German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in December 2022 in Brussels.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in December 2022 in Brussels. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg)

What’s the matter with Germany? Ukraine and many of Berlin’s European neighbors would like to know. Germany’s foot-dragging on aid to Ukraine is threatening to solidify its reputation as a country that benefits greatly from the current global order but won’t do much to defend it.

The real story, though, is more complicated. Yes, the world needs a more assertive Germany. But the changes in German foreign policy over the past year have been historic, even if they still seem insufficient relative to the challenges of our time.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022, he set off shock waves in Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz immediately declared the invasion a “zeitenwende” — a historical turning point. He promised that Germany would finally meet NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defense; it would break its own prohibition on sending arms to conflict zones by delivering weapons to Ukraine. To the surprise of U.S. officials, Scholz even halted the controversial Nord Stream II pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.

Since then, however, Germany’s conduct has often seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary. Scholz has delayed Germany’s arrival at the 2% threshold. For fear of provoking escalation, Berlin has often been a brake on major arms deliveries to Ukraine.

The latest controversy involves tanks. Poland and other countries want to send their German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. That requires Berlin’s permission, even though the Poles suggested last week they may not wait for German assent.

Amid discontent from some of his own ministers, Scholz has averred that Germany will send tanks only as part of a larger coalition involving the U.S. “We always act together with our allies and friends — we never go alone,” Scholz told Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait last week.

The annoyance is palpable in Kyiv, Warsaw and other Eastern European capitals that worry less about provoking Putin than about defeating him. Add in that Scholz beat a path to Beijing as soon as Chinese President Xi Jinping began accepting post-COVID visitors in November, and questions abound about whether Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, is serious about meeting the threats to a global order that has served it so well.

Those questions aren’t new. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, NATO’s East European members had long complained that Germany’s pursuit of deep economic and energy ties with Moscow put their own security at risk. Former U.S. President Donald Trump gleefully accused Berlin of being a strategic deadbeat that refused to pay its share for collective defense. Skeptics charged that Germany’s policy of “change through trade” — promoting economic integration with autocratic challengers in hopes of mellowing them diplomatically — was really just naivete or greed.

None of these critiques are groundless. Still, it’s a mistake to make Germany the villain in a geopolitical morality play. For all its shortcomings, Germany’s Ukraine policy has been remarkable: Who, a year ago, would have predicted that Germany would respond to the invasion by decisively slashing its dependence on Russian energy? That it would send, however ambivalently, howitzers, air defenses and armored vehicles to Kyiv?

Taking the longer view, one can criticize Germany for being naive about Putin’s Russia and becoming economically handcuffed to a nasty autocracy. Then again, the U.S. — and many of Europe’s largest democracies — are guilty of similar mistakes.

Above all, it’s worth remembering that the characteristics that critics of German foreign policy find so frustrating are the same characteristics that helped transform a once-bellicose country into the peaceful, liberal state we know today. There was a time when “the German problem” didn’t refer to a hesitant, quasi-pacifist country that spent too little on defense. It referred to a country that was the terror of Europe because it repeatedly sought to seize geopolitical primacy by force.

After World War II, a divided Germany (the half of that was under American supervision, anyway) took on the traits its diplomacy still bears. It effectively renounced a fully independent foreign policy, embedding its power within European and North Atlantic institutions and tethering itself closely to the U.S. It emphasized diplomacy and economic prosperity, even as it contributed substantially to NATO’s defense.

That earlier zeitenwende helped produce an unprecedented period of European peace. So Berlin doubled down on the same policies in the post-Cold War era, in part to reassure its neighbors that a reunified Germany wouldn’t again became Europe’s scourge. Today’s Germany may not be the best Germany possible, but it’s far from the worst.

A fairer critique is that Germany has been slow to recognize that what the world and the West need from it today is very different from what was needed a generation ago. As the U.S.-led order comes under assault from multiple angles, all the advanced democracies, especially those as prosperous as Germany, will have to invest more in its defense.

The good news is that Berlin’s foreign policy is headed, albeit fitfully and belatedly, in the right direction. The bad news is that Ukraine may not have the luxury of waiting for a zeitenwende to play out at a leisurely pace.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is co-author of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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