The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany must do more on defense. But critics should be patient.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, right, sits on a Leopard 2 tank at the Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, on Feb. 1. (Martin Meissner/AP)
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Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s working visit to Washington last Friday came almost exactly one year after a landmark speech promising a U-turn in German foreign defense policy, given just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. The speech spoke of a Zeitenwende — a pivotal moment in time — and the word has since become shorthand for German foreign policy thinking under Scholz.

But one year into its Zeitenwende, Berlin is struggling to turn bold promises into reality. Scholz had committed to spending more than 2 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product on defense and to supporting Ukraine with heavy weapons. One year later, despite setting up a 100 billion euro special fund for the German army, the 2 percent spending goal was pushed back to 2025, while German defense contractors are still waiting for many of the announced deals to materialize.

And though Germany has become the second biggest European contributor to Ukraine (behind the United Kingdom), every decision to send additional help has come excruciatingly slow, and only under heavy domestic and international pressure, with Scholz himself seen to be dragging his feet.

Germany’s international reputation has suffered in failing to meet the high expectations that were set. Some worry that Scholz’s speech was written at a time when it looked like Kyiv would fall within days, and that Russian troops would therefore be directly menacing NATO’s borders. With Russia bogged down, the urgency is gone.

Scholz’s low-key visit was meant to reassure the United States, Germany’s most important ally, that Zeitenwende is not a flop and that he is working hard to get it off the ground. He addressed the American public in an interview with CNN to repair some of the damage. This PR push was necessary, but not sufficient. To quiet his critics, Scholz will ultimately have to deliver on his rhetoric.

That said, the critics ought to have some perspective as well. They should look to Japan, another country with a postwar culture of military restraint that has embarked on a similar path as Germany. It is much further along for two main reasons: the remarkable political leadership of prime minister Shinzo Abe, and the fact that Abe started pushing for change more than a decade ago.

During his time in power, Abe worked to make Japan into an indispensable military partner for the United States, India and Australia in defending a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Although he was unable to reform Article 9 of the Japanese constitution — the “no war clause” — he strengthened Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, launched its first National Security Strategy and formed a new National Security Council in 2013.

Building on Abe’s legacy, Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last year unveiled an ambitious new National Security Strategy that announced the acquisition of long-range missiles capable of striking mainland China (albeit exclusively for defense purposes). In addition, Japan has announced it will increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027, which would make it the third largest defense spender in the world.

But while critics ought to be patient, Germany must not be complacent. Berlin needs to catch up on its own lost decade. In the past 10 years, German policymakers have often gestured at assuming a stronger international role for their country, but never seriously followed through. Only after Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech is Berlin developing its first National Security Strategy. Unlike Japan’s hard-nosed approach, it will focus on a very broad idea of “integrated security” — to protect against war and violence, freedom in democratic societies, and the ecological foundations of life. Even with this expansive — and resultantly less aggressive — scope, its much-awaited publication has been postponed due to infighting in Germany’s three-party coalition. The planned establishment of a National Security Council might be shelved altogether.

Germany’s leaders — especially the notoriously cautious Scholz — should take inspiration from the other, once militarily restrained, nation to its east. Abe’s leadership early on made a difference and built the foundation for Japan’s successful reforms today. Berlin’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, has shown signs that he understands the stakes. Going forward, Berlin needs less infighting and hesitation — less “Scholzing” and more of Japan’s resolve.

Muddling through will no longer cut it.