Making sense of Germany’s Ukraine policy
The German government has finally approved the transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine. This decision comes following weeks of intense and at times unhinged political pressure on Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his cabinet. NATO allies and the domestic foreign policy commentariat have lambasted the government’s reluctance as an illustration of cowardice, a bad national habit, or even worse, as a form of tacit support for Russia. Scholz’s timidity to commit one way or another fuelled the #FreetheLeopards movement on social media and vitriolic anti-German rhetoric across Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, German foreign policy has become the object of intense contestation domestically. How can we make sense of the direction of Germany’s Ukraine policy?
To make sense of the reluctance and the sudden shifts in German policy about arms for Ukraine, we need to pay attention to domestic politics. Germany is experiencing a period of political struggle over the operating logic and guiding principles of its foreign policy. This struggle is similar, I argue, to that experienced during the 1990s, known to history as the ‘out-of-area’ debate. When it comes to foreign policy, Germany is divided between two ideologically opposed factions aiming to shape the country’s foreign policy.
Moreover, as my research elaborates, the political process surrounding this question is highly vulnerable to the dynamics of rhetorical coercion. Olaf Scholz was compelled by political rivals to abandon his reluctance to providing tanks to Ukraine through a combination of effective issue framing aimed at the German public and naming-and-shaming that targeted both the Chancellor and his party, the Social Democrats (SPD). The deployment of these joint tactics left Scholz cornered and without any socially sustainable rebuttals to arming Ukraine.
Identity, ideology, and German grand strategy
The first of the opposing factions is formed of left-leaning social and political actors embracing anti-militarist values. They promote a grand strategy of ‘restraint’ and of acting only in multilateral formats. These people conceive of Germany as a country and nation that has learned its lessons from bloody twentieth-century history and has relinquished militaristic desires. Chancellor Scholz and significant parts – but not all – of his party, the SPD, can be placed in this camp. Driven by an anti-militaristic ideology and a pacifist understanding of Germany’s national identity, this left-leaning coalition has long been reluctant to engage internationally. Their guiding principle of restraint in foreign and security policy eschews German leadership in Europe or the world.
The second, rival, coalition comprises centrist and right-leaning social and political actors who embrace a more proactive role for Germany in the world. Their grand strategy of ‘engagement’ responds to perceived international expectations that Germany should lead in Europe. Most foreign policy think tanks and significant segments of the centre-right political spectrum are included in this group, which claims that Germany should not be stuck in the past. Driven by a technocratic ideology and an understanding that Germany’s economic and political might in Europe confers a responsibility to lead, this coalition is eager for Germany to overcome its historical reluctance and engage in solving salient challenges in Europe and beyond.
Interestingly, the domestic politics of German grand strategy is similar to the American debate but in reverse. In the United States, those pushing for engagement are controlling the levers of power in Washington (‘the blob’) while those advocating restraint are in the opposition. In Germany, the ‘restraint’ group is still controlling the country’s foreign policy, while those advocating a more ‘engaged’ Germany are pushing for change. As such, the current debate is less about the transfer of a few hundred tanks to Ukraine and more about what strategic principles should guide German foreign policy.
Building a new consensus?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine created a significant opportunity for changing Germany’s grand strategy in foreign affairs. Advocates of engagement can use each episode in the war – such as requests to provide German-made tanks – to force political rivals controlling the country’s foreign policy to shift course.
The war in Ukraine has been instrumentalised by both sides in this struggle over grand strategy, but it clearly favours those advocating for the principle of engagement. German think tanks and pro-engagement politicians draw on rhetorical coercion and moralistic language to force their rivals into accepting policy options that advance engagement. The vitriol against Olaf Scholz and his fellow Social Democrats’ policy choices should be read in the light of this domestic struggle over guiding principles. With each measure that Scholz’s cabinet is forced to adopt despite his private qualms, those advocating for a different operating logic for Germany’s foreign policy are advancing their cause.
How does this work? In open political systems like liberal democracies, as I propose in my dissertation research, a key mechanism of consensus-building is in fact rhetorical coercion. Political actors use rhetorical techniques and messaging to corner a political rival, who is left without socially sustainable rebuttals. I describe this as a process with three steps.
First, a consensus-seeking actor seeks to frame the foreign policy issue (such as tank transfers) in a way that enables its policy preferences and disables those of rivals, targeting the broad public. Second, if the consensus-seeking actor is successful and the public buys its framing of the issue, then this produces pressure on the rival actor. Third, the consensus-seeking actor simultaneously relies on name-and-shame strategies to force a change in the rival’s position on the issue. Faced with pressure from the public and harassment from political opponents, the rival political actor is forced into a trade-off between its policy principles (for example, anti-militarism) and its public respectability or office-seeking ambitions (maintaining electoral support). This process leads to an operational agreement, if not exactly harmonious consensus, as long as the rival actor is willing to concede on a policy position to maintain its reputation or, in the case of political parties, electability.
This process also plausibly explains what has been happening in Germany since late 2022. The rhetorical coercion of Scholz and the SPD comes from both the domestic political coalition advocating for a more engaged Germany and from its international partners. This involves criticism of inconsistency, mocking portraits, hints the governing coalition could collapse and strident calls for swift action and full engagement in support of Ukraine. Simultaneously, think tanks and foreign policy commentators have sought to shift public opinion by framing the situation on the Ukrainian front such that their policy preference of engagement seems the only logical choice. Scholz and the SPD have been incapable of taking control of the narrative, and therefore, public opinion – including significant segments of SPD voters – is leaning towards sending tanks to Ukraine. This contrasts to just a few months earlier, when a vast majority of Germans opposed sending German-made tanks to Ukraine. Despite holding the Chancellorship, Scholz’s inability to engage in compelling storytelling about the war in Ukraine that furthers his anti-militarist principles has left him unable to control the narrative about Germany’s engagement in support of Ukraine.
Trapped between harassment from political rivals and shifting public opinion, Olaf Scholz and the Social Democrats are being coerced into accepting a new consensus regarding Germany’s involvement in Ukraine. The next episode in this saga will likely be about the delivery of even more powerful weapons to Ukraine, potentially the transfer of fighter jets. Scholz has already rejected the idea, but if the German domestic faction advocating for engagement continues to dominate the media ecosystem, he will likely be rhetorically coerced into transferring the jets. Step by step, Germany is overcoming its historical reluctance to lead in Europe.
Marius Ghincea is a PhD Researcher at the EUI and a Research Fellow at the Hertie School (Berlin). His focus is on the domestic politics of foreign policy, especially in Germany and the United States. His doctoral dissertation investigates how cross-party consensus on foreign and security policy is manufactured through rhetorical entrapment.