have been ignored. "The major security-related issues, whether it is cybersecurity or the fight against terrorism, are also being tackled on a state level, too, aren't they?" North Rhine-Westphalia's Interior Minister Herbert Reul (CDU) pointed out in an interview with the Die Welt newspaper.

The federal states are particularly upset that Foreign Minister Baerbock has consulted several nongovernmental organizations but not with the Interior Ministries of each state. The FDP-led Federal Ministry of Justice also feels left out because it was not involved in the departmental coordination.

Olaf Scholz and China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2022 standing in front of German and Chinese flags
Chancellor Olaf Scholz is interested in maintaining good business relations with ChinaImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Dispute over how to deal with China

The sticking point remains China: Above all, the Greens and the FDP are demanding clearer statements about human rights violations in China and about the aggressive course of the leadership in Beijing toward Taiwan.

The chancellor's office under head of government Olaf Scholz, however, still wants to focus on economic relations with China. 

Last year, for example, the chancellor's office approved plans for a state-owned Chinese company to buy a stake in an important container terminal in the port of Hamburg, against considerable objections from the Greens and the FDP. A national security strategy is supposed to rule out such conflicts from the outset.

So it remains uncertain whether the new strategy can actually be presented at the Munich Security Conference in February as the government had planned, while discussions continue. 

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau