By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Germany is a country that I have known well during the 10 years that I have lived there, in Berlin and in Bavaria. Despite the many remarkable virtues of its people, one characteristic deeply ingrained in the German collective psyche is one I cannot stand – schadenfreude.
Although not directly translatable into English, it is best thought of as “taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others”. For example, I remember taking a German train that was perpetually late and asking the off-duty conductor if he knew where I should go because my route had been changed. He scolded me, “Yes,” then went back to reading his newspaper. Exasperated, I asked him: “Are you going to tell me? He smirked and said, “No.”
I must admit that I feel very schadenfreude myself at the moment, when two decades of dark, arrogant and complacent politicians from the German political elite have come home from the war in Ukraine.
For literally 20 years I have pleaded with the Germans to stop profiting from American defense spending, wean themselves off their strategically dangerous reliance on Russian energy, and stop drifting into a mercantilist geostrategic position. , isolationist, even neutralist. Unbearably, I invariably encountered a German elite who blandly assured me that trade would steer Moscow away from revisionism in the international sphere, that war was an unthinkable anachronism in Europe, and that they – rather than simplistic Americans – knew better how to world really worked. To the legions of German policymakers who have said things along these disastrous lines, know that in any reasonably meritocratic society, you would be shown the door.
But despite all the understandable schadenfreude, I find myself in the strangest position: a defender of current German foreign policy. Where Ukrainians and many Western media denounce Germany’s strategic slowness, I see a very favorable geostrategic shift taking place – and at the speed of light. The Germans have done more strategically in the past two months than they did in the previous two decades.
First, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, shrewd Green Energy Minister Robert Habeck immediately sabotaged the massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This latest Russian-German energy link, the culmination of Angela Merkel’s disastrous geo-economic policy would have made Berlin dependent on Moscow for 70% of its natural gas.
Despite earlier calls from the United States, Eastern Europe and France to scrap the program (although Joe Biden quietly dropped the Trump administration’s vehement objections), Merkel had stubbornly refused to reconsider. Habeck, in German terms moving at quantum speed, ended this decade-long potential calamity, which would have left Europe’s most important country entirely at the mercy of Russia.
Second, under the new Scholz administration, a generation’s worth of free-riding on defense issues also came to an abrupt end. At the end of the Cold War, Germany did not hesitate to immediately cash in the so-called “peace dividend”, thus becoming lotus eaters. Worse still, in typically German and infuriating fashion, the country’s elite have constructed a holier-than-thou ideology as a cover for their short-sighted leave of history. War was unthinkable, trade was the way to convert would-be rivals into allies, and nationalism itself was an old-fashioned and dying way of thinking about the world. All of this, of course, was a convenient excuse for the Germans to do exactly what they wanted, and ignore the fact that all of the above was obvious nonsense.
In contrast, a hitherto conniving Scholz (he was finance minister in the last Merkel government) acted quickly – suddenly and dramatically agreeing to NATO terms of 2% of GDP spent on defense (in Germany, it is currently only 1.5%, and has often been even lower), and the creation of a separate €100 billion fund to update Berlin’s woefully outdated defense systems. Incredibly, it was estimated in the British newspaper The Times that an exhausted German army only has enough ammunition to fight for 3-4 days at a Ukrainian-style level. From the bottom of the barrel, Scholz has made it clear that his government intends to fix the criminal defense negligence of the Merkel years.
Last but not least, Germany has acquiesced to the EU’s application of vital energy sanctions against Russia, even if it will cost Berlin at least 1% of its GDP. Last week, European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen announced ambitious plans from Brussels to stop funding the Russian war machine. Since the start of the invasion, Russian oil imports from the EU have amounted to around 22 billion euros for the Kremlin. Europe is the biggest buyer of Russian crude, accounting for 53% of the country’s total exports, which are worth $104 billion a year. Van der Leyen has proposed a full EU embargo on Russian oil within just six months, and on all other petroleum products by the end of the year. It was only with unwavering German support that such a proposal would have been made.
So, however much I feel like shouting, “I told you so!”, here is German foreign and security policy waking up from its long hibernation – and not a moment too soon.
• John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a leading global political risk advisory firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the City of London newspaper. He can be contacted via johnhulsman.substack.com.