Chancellor Scholz Takes the Plunge Germany Completes Historic Foreign Policy About-Face

In just 30 minutes on Sunday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz discarded decades of foreign policy tradition. His speech to German parliament marks an epochal shift.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaking before a special session of German parliament on Sunday.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaking before a special session of German parliament on Sunday.

Foto: Clemens Bilan / EPA

"A watershed” for Europe and the world. During his speech to Sunday’s special session of parliament, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the implications of Putin’s war of aggression as such five different times. It was the primary theme of his address , which can safely and without exaggeration be called historic. Scholz, the Social Democrat who has been in office for less than three months, essentially discarded decades of German post-Cold War foreign and security policy in just half an hour.

During his speech, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of starting a "war of aggression in cold blood,” saying it was "inhumane” and "a violation of international law.” There is, he continued, "nothing and nobody that can justify it.”

"The terrible images from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa and Mariupol show Putin’s utter lack of scruples.” The world, he said, is now a different one.

He then went on to announce a list of measures that even just a few days earlier would have been unimaginable. For decades, Germany has been extraordinarily wary of military power due to the destruction it wrought on the continent and beyond in World War II. Its entire foreign policy has long rested on the supposed healing powers of dialogue – in many cases, to a fault. And while Berlin had joined international military operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent decades, its lack of a clearly formulated doctrine when faced with impending or actual military violence was neatly summed up in its late-January decision to send 5,000 helmets – and nothing else – to a Ukraine surrounded by Russian forces

But on Saturday, Berlin changed its tune. The government announced over the weekend that it would be delivering 1,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. And it announced that it would no longer stand in the way of efforts to boot Russia out of the SWIFT international payment system. Natural gas deliveries from Russia have yet to be suspended, but it was a major shift.

Anything But Empty Rhetoric

That, though, was only the start. In his speech on Sunday, Scholz presented measures that promise to completely transform Germany from a languorous economic giant in the heart of Europe into a country eager to live up to its responsibility to protect itself and its allies from external threats.

First and foremost, Scholz is immediately injecting 100 billion euros into the country’s armed forces, which have decayed in recent years to the point that Germany’s top military leader complained on social media in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Germany was not currently able to defend itself.

The chancellor then announced that the country’s defense budget, long a sore spot within NATO due to Berlin’s unwillingness to meet its obligations on defense spending, would be boosted to over 2 percent of Germany’s gross national product.

Scholz also prioritized the development of the next generation of fighter jets and tanks together with France and announced that Germany would push ahead with efforts to acquire armed Heron drones from Israel.

In short, Scholz’s invocation of a "watershed moment” was anything but empty rhetoric – a shift that is especially notable for coming from a Social Democrat. It was the SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt, after all, who opted for a policy of détente with the Soviet Union in the heart of the Cold War, a foreign policy success that had been part of the party’s DNA ever since. Furthermore, Germany’s foreign policy is still deeply informed, even today, by the Nazi war of annihilation launched against its neighbors and, more the point, Russia. The thought of German weapons being used once again to kill Russian soldiers has long been an anathema for the country’s political parties, both left and right.

Cleaning House on Foreign Policy

It was, to be sure, an SPD chancellor who chose to join NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo in 1999, a controversial decision that led to a firestorm of criticism for then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. That outlier notwithstanding, the SPD has long embodied the German left’s wariness of NATO and rejected the 2-percent defense spending goal that all NATO member states agreed to in 2006. In 2017, the country’s candidate for the Chancellery, Martin Schulz, warned that Germany cannot become a "military bull” in the heart of Europe. And the current coalition agreement between the SPD, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats also avoids a commitment to the 2-percent spending target.

Now, with a single speech, Scholz has thrown that position and much of his party’s foreign policy tradition overboard. And in doing so, he has grabbed the reins of leadership in a way that a number of observers in recent weeks had feared he never would. Many had considered him to be too hesitant and too indulgent of Putin. Moreover, his party was viewed with a great deal of skepticism when it came to Russia -- particularly with Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor, having completely sold himself to the Kremlin.

But Scholz, whose rhetorical style can be rather nebulous at times, showed no shortage of determination on Sunday. Putin, he said, "is isolating himself from the entire international community.” It was only through the use of its UN Security Council Veto, Scholz said, that Moscow "was able to prevent itself from being censured. What a disgrace!”

He justified his government’s decision to deliver weapons to Ukraine by saying that Putin’s aggression had left Berlin with no other choice. And he then threatened the Russian president with even more economic sanctions. "This war is a catastrophe for Ukraine. However, it will prove to be a catastrophe for Russia too.”

The opposition center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) also threw their support behind Scholz, with party leader Friedrich Merz offering him full support. He did, however, question the immediate influx of 100 billion euros for the military. That, Merz intoned, would mean taking on new debt and must be carefully considered. Meaning that at least one of Germany’s sacred cows may have survived the country’s watershed weekend.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren
Mehrfachnutzung erkannt
Bitte beachten Sie: Die zeitgleiche Nutzung von SPIEGEL+-Inhalten ist auf ein Gerät beschränkt. Wir behalten uns vor, die Mehrfachnutzung zukünftig technisch zu unterbinden.
Sie möchten SPIEGEL+ auf mehreren Geräten zeitgleich nutzen? Zu unseren Angeboten