German coalition wrestles with national security reform

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, German officials had hoped to use next weekend’s Munich Security Conference to unveil their long-awaited national security strategy.

But differences of opinion in the governing coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz thwarted these plans. Dubbed the “Davos of Defence,” the annual gathering of security forces will most likely not be the place to present progress on its promise turning pointor historical turning point that assured Germany of a more assertive role in European defense.

At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over whether Berlin should set up a US-style National Security Council (NSC) – an idea some German ministries fear could give Scholz’s office too much power.

“The question is: how much brain and brawn should remain in the Chancellery in this constellation and how much in the other ministries?” said a person familiar with the discussions. Another put it more bluntly: “It’s a power issue.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference 2022

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (center) during a panel discussion at the 2022 Munich Security Conference © Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

German diplomats and some of the country’s Western allies have argued for more than 10 years that Germany needs a coherent approach to national security consistent with its political and economic standing — and flaws such as policymakers’ blindness to the risks of dependency on Russian gas avoids .

The Scholz government, which came to power in December 2021, committed itself to a national security strategy in its coalition agreement. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following February added a new urgency to the task.

“In the face of this nuclear-armed major power in Europe – Russia – we have to pull ourselves together,” said Ekkehard Brose, a former diplomat who now heads the government-funded Federal Academy for Security Policy. “There is a very concrete challenge, not just an abstract realization that this is exactly what others expect of us.”

While there have been various German policy documents on security over the years, according to Sarah Brockmeier, a researcher at the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute, there has never been a “truly integrated, interagency strategy”.

She pointed to two events in 2021 — Berlin’s chaotic handling of the international pullout from Afghanistan, which left Afghans employed by the Bundeswehr at the mercy of the Taliban, and the devastating floods in Germany’s Ahr Valley — as examples where greater strategic planning and Clearer decision-making could have limited the damage.

Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was given the task of leading the process of developing a national security strategy. She said Germany needs to think about national security much more than “military plus diplomacy” and called on the country to “toughly address our economic dependencies,” particularly when it comes to China.

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Economics Minister Robert Habeck, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Head of the Federal Chancellery Wolfgang Schmidt take part in their weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Economics Minister Robert Habeck, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Chancellor Wolfgang Schmidt attend their weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin © Christian Mang/Reuters

Baerbock has pointed to the role of companies, municipalities and universities in strategically important decisions and has called for the strategy to include climate change response and trade policy as well as cyber attacks and conventional warfare.

A separate policy on Berlin’s relations with Beijing is expected to be released once the overall strategy is finalized.

Among the disputes that have stalled the plan, according to one of the officials briefed on the details, is whether to include a commitment to meet NATO’s requirement to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. There is also disagreement about how to coordinate the response to natural disasters.

But the most thorny issue is the idea of ​​creating an NSC like in the US and UK, bringing together ministers from all governments along with representatives of intelligence and other agencies.

The body would almost certainly be stationed at the Chancellery. But Baerbock’s State Department is reluctant to give Scholz and his team too much power.

Christoph Heusgen, a longtime foreign policy adviser to former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is now chair of the Munich Security Conference, said this week the previous government never raised the issue “because we knew it would represent a kind of fundamental break that sort of of structural change that could not be managed in a coalition government.”

Proponents of a German NSC argue that the chancellor already has the final say on critical issues like last month’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. “Ultimately, that’s what happens in crisis management anyway,” said Julia Friedlander, a former member of the US-NSC who now heads Atlantic Bridge’s Berlin office, which advocates for closer Germany-US ties. “But there needs to be some sort of more formal structure for communication.”

Some argue that a security council offers no security against bad decisions.

Peter Ricketts, a former senior UK official who helped set up the UK NSC in 2010, said the UK version failed to prepare for the coronavirus, even though a pandemic had been identified as one of the top risks facing the country. “There’s an issue with progress tracking and follow-up,” he said. Still, he believes Germany’s “disconnected” system would benefit from an NPC to improve coordination and encourage long-term thinking.

Berlin has tried to downplay the seriousness of the disagreements. A spokesman for Scholz declined to answer questions about internal disputes at a press conference last month, saying only that talks were “moving along well” and that the strategy would be finalized by the end of March.

However, experts wonder what will be left and if it will be too watered down to make sense – perhaps by evading the decision to form an NPC. Ricketts warned: “A national security strategy without a National Security Council is only half the way – it’s only a document.”

Additional reporting by Guz Chazan German coalition wrestles with national security reform

Adam Bradshaw

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