Money, power, turf: German government fights over security strategy

BERLIN — Germany’s first National Security Strategy was supposed to create a more united foreign policy. So far it has mainly sparked bickering and turf wars among the coalition partners.

About a year after Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the Zeitwende sea change in German foreign and security policy, his government had planned to present the ambitious strategy at the Munich Security Conference in the Bavarian capital this month. Yet that plan is now all but dead as the ruling coalition of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) can’t agree on the fine print of the document.

At the heart of the debate is a fierce spat between Scholz and the Greens’ Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock over who should set the tone on German foreign policy.

Both politicians have repeatedly clashed during the first 13 months of the new German government over issues such as weapons deliveries for Ukraine and the right approach toward China, but now their spat is tearing at a crucial institutional question: Where should a key component of the security strategy — a new committee to streamline the foreign and security policy decisions of different German ministries, dubbed the National Security Council — take its seat?

For Scholz and his SPD, the answer is straightforward: “The National Security Council can only be situated in the chancellery, and that should be clear to everyone,” Social Democrat Michael Roth, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, told POLITICO.

Baerbock and her Green party, however, are pushing back fiercely. They see a power grab by the chancellery, which already took over crucial decision-making power, for example on EU policies, under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Although senior Greens admit that Scholz’s office will have to play an important role in the planned security council, they want to avoid an SPD plan to establish the council as a whole new department in the chancellery, with a larger staff base and led by the chancellor’s powerful right-hand man, Wolfgang Schmidt.

“The SPD wants to establish a shadow foreign ministry within the chancellery. That won’t happen with us,” the Greens’ foreign policy spokesperson Jürgen Trittin told POLITICO.

The Greens have instead proposed to build up the security council in a slimmer format, with just a small secretariat and an alternating leadership structure that would rotate between the chancellery and key ministries such as foreign affairs, defense or interior. However, several negotiation rounds over recent weeks between high-level officials — and also Scholz and Baerbock directly — have so far failed to yield a compromise.

The disagreement is also delaying a much anticipated China strategy, which is supposed to follow the National Security Strategy but is also plagued by disagreements among the ruling parties. Both strategies are supposed to be publicly available once agreed upon.

Hard power versus soft power
The third coalition partner, the FDP, is already calling on Social Democrats and Greens to come to a swift agreement in their turf war. “We must take a decisive step toward better coordination of our foreign policy,” the FDP’s foreign policy spokesperson Alexander Graf Lambsdorff told POLITICO. “We should not lose ourselves in jealousies, but decide courageously.”

However, even if an agreement on the security council leadership can be reached, there are other contentious issues that are holding up the approval of the broader National Security Strategy.

One key issue is Germany’s military spending: While the SPD wants to enshrine the NATO goal of spending at least 2 percent of national economic output in the strategy, Baerbock and her Greens want to create more flexibility as defense spending may vary over the years. That approach is also driven by the realization that Germany is on track to miss the 2 percent goal this year and next year, despite a massive €100 billion special fund for military armament, while officials are hopeful that Berlin will spend above 2 percent in the following years.

The SPD’s Roth, however, stressed that it was “important to set a clear goal” on defense spending in the security strategy.

Yet even more fiercely debated is the demand by the Greens to also raise spending for soft power measures — such as development and humanitarian aid, crisis prevention, and diplomatic and cultural engagement — on a similar scale as the defense budget. Merle Spellerberg, a Green foreign and security policy lawmaker, argued that the ruling parties had already agreed in their coalition treaty that such civil expenses “should grow on a 1:1 scale compared with the increase in defense spending.”

Trittin, the Greens’ foreign policy spokesperson, also insisted on this issue: “For us Greens, this is a key point that constitutes an integrated security strategy.”

Such a joint increase of defense and civil foreign policy spending is, however, problematic for the FDP and its Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who has vowed to rein in public spending and respect Germany’s constitutionally enshrined debt brake. The FDP’s Lambsdorff said that while defense spending must be lifted to 2 percent of GDP, the civil spending should only be half, with “0.7 percent for development and 0.3 percent for diplomacy.”

Disaster management
Last but not least, there’s a clash between the federal government and Germany’s 16 regional states on interior-security issues, particularly when it comes to who should have the competency over disaster management and prevention.

“The interior ministers of our states should have been able to contribute more actively,” said Katja Leikert, a lawmaker from the main opposition party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

A government spokesperson said last week that consultations on the National Security Strategy “are still ongoing and will continue,” and sought to play down the infighting of the coalition partners, particularly between Scholz and Baerbock. “We work together closely and in a spirit of trust in the federal government,” the spokesperson said, adding that the National Security Strategy should be finalized before the end of March.

Meanwhile, the next conflict is already looming over the ensuing China strategy, with some involved in the drafting process saying that the chancellery is trying to water down the draft strategy by the foreign ministry out of concern to name the risks and problems emerging from Beijing all too openly.

Yet there’s also something positive to the debate, argued the SPD’s Roth. “I’m glad that we’re finally debating foreign and security policy in depth — until now, that was more the case in Germany with labor-market or social policy,” he said.

“Now politics and society are very intensively dealing with this topic. This sometimes leads to disputes and controversies on the substance,” Roth continued. “That’s a good thing. I am confident that we will find a reasonable solution.”