Germany needs to “normalise” its relationship with the military and learn to take a leadership role in Europe after “almost 80 years of restraint”, the co-leader of the governing Social Democratic party (SPD) has said.
In a speech marking a further point in Berlin’s slow pivot from a broadly pacifist foreign policy agenda since Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine, Lars Klingbeil said it was important to recognise military force as a legitimate political measure for a government striving for peace.
“It is the last measure, but it has to be clear that it is a measure,” the centre-left politician told a security congress in Berlin on Tuesday. “We are currently seeing that in Ukraine.”
“My wish is that we as a society develop a new normality in our dealings with the Bundeswehr.”
Germany’s pacifist foreign policy instincts, coupled with a history of expanding economic ties with Russia, have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, both domestically and among the country’s Nato allies.
Germany phased out compulsory military service in 2011 and the country’s defence expenditure per GDP, though rising over the last four years, remains below the EU average and below Nato’s 2% spending target. The SPD and its Green party junior coalition partners campaigned for unilateral nuclear disarmament as recently as last year’s federal election.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz surprised many of his own allies when he announced a U-turn on defence spending and Germany’s restrictive stance on exporting lethal weapons on 27 February, but he has faced criticism for failing to follow up words with actions.
Ukraine said on Tuesday that it had “finally” deployed an advanced German artillery system in the latest delivery of the long-range weapons it has been calling for. “Panzerhaubitze 2000 are finally part of 155mm howitzer arsenal of the Ukrainian artillery,” defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote on social media, thanking his German counterpart Christine Lambrecht.
In his speech on Tuesday, Social Democrat co-leader Klingbeil said Germany’s newly boosted defence budget would not only mean its army would eventually grow to become the largest in Europe, but that the country needed to learn to become a “leading power” – a term long considered a taboo among German politicians for fear of evoking ghosts of an aggressive past that would alienate its neighbours.
“Germany needs to hold itself to the standard of a leading power,” Klingbeil said. “After almost 80 years of restraint, Germany has a new role in the international system. Over the last decades, Germany has earned itself a great amount of trust. With this trust come expectations. […] We should meet these expectations.”
Since the start of the Ukraine war, some SPD politicians have come across as more hurt by the criticism of its Ostpolitik towards Russia than willing to reflect on their mistakes. Talking to international press ahead of Tuesday’s security summit, the former president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, merely said his party had been “badly advised” in its expanding reliance on Russian energy.
Klingbeil’s speech signalled more willingness to rake over the past, conceding that German politicians had too often dismissed the security fears of Russia’s neighbours. “If we hear from the Baltic states or Poland that they are scared of becoming Russia’s next targets, we have to take them seriously,” he said.
For too long, Klingbeil said, Germany had “made itself too comfortable in the world”. “We should have seen the signals from Russia differently. At least with an annexation of Crimea that was contrary to international law.”
The 44-year-old politician, once a protege of the disgraced ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, said one lesson of Germany having allowed itself to become too reliant on Russian gas was that “Europe has to expand its strategic autonomy”.
“With view to China, for example, that means reducing dependencies in medicine or technology,” he added. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do any trade with China whatsoever, as some are calling for – but it means we should create a strategically wise and resilient set-up.”