Germany Is Unprepared for Strategic Simultaneity

A dou­ble cri­sis invol­ving Chi­na and Rus­sia as ear­ly as next year is a plau­si­ble sce­n­a­rio. Howe­ver, the Ger­man poli­ti­ci­ans jost­ling to suc­ceed Ange­la Mer­kel have pre­sen­ted no ans­wers. Worse, they are not even ack­now­led­ging the need for a long-term strategy.

It is May 5, 2022. The world is on the ver­ge of cha­os once again. Two mon­ths have pas­sed sin­ce a power­ful cyber-attack on the head­quar­ters of the Tai­wan Semi­con­duc­tor Manu­fac­tu­ring Com­pa­ny (TSMC) brought pro­duc­tion to a standstill. With glo­bal semi­con­duc­tor sup­ply chains on the brink of col­lap­se, all sec­tors of the Ger­ma­ny eco­no­my are suf­fe­ring. Manu­fac­tu­rers of smart­pho­nes, rou­ters, cars, and ref­ri­gera­tors are affec­ted by pro­duc­tion slumps and deli­very bot­t­len­ecks. Pri­ces shoot up. Pro­duc­tion los­ses of the Tai­wa­ne­se chip giant are par­ti­cu­lar­ly harm­ful to indus­try. CEOs of Germany’s major auto­mo­ti­ve and elec­tro­nics com­pa­nies are peste­ring the chancellor’s office to “do something.”

In Washing­ton, Con­gress is accu­sing Chi­na of orches­tra­ting the cyber-attack on TSMC in an effort to coer­ce the reuni­fi­ca­ti­on of the island with main­land Chi­na. Bei­jing vigo­rous­ly denies the­se alle­ga­ti­ons and, for its part, high­lights the “ille­gal pre­sence” of Wes­tern naval for­ces in the Tai­wan Strait. If not with­drawn immedia­te­ly, the Chi­ne­se Coast Guard is left with no other opti­on but to exer­cise its right to self-defen­se. A Ger­man fri­ga­te is part of the Wes­tern naval exercise.

At the same time, a dan­ge­rous situa­ti­on is loo­m­ing on Poland’s eas­tern bor­der. After the unex­pec­ted death of Bela­ru­si­an Pre­si­dent Alex­an­der Lukas­hen­ko, Moscow has star­ted to amass thousands of tro­ops along its bor­der with Poland and Lit­hua­nia. Hea­vy equip­ment has been deploy­ed to Russia’s wes­tern mili­ta­ry district and the excla­ve of Kali­nin­grad. Pre­si­dent Vla­di­mir Putin jus­ti­fies his country’s mili­ta­ry build-up, pro­c­lai­ming that Bela­rus is under thre­at of a Wes­tern-backed “color revo­lu­ti­on.” Governments in War­saw, Tal­linn, Vil­ni­us, and Riga are extre­me­ly alar­med by the gro­wing Rus­si­an mili­ta­ry pre­sence on their bor­der. Fea­ring that Moscow is see­king to inva­de the Polish Suwal­ki Gap that sepa­ra­tes the Bal­tic sta­tes from the rest of NATO ter­ri­to­ry, allies on the eas­tern flank intend to for­mal­ly pro­po­se the acti­va­ti­on of Arti­cle 5, the Alliance’s collec­ti­ve defen­se clau­se, at a spe­cial emer­gen­cy mee­ting of the North Atlan­tic Council.

How would Berlin’s new­ly-elec­ted coali­ti­on government respond to such a situa­ti­on? Would it agree to acti­va­te NATO’s mutu­al assi­s­tance clau­se and signi­fi­cant­ly upgrade the Ger­man con­tin­gent in Lit­hua­nia? What poli­cy opti­ons would it have to exert poli­ti­cal pres­su­re on Chi­na, pre­vent a poten­ti­al mili­ta­ry esca­la­ti­on in the Tai­wan Strait, and miti­ga­te the eco­no­mic con­se­quen­ces of the simul­ta­ne­ous micro­chip shor­ta­ge? What expec­ta­ti­ons should Ber­lin reck­on with on the part of its EU and NATO partners?

Questioning German Perceptions

For tho­se see­king to defi­ne Germany’s poli­ti­cal cour­se and secu­re the Ger­man chan­cellor­s­hip, a serious dis­cus­sion of a “stra­te­gic simul­tan­ei­ty” sce­n­a­rio is cer­tain­ly warranted.

First, such a men­tal exer­cise can be extre­me­ly use­ful for ascer­tai­ning one’s own per­spec­ti­ve on two of the lar­gest con­ti­nen­tal powers in the world, their natio­nal objec­ti­ves, and their capa­bi­li­ties. Does Germany’s future lea­ders­hip assess Russia’s and China’s long-term glo­bal aspi­ra­ti­ons, nota­b­ly vis-à-vis the West, plau­si­b­ly and rea­listi­cal­ly? Are the Ger­man can­di­da­tes awa­re that, for the first time sin­ce the end of the Cold War, Wes­tern demo­cra­ci­es must cope with two serious stra­te­gic com­pe­ti­tors rather than one?

The rela­ted stra­te­gic chal­len­ges can­not be com­pa­red with other secu­ri­ty thre­ats such as ter­ro­rism or insta­bi­li­ty on Europe’s exter­nal bor­ders. Both Chi­na and Rus­sia see them­sel­ves in fun­da­men­tal oppo­si­ti­on to the libe­ral-demo­cra­tic order of the West. Chi­na has offi­cial­ly decla­red that it seeks to over­ta­ke the United Sta­tes in key cate­go­ries of sta­te power over the next two deca­des. Its sta­te-run eco­no­my and tech­no­lo­gi­cal inno­va­ti­on capa­bi­li­ties have alrea­dy begun to approach pari­ty to the US in several are­as. In the fore­see­ab­le future, Beijing’s gro­wing mili­ta­ry poten­ti­al could rival Washington’s super­power sta­tus. The fact that one of the core tasks of the Chi­ne­se People’s Libe­ra­ti­on Army is to pro­tect natio­nal eco­no­mic inte­rests abroad, inclu­ding in Euro­pe, should ser­ve as a wake-up call for Ger­man policymakers.

In con­trast, Putin’s Rus­sia does not pos­sess the same magnitu­de of hard and soft power pro­jec­tion to advan­ce its natio­nal goals. But sup­por­ted by its moder­ni­zed con­ven­tio­nal for­ces, nuclear arse­nal, and abi­li­ty to leverage Europe’s ener­gy depen­dence, Moscow has nud­ged the stra­te­gic balan­ce wit­hin Euro­pe in Russia’s favor over the last deca­de. From the Kremlin’s per­spec­ti­ve, the cali­bra­ted use of hybrid methods to desta­bi­li­ze its wes­tern neigh­bors has pro­ved effec­ti­ve, while remai­ning below the thres­hold of direct mili­ta­ry engagement.

In recent years, the stra­te­gic part­ners­hip bet­ween Rus­sia and Chi­na has grown steadi­ly clo­ser. Putin’s aggres­si­ve “Making Rus­sia Gre­at Again” poli­cy cor­re­la­tes per­fect­ly with Pre­si­dent Xi Jinping’s pos­tu­la­te of “reju­ve­na­ti­on of the gre­at Chi­ne­se nati­on, the grea­test dream of all Chi­ne­se in modern times.” A clo­se coor­di­na­ti­on of the stra­te­gic inte­rests of both sta­tes is likely to be the rule rather than the excep­ti­on in the future, pre­ci­pi­ta­ting mul­ti­fa­ce­ted con­se­quen­ces for the sta­bi­li­ty of the inter­na­tio­nal order.

Think, Plan, and Act Strategically

Second, the Ger­man can­di­da­tes should be awa­re that their poli­ti­cal state­ments and actions are ana­ly­zed in Moscow and Bei­jing with gre­at atten­ti­on and dili­gence. For both aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an regimes, demo­cra­tic elec­to­ral cycles, open poli­ti­cal dis­cour­se, and the for­ma­ti­on of coali­ti­on governments are neur­al­gic weak­nes­ses of the “deca­dent West,” which are rife for exploitation. 

In par­ti­cu­lar, Rus­sia and Chi­na are inte­res­ted in asses­sing the new government’s abi­li­ty to think, plan, and act stra­te­gi­cal­ly. What long-term ide­as do the poten­ti­al coali­ti­on part­ners intend to pur­sue to secu­re Ger­man and Euro­pean inte­rests? How pro­noun­ced will their poli­ti­cal will be to act swift­ly and decisi­ve­ly, and which spe­ci­fic instru­ments and capa­ci­ties will they likely app­ly to advan­ce Ger­man stra­te­gic objec­ti­ves and Euro­pean ideals?

Tho­se in Moscow and Bei­jing who are loo­king for ans­wers to the­se ques­ti­ons can lean back and relax, becau­se thus far, Germany’s lea­ding par­ties have hard­ly deve­lo­ped anything resemb­ling a stra­te­gic mind­set. Inde­ed, the Chris­ti­an Demo­crats, Social Demo­crats, Greens, and Free Demo­crats have vowed to com­mit to the trans­at­lan­tic part­ners­hip. With small nuan­ces, they all call for a more cohe­si­ve and capa­ble Euro­pe. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, con­cre­te ans­wers as to how the­se objec­ti­ves can be achie­ved, remain scat­te­red and thin. 

Baerbock’s Nebulous Ideas

In their “Ger­ma­ny: Ever­ything is in” elec­tion mani­festo, the Greens reco­gni­ze the West’s sys­temic com­pe­ti­ti­on with Chi­na and Rus­sia, but at the same time they empha­si­ze that the this com­pe­ti­ti­on will often allow for a choice “bet­ween the fry­ing pan and the fire” only. The Greens ada­mant­ly call for a reform of the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, the man­da­te of which they con­si­der to be essen­ti­al for future Bun­des­wehr mis­si­ons abroad. But how such a reform could be imple­men­ted with, or rather against, the Secu­ri­ty Council’s per­ma­nent veto mem­bers Rus­sia and Chi­na is left com­ple­te­ly open. In gene­ral, “can­di­da­te for chan­cellor” Baer­bock wants a “tougher stance” toward Chi­na, but she has remai­ned silent about what this implies for Germany’s export-dri­ven eco­no­my or the exis­ting and plan­ned Chi­ne­se infra­st­ruc­tu­re pro­jects wit­hin the coun­try. Moreo­ver, it remains unclear how a pos­si­ble Green chan­cellor will miti­ga­te the natio­nal secu­ri­ty risks stem­ming from gro­wing Chi­ne­se poli­ti­cal and eco­no­mic influ­ence in Ger­ma­ny and in Europe.

The same is true for the rela­ti­ons­hip with Rus­sia. Baer­bock has spo­ken in favor of stop­ping the con­tro­ver­si­al Nord Stream 2 gas pipe­line pro­ject and exten­ding sanc­tions against Moscow. Howe­ver, con­si­de­ring the strong paci­fist camp in her own par­ty, the lead can­di­da­te has repeated­ly cal­led for the with­dra­wal of US nuclear wea­pons from Ger­ma­ny; descri­bed the NATO 2‑percent rule as »absurd«; and more recent­ly, tried to shi­ne with the sug­ges­ti­on to offer the Ame­ri­cans a cyber-defen­se cen­ter in Ger­ma­ny as a means of a fai­rer bur­den-sharing in NATO. See­min­gly, Baer­bock over­loo­ked the fact that a NATO Cyber Cent­re of Excel­lence has been coor­di­na­ting the alliance’s inter­nal cyber-defen­se efforts in Esto­nia for several years, and that a NATO Cyber Aca­de­my has only just been ope­ned in Portugal. 

More import­ant­ly, she igno­res the jus­ti­fied expec­ta­ti­ons of Germany’s allies to pro­vi­de NATO with three ope­ra­tio­nal divi­si­ons by 2032 and for NATO’s spear­head Very High Rea­di­ness Joint Task For­ce (VJTF) to be ful­ly equip­ped in 2023. Over­all, the state­ments made by the Greens so far are unli­kely to impress the lea­ders­hips in Moscow and Bei­jing; after all, one can con­fi­dent­ly assu­me that they are awa­re of the inter­nal par­ty dif­fe­ren­ces among the Greens and the con­si­derable Ger­man mili­ta­ry defi­ci­en­ci­es, in terms of com­bat rea­di­ness and deployability.

Laschet’s Lack of Coherence

In the case of Baerbock’s rivals for the chan­cellor­s­hip, one also loo­ks in vain for a new, cohe­rent approach to Rus­sia and Chi­na. Germany’s for­eign and secu­ri­ty poli­cy must be “all of a pie­ce”, says CDU lea­der and “can­di­da­te for chan­cellor” Armin Laschet. Deman­ding an “over­all natio­nal stra­te­gy” and the estab­lish­ment of a Natio­nal Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, he has made two pro­po­sals that have been around the Ger­man secu­ri­ty deba­te for years. With a view to Chi­na, the CDU/CSU can­di­da­te reco­gni­zes the stra­te­gic rival­ry with Chi­na in princip­le; at the same time, howe­ver, he finds it worthwhile to extend and nur­tu­re Germany’s eco­no­mic inter­de­pen­dence with Chi­na. In North Rhi­ne-West­pha­lia, the sta­te whe­re he is cur­r­ent­ly pre­mier, he seems to have made some inroads. The port of Duis­burg is alrea­dy part of the Chi­ne­se Belt and Road Initia­ti­ve (BRI). Con­cur­r­ent­ly the city’s uti­li­ties (Stadt­wer­ke) and Duis­burg-Essen Uni­ver­si­ty are working clo­se­ly with Hua­wei on the deve­lo­p­ment of a Smart City pro­ject. Laschet has not yet com­men­ted on the asso­cia­ted secu­ri­ty risks for Ger­ma­ny and the pos­si­bi­li­ties of poli­ti­cal influ­ence for China.

Neit­her has the CDU chief pro­po­sed anything new in dealing with Rus­sia. In essence, he advo­ca­tes for the main­ten­an­ce of the sta­tus quo. »I would not chan­ge anything in the Ger­man, Euro­pean Rus­sia poli­cy,« he said in a recent inter­view. This app­lies to the sanc­tions impo­sed in respon­se to Russia’s ille­gal occup­a­ti­on of Cri­mea, but also to the Nord Stream 2 pro­ject. He has rejec­ted con­cerns that the new pipe­line in the Bal­tic Sea could be used to black­mail Ukrai­ne as the pre­vious tran­sit coun­try for Rus­si­an gas. Ukraine’s ener­gy secu­ri­ty could »be secu­red in par­al­lel under inter­na­tio­nal law.« At least the CDU can­di­da­te has spo­ken out in favor of bet­ter equip­ping the Bun­des­wehr in the future and adhe­ring to NATO’s 2‑percent rule.

The SPD’s “Readiness for Dialogue”

In the elec­tion mani­festo of the Social Demo­crats, who picked Finan­ce Minis­ter Olaf Scholz as their can­di­da­te last year, the­re are a few more con­cre­te refe­ren­ces to the gro­wing ten­si­ons bet­ween the West and its rivals Rus­sia and Chi­na. China’s asser­ti­ve actions in Hong Kong and its incre­a­sing pres­su­re on Tai­wan are cri­ti­ci­zed, in addi­ti­on to high­ligh­t­ing China’s repres­si­on of the Uig­hur Mus­lims and broa­der human rights vio­la­ti­ons. From the SPD view­point, “Euro­pe must be rea­dy for dia­lo­gue with Chi­na on coope­ra­ti­on and com­pe­ti­ti­on, con­struc­tively and cri­ti­cal­ly.” What this could mean, howe­ver, remains elusive.

With regard to Rus­sia, the Social Demo­crats are lar­ge­ly sti­cking to their tra­di­tio­nal déten­te phi­lo­so­phy: »Des­pi­te all the necessa­ry cri­ti­cism, we are com­mit­ted to enga­ge in dia­lo­gue and coope­ra­ti­on with Rus­sia,« it says in their elec­tion mani­festo. Civil socie­ty con­ta­cts and visa faci­li­ta­ti­on for young peop­le should help. Alt­hough inter­per­so­nal con­ta­cts are always use­ful, the­se steps are unli­kely to detract the Krem­lin from its stra­te­gic ambi­ti­ons. The core messages of some lea­ding Social Demo­crats, which do not exact­ly pro­mo­te the much-tou­t­ed unity of the West, are also high­ly pro­ble­ma­tic. This app­lies, for examp­le, to the pre­mier of  Meck­len­burg-Wes­tern Pome­ra­nia, Manue­la Schwe­sig, who has accep­ted generous finan­cial aid from the Rus­si­an sta­te-owned com­pa­ny Gaz­prom to be able to con­ti­nue the con­struc­tion of Nord Stream 2, and her CDU coun­ter­part in Sax­o­ny, Micha­el Kret­schmer, who cor­di­al­ly invi­ted Pre­si­dent Putin to visit Dresden.

Understanding the Seriousness of the Challenge

The popu­lar say­ing that you can­not win elec­tions on for­eign and secu­ri­ty poli­cy issu­es is beco­m­ing less and less mea­ning­ful in a glo­ba­li­zed world. The­re is litt­le doubt that Rus­sia and Chi­na will put the West under grea­ter pres­su­re in the future, indi­vi­du­al­ly and collec­tively as a “stra­te­gic duo.” Our open and demo­cra­tic socie­ties offer several worthwhile tar­gets for them. In the years to come, the West will have no choice but to mana­ge a con­fron­ta­tio­nal rela­ti­ons­hip with Moscow and balan­ce the ten­si­on bet­ween stra­te­gic rival­ry and inter­de­pen­dence with Beijing. 

The core ele­ments of a long-term natio­nal stra­te­gy toward Rus­sia and Chi­na are obvious. They inclu­de an effec­ti­ve stra­te­gic fore­sight capa­ci­ty along with regu­lar exer­ci­ses; the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on of natio­nal secu­ri­ty risks, which result abo­ve all from China’s gro­wing eco­no­mic and tech­no­lo­gi­cal influ­ence in Ger­ma­ny; the con­sis­tent streng­t­he­ning of resi­li­en­ce in the are­as of cri­ti­cal and IT infra­st­ruc­tu­re; the tar­ge­ted moder­niz­a­ti­on of natio­nal mili­ta­ry capa­bi­li­ties; the credi­ble demons­tra­ti­on to actively defend our demo­cra­tic values and the rea­di­ness for dia­lo­gue and coope­ra­ti­on as long as it cor­re­sponds to Ger­man and Euro­pean interests. 

For Germany’s par­ty lea­ders ack­now­led­ging and under­stan­ding that Ger­ma­ny urgent­ly needs such a long-term stra­te­gy would be an important first step.

Ein Beitrag von:

Dr. Stefanie Babst

Senior Associate Fellow, European Leadership Network, London; Principal, Brooch Associates, London; Präsidiumsmitglied, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, Berlin

Studierte in Kiel von 1983-89 an der Christian-Albrechts Universität und nachfolgend der Pennsylvania State University/USA Politische Wissenschaft, Slawistik und Internationales Recht. 1993 promovierte sie mit Hilfe eines Stipendiums der Harvard University, der Friedrich Naumann Stiftung und der Fulbright Kommission an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel. Als erste weibliche Dozentin an der Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr in Hamburg, übernahm sie den Lehrstuhl für Russland- und Osteuropastudien. Nach verschiedenen Gastdozenturen in den USA, der Russischen Föderation, der Ukraine und Tschechischen Republik wechselte Stefanie Babst 1998 in den Internationalen Stab der NATO, wo sie zunächst als German Information Officer und Referatsleiterin arbeitet, bevor sie im Mai 2006 von NATO-Generalsekretär Jaap de Hoop Scheffer zur Stellvertretenden Beigeordneten Generalsekretärin für Public Diplomacy der NATO ernannt wurde. Damit wurde sie zur höchstrangigsten deutschen Frau im Internationalen Stab der NATO und prägte die Öffentlichkeits- und Medienpolitik der Allianz sehr nachhaltig. Unter NATO-Generalsekretär Anders Fogh Rasmussen baute Stefanie Babst, einen Krisenvorausschau- und strategischen Planungsstab für die NATO auf, den sie bis Januar 2020 auch leitete. Seit März 2020 arbeitet sie als strategische Beraterin und Publizistin und unterstützt mehrere multilaterale Projekte. Darüber hinaus ist sie Mitgründerin von Brooch Associates, einer von fünf renomierten Powerfrauen geleiteten strategischen Beratungsfirma mit Sitz in London.

Weitere Informationen erhalten Sie von:

Elisabet Tsirkinidou M.A.

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