ADAM GARFINKLE, WASHINGTON D.C.
Germany’s emergence as a true global power, with a military to match its economy, will shape the future far more than the fate of Ukraine—or even Russia.
Sobald du dir vertraust, sobald weißt du zu leben.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
The Anglophone media’s reporting on the Zeitenwende, as Germans call their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been belated and somewhat inappropriate in its affect: The New York Times, for example, waited until yesterday to chirp, “Good morning. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unexpectedly transformed Europe.Foreign Affairs decided to import German goods for the purpose, see Sudha David-Wilp and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, A New Germany: How Putin’s Aggression is Changing Berlin. Britons can still think, … Continue reading
The Times is correct that Europe has been transformed. But they have largely overlooked the most significant aspect of the transformation. Unless this war ends in a nuclear exchange (then all bets are off), its most significant outcome will be Germany’s Zeitenwende and its effect on the United States’ strategic position in Europe.The odds that the war will end in a nuclear exchange are far too high for any sentient person to be sanguine. But for the purpose of this analysis, we will set that prospect to the side. Germany’s emergence as a true global power, with a military to match its economy, will shape the future far more than the fate of Ukraine or even Russia. In a similar vein, the effect of this war on Chinese strategic thinking matters more to the future order than the war itself.
Putin has done for German security policy what generations of American Presidents failed to do: burst through postwar Germany’s holiday from history.
It is a plain fact that in the coming century, Germany and China will be more important to the world than Russia. Both are vastly better prepared to enter this century. Indeed, if China’s rise continues at anything like its current pace, Russia’s only hope is an alliance with America and Europe. The Russo-Chinese border was imposed upon China in the 19th century, under duress. Two, alas (and more) can play the game of unleashing mad ultranationalism to great applause before ultimate ruin. Russia will find itself China’s eastern satrapy as Beijing helps itself, without being asked, to its timber, minerals, hydrocarbons, fertile land, and fresh water east of the Urals. Ethnic Russians might consider the fate of the Uighurs as they seek to grasp what this will mean for them.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, blue-check strategists held that Putin was a man who played his weak hand shrewdly. Tactically, this has sometimes been true. Strategically, however, he has it exactly wrong. His anti-Western bias has caused him to lose sight of Russia’s best interests. He has been scrambling in exactly the wrong direction.
That the war’s most important ramifications are transpiring far from the combat zone is typical of history’s irony. During the First World War, public imagination was transfixed by the horrors of trench warfare and the emergence of aerial combat. As the Battle of the Marne was raging in September 1914, no one imagined the reordering of the world to come. But soon, and nearly simultaneously, the pillars of the post-Napoleonic global order—the Hohenzollern, Romanov, Ottoman, and Hapsburg empires—would collapse.
Similarly, news reports are focused now on the horrors visited upon Ukraine’s suffering population and the barbarous, deliberate rubbling of whole cities, now the signature of the Russian military. But the most consequential ramifications of this war are elsewhere. They are clear. Putin has done for German security policy what generations of American Presidents failed to do: burst through postwar Germany’s holiday from history.
Once the barrier of a social-psychological fixation is shattered, change tends to gallop through the opening. It does not meander. An Overton Window makes tracks on greased wheels. It generally takes a shock to produce the shattering. In such times, one often feels what is newly true before one can properly articulate it. Putin’s nuclear bluster has had a shocking impact on Germany, to say the least, and this shock is key to the Zeitenwende.
For Americans, the Cold War is so distant that readers need a lexicon. Journalists are now explaining to their readers just what a tactical nuclear weapon is, and why—to take a particularly relevant example—one could be detonated on a Polish airfield. Young Americans are, perhaps for the first time, realizing just what a ghastly business this really is. But in Germany, the discussion has a different flavor. It reawakens the Cold War ghosts that haunted the Bonn Bundesrepublik during its long decades of hard work, lustration, and atonement.
Henry Kissinger achieved fame with his 1956 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which raised the possibility of a limited nuclear war. By preparing to wage such a war, he argued, the United States could more credibly deter the Soviet Union. It would demonstrate that it could protect its allies without, necessarily, sharing their fate. This made sense to Americans, but was hardly calculated to comfort Germans, who understood full well that this limited war might, just might, spare the American and Soviet homelands, but would leave melted and radioactive German corpses strewn from Aachen to Zwickau. No democratic politician, not even the politically untouchable Konrad Adenauer, took comfort in this predicament.
In the 1960s, Kissinger’s idea became part of the United States’ general plan for nuclear war, the Single Integrated Operational Plan. I had wondered for years how Kissinger felt about plunging this dagger of terror into his country of birth. One evening in 2000, at the annual National Interest dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel, I asked him. Four eyes locked in brief comprehension; he offered only a silent, small, wry smile. I understood.
MERKEL’S FATEFUL DECISION
The revolution in German thinking and policy did not emerge sua sponte. Consider the moment as a three-way intersection in German political culture. All three paths leading to the intersection were necessary predicates.
The first path is time. Funeral by funeral and birth by birth, generational churn has taken Germany beyond its tutored postwar guilt. Half a decade after reunification—now 25 years ago—Germans barely dared to sing their own national anthem at football matches. We are far from that, now. These days, when the German flag flies, no one blinks or looks away.
The second path is success. Germany has managed to do what no other European country has done: It has achieved a genuinely robust 21st-century economy, one owed to its own excellence and industry every bit as much as it is to cheap Eastern and Central European labor and captive EU export markets.
The third path, however, is at once most important and least recognized. A much subtler shift in Germany’s Zeitgeist has occasioned this transformation.
Why exactly did successive German governments resist American insistence over so many years—all the way back to the 1972 Mansfield Amendment, for those keeping score—that Germany do more for NATO’s common defense? Germany had the money, after all. It had the technical ability. Germans certainly understood the logic and the accounting.
The real reason had nothing to do with Donald Trump’s stereotypes. Germans have never yearned to freeload off of the American taxpayer. Nor have its elites been smugly certain that there would never again be a war in Europe. Germany has avoided remilitarization because it hasn’t wanted to cringe—for reasons everyone knows, even if they do not say so out loud—or to confront the inevitable reaction of its neighbors.
Germany has at last decided that enough by way of sackcloth and ashes is enough. Merkel’s decision was the key.
Germany’s volte-face may be traced to a single day and a single decision, in September 2015. That episode, still fresh in memory, offers a profound but mostly still unlearned lesson to students of geopolitics, to wit: There is a crucial relationship between a democratic society’s sense of its own virtue and its capacity to support an active, morally grounded foreign policy.
On September 3, 2015, thousands of Germans spontaneously congregated at the Munich train station to greet—with cheers, smiles, flowers, and bread—a train from Budapest carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees to safety. I was in Germany then, and could feel in late summer’s perfumed air the German sense of virtue at long last vaulting over the German sense of shame.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has been widely criticized for her decision to grant refugees what seemed, at the time, unlimited access to Germany. To be sure, it played into Russia’s brutal and cunning scheme—deliberately destroying Syria so that refugees would flow into Europe, undermining its liberal principles and tearing apart the EU. Germany’s far-right AfD, it is true, gained sudden popularity, and for the first time since the Second World War, a far-right party entered the German parliament. For this, Merkel may be chastised.
But the AfD is not, today, a partner in a right-of-center coalition. It is an increasingly isolated onlooker. Germany’s new left-of-center coalition, with the SPD and the Greens, is in power, and just as only Nixon could go China, only such a coalition could have announced that henceforth, Germany would be a normal country, one with a military to match its economic power.
Except that Germany is not a normal country. It is an industrial powerhouse by almost every measure, and the third-largest economy in the world. Between 1934 and 1939, a Germany that was by today’s standards industrially primitive created, almost from scratch, the most polished and effective military machine ever seen on the European continent, or anywhere else. There is no reason that Germany should not be able to do this again, in half the time.
There is another connection between 2015 and 2022, another example of history’s poetic cunning. Syrian refugees in Germany know very well what sent them there: Russia’s murder of Aleppo.
Germany has at last decided that enough by way of sackcloth and ashes is enough. Merkel’s decision was the key. The moral albatross Germans carried before 2015, though lighter as years passed, was unlimited. No mortal can wrap his mind around enormities so vast as those Germany committed between September 1939 and April 1945. A new Germany required a similarly unlimited symbol to break the spell. In one day, Germany froze into psychic amber the memory of trains leaving German soil, packed with the victims of German insanity, en route to labor and death camps to the east. It replaced it with the image of Germans welcoming victims of others’ insanity to refuge in Germany, from the east. What’s more, when Angela Merkel said, “We can do this,” she was correct. Syrian refugees have done fairly well after a wobbly start, and they have done well in large part due to German determination to ensure they do well.
Perhaps Angela Merkel’s bravery was an accident, born of haste, as opposed to the morally far-sighted triumph of leadership it appeared to be to me. Whatever the case, it was necessary for the events that have taken place in Germany since February 24. A boldness in escrow awaiting its moment to emerge, Merkel’s decision set the stage for Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, who took the transformative next steps the moment demanded.
There is another connection between 2015 and 2022, another example of history’s poetic cunning. Syrian refugees in Germany know very well what sent them there: the Russian military’s murder of Aleppo. Russia did it before in Grozny and it is doing it again now, most obviously in Mariupol. There is a cost to mass murder, even to a recidivist perpetrator. When considering Mariupol, Germany found its moral backbone at least in part because of Aleppo. What goes around does come around—just not always in ways we expect.
America’s retreat to a strategic avocation better suited to a maritime power may continue gradually and smoothly. But if its internal dysfunction worsens, America could become much weaker and even more self-absorbed and strategically confused than it is now. The 2024 presidential election will tell the tale.
Putin, meanwhile, has become the first world historic figure genuinely to warrant comparison to Hitler. This realization, too, even if unspoken, plays a role. Germany is now no longer quite so unique. Germans sense an unavoidable and indeed a unique responsibility born of its own history, and they are rising to it. That is the essence of the Zeitenwende.
MORAL CONFIDENCE AND THE SOURCES OF FOREIGN POLICY
Germany has found confidence in its moral worthiness just as America is losing its own. This too signals the end of an era. European security policy will no longer be infantilized. What could not happen before—the rise of a European collective security arrangement defined by political courage and military teeth—may happen now. For better or for worse—I lean to the former—this means the curtailment, if not the end, of the United States’ unnatural overextension into the heart of Eurasia.
This retreat has been underway in every manner but name since the first Obama Administration. But so long as Europe lacked a leadership with the moral mandate and the will to herd the EU’s fractious parties, there were limits to the process. Germany’s halting attempts to assert its leadership during the past decade’s economic crisis were hints of the destiny we now see unfolding.
NATO will not don its new wardrobe right away. For the next five to eight years, probably, the American nuclear umbrella will remain, as will some tripwire troops, while Germany leads Europe in a collective conventional defense. It will receive strong support from France, as well as from Britain, Italy, non-NATO Sweden, and even Finland. What this defense comes to look like and how rapidly it takes shape will depend, in large part, on what happens in America and Russia.
America’s retreat to a strategic avocation better suited to a maritime power may continue gradually and smoothly. But if its internal dysfunction worsens, America could become much weaker, and even more self-absorbed and strategically confused, than it is now. The 2024 presidential election will tell the tale. It is not just a matter of who ends up president, but whether the election itself satisfies the democratic, legal, and constitutional norms of American law and tradition. Again, in morally healthy democracies, the belief in the soundness of one’s own civic virtue forms the scaffold upon which a consistent and benign foreign policy is built. If we see another administration that marries MAGA to Ayn Rand, the collapse of US constitutional order will likely follow, accelerating the transformation of NATO or any successor organization. This organization may or may not be formally led by the US. In reality, it will be led primarily by Germany.
As for Russia, one day Vladimir Putin will be gone—one way or another. “Speedily, in our time,” say some, but we just don’t know. What a post-Putin Russia will look like, no one can say. On the one hand, Russia’s autocratic habits, imperial temperament, and mystical para-Orthodox conceits seem to endure despite every opportunity to move on. On the other, Russians are connected as never before to the rest of the world, and the shameful trauma of Putin’s wars could be enough, at last, to elevate a genuinely liberal leadership generation to power.
…. The critical point is not just that there are only two choices. It is that either one could transform the liberal, democratic Germany we know into something different, and not necessarily something better.
If I were to bet, I’d wager that Russia will not change appreciably after Putin departs. I’d bet that America will sooner, rather than later, become unwilling or unable to lead the shaky but still liberal international order it sired after World War II. The US may close in on itself and hunker down to confront its own demons. It may act as an episodically violent unilateralist rogue on the global stage. It may do both.
THE AWFUL CHOICE
If Russia remains more or less the same—and America does not—German leadership, once accustomed to being primus inter pares in Europe, will confront a harrowing choice.
How will German leaders, guiding the dominant European power, deal with the perennial danger zone between Germany and Russia? There are really only two possibilities. One is that Germany takes de facto responsibility for its security, extending security guarantees from its eastern border to Russia’s west until, if ever, Russia ceases to be a frustrated empire and becomes a normal European state.
To do so credibly, Germans must have their own nuclear weapon or their finger on a European nuclear deterrent. This is the downstream impact of Putin’s recent rocket-rattle in the context of German Cold War nightmares.
The other possibility is Rapallo redux, with Germany and Russia dividing the blood-drenched lands between them as they did economically in the 1920s and literally in September 1939. This choice seems improbable now: After years of equivocation, Germany’s Social Democrats have at last come down firmly on the side of the West, one of the most monumental decisions in their party’s history. They did so courageously, in the full knowledge that Donald Trump or some version of him might become president of the United States in January of 2025, leaving Germany on its own.
They know, therefore, that if America withdraws into itself, Germany must ultimately acquire a nuclear muscle it would rather not possess.
The critical point is not just that there are only two choices. It is that either one could transform the liberal, democratic Germany we know into something different, and not necessarily something better.
As the American experience shows, it is not easy to reconcile a nuclear triad with a fully transparent government. The German public is uncomfortable with slippery slopes. France, Britain, and the United States, for example, have made notable compromises with civil liberties in the face of terrorist threats. Germany has not. The German state strictly limits its own powers; Germans—and German neighbors—feel more secure when their boundaries are clear. Having a finger on a nuclear trigger, no matter how arranged, will test those boundaries.
On the other hand, should Germany and Russia contrive to settle the destiny of the states between them, no matter how, it would rob those states of agency and create an informal German imperium. Once a country gets a taste of this, less delicate forms of intervention tend to follow. German youth are not being prepared for this choice in their civics classes. A reversion to Rapallo seems unthinkable under current circumstances, but what seemed unthinkable in September 1929, before the Crash, became very thinkable by September 1939.
Whichever their choice, German leaders risk reigniting the smoldering embers of their nation’s mottled history. The most significant impact of war in Ukraine will, ultimately, be on Germany’s political culture. It has to be: A society’s cultural life and political sensibilities are always reflected in its attitudes, and ultimately its policies, toward the rest of the world. The relationship between a nation’s experience in the world and its understanding of itself is not parallel, but iterative and dialectical. Only formulaic realists who insist upon an artificial separation between so-called foreign and so-called domestic policy, whether out of stubborn conviction or muddled habit, will have trouble understanding this. Regrettably, that would seem to be a lot of people.
I don’t envy future German leaders. What they will face will be hard, as fully adult responsibilities typically are. But that difficulty is now inevitable and, barring a miraculous transformation in Russia post-Putin, this will soon become all too obvious.
“ As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live,” wrote Goethe in Faustus. For the past nearly eight decades, Germans as a nation have not trusted themselves. Now, on balance, shocked by barbarities of a kind much too familiar to ignore, Germans are fast finding that trust. That they will then know how to live is a hope not only for Germany, but for all of Europe and the world.
Adam Garfinkle is a member of the CG editorial board.
|↑1||Foreign Affairs decided to import German goods for the purpose, see Sudha David-Wilp and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, A New Germany: How Putin’s Aggression is Changing Berlin. Britons can still think, too, see, T.G. Otte, “Zeitenwende: Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the End of the Thirty Years’ Holiday.”|
|↑2||The odds that the war will end in a nuclear exchange are far too high for any sentient person to be sanguine. But for the purpose of this analysis, we will set that prospect to the side.|