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Breaking with Convention? Zeitenwende and the Traditional Pillars of German Foreign Policy

Author: Bernhard Blumenau

Affiliation: The Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) 

Organization /Publisher: International Affairs 

Date/Place: November 2, 2022/ UK

Number of Pages: 19


Keywords: Zeitenwende, German, Foreign Policy, Ukraine Invasion, Scholz Speech



This article examines the main implications of Germany’s new foreign policy, often termed the Zeitenwende doctrine. It examines how the new approach to foreign policy changed or maintained long-held assumptions that underlie Germany’s international relations.

The author tries to address: 

The major traditional characteristics of Germany’s foreign policy: Westbindung (integration into the West).

The historical origins and dilemmas of current German foreign policy, as well as why history is important for understanding contemporary politics.

Why the Zeitenwende speech is so important. 



Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government declared a major shift in its security and foreign policy on February 27, 2022. Chancellor Olaf Scholz used the word Zeitenwende, which means “historic turning point” and “historical geopolitical shift” in German.

The author argues that the German foreign policy has often remained stable across governmental coalitions. Germany’s foreign policy has been built on several core principles for many years, but the turning point came when Putin recognized Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in late February 2022. Things began to change in Germany as: 

  • The federal government finally suspended the Nord Stream 2 project.
  • Berlin allowed weapons shipments to Ukraine—a major reversal of a decades-long principle of not sending weapons to crisis regions.
  • Olaf Scholz launched a new foreign policy strategy launched in a landmark speech.

In his speech, Scholz also announced a series of sanctions on Russia and a commitment to new European armament projects, to armed drones, and to equipping the armed forces. The author argues that the shift in German foreign policy was important as it very clearly subjugated trade interests to foreign and security–political considerations given the major disruption and damage to German businesses that could result from the sanctions imposed upon Russia by Germany and the EU.


Zeitenwende and its Impact on German Foreign Policy:

In this part of the study, Blumenau examines the core concepts of German foreign policy traditions and how Zeitenwende will affect them. Starting with Westbindung and European Integration, the author describes Germany’s relationship with the ‘West’ prior to 1949 as somewhat complicated, though there were strong cultural, trade and dynastic links in the nineteenth century.  At the end of World War I, chained by the Treaty of Versailles, the states of the Soviet Union laid the groundwork for close cooperation in a variety of fields, including military cooperation. As a result, Germany saw itself as being in the middle of Europe, between East and West, it was only with the end of World War Two that the country was finally forced to pick a side. 

The author attempts to clarify that despite many of the changes and events that occurred, Germany’s basic orientation and self-perception was that of a Western nation, and it remained a staunch supporter of the two important western projects of cooperation: NATO and European integration. In 2022, Scholz reconfirmed Germany’s commitment to the West. Despite his hesitant policy before the Russian invasion, with his speech, he underlined Berlin’s commitment to European defense, and that European integration has been central to the country’s identity since the continent emerged from the ruins of World War Two.

The author argues that Germany was often criticized for not showing enough leadership and for stalling rather than pushing European cooperation, for example when the EU was in a state of permanent crisis in the 2010s, but the decisions taken by the German government at that time must be understood in the context of the substantial domestic reluctance to bail out southern European countries. Scholz explicitly highlighted how important the EU was for Germany, calling it Germany’s ‘framework for action’. European integration has been a basic pillar of German postwar foreign policy, and it will continue to remain as such.


Second Foreign Policy Pillar; Multilateralism, the Rules-Based International Order and NATO:

The author highlights here the historical context of Germany’s foreign policy approach. After World War Two, Germany learned the lesson of not pursuing its own way and prioritized multilateralism and a legalistic approach in international relations. Germany’s limited sovereignty during the Cold War meant that the country had to rely on international law to pursue its interests. The author also references a quote from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who emphasized the importance of choosing “Recht (law) over Macht (power)” in foreign policy decisions.

Zeitenwende reaffirmed this principle. The author discussed how Scholz’s speech marks a significant shift in post-Cold War German politics, as it reaffirms Germany’s strong commitment to multilateralism and international law. It also marks a break from the persistent criticism that Germany was not doing enough to support NATO in terms of the Bundeswehr’s capabilities, manpower or budget, by positioning Germany as a responsible and committed member of the Western alliance. Scholz’s promise to increase the German defense budget and raise annual military spending to more than 2 per cent of GDP, in addition to setting up a special fund of 100 billion euro, underscores Germany’s renewed focus on the ability to defend Europe, as well as its commitment to its alliances.


Third Foreign Policy Pillar; Hesitant Leadership:

Bernhard Blumenau argues that Berlin is often perceived to be shying away from leadership. In that vein, Germany is described as not ‘normal’ in that it does not seek the international responsibility and influence commensurate with its standing as Europe’s most populous country and one of its most advanced economies.

The author thinks that when analyzing this constant feature of Germany foreign policy, it is important to emphasize hesitation, rather than lack of leadership per se, as Germany has led several times, especially within Europe. Yet often it does not assume leadership on its own initiative, but is pushed into it, accepting it only with hesitation and delay.

The reasons for this reluctance are historical and Germany hesitates to show leadership because of the associated costs—financial and economic, or possibly in terms of body bags, when military intervention is needed. As Hanns Maull has put it, ‘it is far from clear to what extent German society really stands behind the ambitions of a “responsible” power once the going gets difficult and the bills come in.’

But even before the Ukraine war in 2022, constant pressures from European and transatlantic partners have led to a growing, yet uneasy, awareness in Germany that the country would have to play a more prominent leadership role in the future. When Germany did exert leadership in the recent past—eventually in the euro crisis, during the 2014 Crimea invasion, or in the 2015 refugee crisis—this was often as a consequence of enormous pressure, and other European powers’ inability to lead. 

In his Zeitenwende speech, Scholz did promise more resolute action to secure and defend Europe, though he remained silent on the specifics. Rather than leading with a new vision for Europe, his speech was focused on the changes Germany itself had to implement. Scholz continued to reject a leadership role within Europe, however this refusal of leadership was now coming under criticism from people within his own coalition. That criticism might indicate a growing awareness among the political elites, including the foreign minister, that Germany now has to show more leadership. This need will become even more pressing if anti-European parties continue to gain ground in Europe.


Fourth Foreign Policy Pillar; Ostpolitik and Wandel Durch Handel: 

The author discusses Germany’s complex relationship with Russia, highlighting the impact of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s, which led to Germany having significant influence on Russia after the end of the Soviet Union. However, the heyday of European-Russian relations ended in 2006, with the prospect of Russia using Europe’s dependence on its gas as a potential instrument of blackmail. 

Despite this, successive German governments continued Ostpolitik and engaged with Russia, tying it into European institutions and restraints. Energy was at the core of Berlin’s policy towards Putin, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being a key example. However, the problem with this policy was highlighted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which left Germany facing the dilemma of wanting to pursue a much tougher policy on Putin, including sanctions against Russian oil and gas, but increased dependence on these fuels meant that such boycotts would come at huge costs for Germany’s industry and population.

 The author also discusses the concept of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), which was supposed to lead to modernization and political liberalization in Russia, but ultimately failed due to Putin’s focus on trade as an instrument for geopolitical ambitions. The Ukraine crisis of 2022 completely annulled Germany’s Ostpolitik, and while dialogue and diplomacy will continue, the relationship between Moscow and Berlin will remain icy for a long time, with a return to the pre-invasion relationship unthinkable. However, the author notes that “Wandel durch Handel” might continue with China and other states due to Germany’s economic dependence on them.


The Fifth Pillar; Non-Military Foreign Policy:

The author assumes that one of the most successful policies and profound traditions in postwar German foreign affairs is demilitarization: an anti-militarist policy coupled with checkbook diplomacy and the rejection of the use of military force and interventions in external affairs.

With the end of the Cold War, Germany had grown comfortable in the ‘security cocoon’ that the US and NATO provided and wanted to focus on the economic development of East Germany. Welfare state projects were prioritized over military spending as Germans wanted to cash in on the “peace dividend.” Yet, the 2014 Crimean crisis forced German security and foreign policy institutes to reconsider their positions. Since then, a number of presidents and ministers have urged Germany to be ready to take on more leadership and responsibility on the world stage. Yet, nothing changed in terms of defense strategies: the Bundeswehr’s underfunding was maintained, and the reluctance to use force persisted.

The author focused on Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech marking a significant shift. In his speech, Scholz acknowledged that an effective military was indispensable to counter Russian aggression, that hefty investments were needed to update the Bundeswehr, and that Germany would require ‘strength of our own.’ He also stressed the value of continuing diplomacy but emphasized that he did not want to keep ‘talking simply for the sake of talking’. Germany’s complex notion of security was underscored with his ‘awareness that the Bundeswehr alone does not have the means to contain all future threats. We therefore need strong development cooperation. The Zeitenwende speech did not constitute a complete U-turn in Germany’s non-military tradition or its security policy. Scholz did recognize the continuing value of diplomacy and other means of conflict prevention. Yet the chancellor now openly admitted that a ‘powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr’ was also needed.

Zeitenwende marks Germany’s reality check as its hopes that Europe could move beyond its troublesome, military past, could focus on trade and welfare, and would turn into a peaceful utopia were not to be. By acknowledging the need for military strength—if only to defend the European order—Scholz publicly broke a taboo, and he did so to cheering applause, within and without the Bundestag. This was a watershed moment.

Bernhard Blumenau concludes his article by confirming that German foreign policy is built on the premise of stability and on core traditional notions of how to conduct foreign affairs. This makes it difficult for the country to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, especially on questions related to war and peace. However, Zeitenwende confirmed and continued Germany’s successful foreign policy traditions while providing a chance to abandon the more problematic ones. Zeitenwende was definitely a turning point because it signified Germany’s acceptance of Europe’s realities in the twenty-first century. It will likely define the guidelines for German foreign policy for at least the next decade. 


By: Chourouk Mestour, Ph D Candidate in International Relations 



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