Germany's Journey From Pacifism to Power | Opinion

What does it mean to have a moral—but not pacifist—foreign policy? It's a question that Germany is struggling with and one that shows some of the country's deepest divides.

With war raging in Ukraine, it's also a question that can't linger unanswered for long.

During the Cold War, Germany's allegiances were clearly marked along the lines of its east-west divide. Since reunification in 1990, Germany has focused on rebuilding itself economically, with the help of cheap Russian fuel. The idea was that sociological, ideological, and international differences could all be overcome by economic interactions.

For decades, the country clung to this path and a pacifist post-World War II identity, avoiding militarism, refusing to commit 2 percent of its GDP to meeting NATO standards, and steering clear of involvement in international conflicts. The Russia-Ukraine war changed all that. Three days after Russia's invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende—a turning point in German foreign policy.

Germany's Scholz Visits the White House
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz listens as he meets with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office on March 3. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

But Germany has failed to match the promise of his pronouncement. It has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russian energy and slow to send tanks to Ukraine. The government's wavering response reflects its still divided populace. According to a recent survey, Germans are about evenly split on the issue of sending tanks to Ukraine (46 percent for and 43 percent against). Moreover, this split follows the lines of its former east-west divide.

In eastern towns like Lubmin—the end point of the Nord Stream pipelines that have brought cheap gas into the country from Russia—partnership with the Kremlin created jobs, industry, and wealth. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, people here experienced the collapse of an entire system and ideology. Now, they prefer to pause and observe international mechanisms with a measured eye: Yes, Russia may no longer be a reliable partner, but the United States and Germany's interests are also no longer aligned.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh's recent claims that the U.S. was responsible for the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines have underlined this tension. Despite relying on only one anonymous source, his claims have garnered coverage by every major news outlet in Germany and been brought up in Germany's parliament, raising questions about how a powerful, sovereign nation should now act.

It is, indeed, time for a Zeitenwende,but what kind of Zeitenwende?Germany's past pacifism did not work; economic interactions did not solve its internal sociological divides or quell ideological and international conflicts. On the contrary, it was sometimes seen as a way of shirking international responsibility.

But where does that leave Germany, and how far is it willing to go to pursue a policy based less on realpolitik and more on values? Is Germany willing to continue experiencing the discomfort that has come with the disruption in Russian oil and gas supplies?

In the town of Lubmin, this tension is palpable. Until August last year, gas from Russia arrived here silently via Nord Stream 1. But today, shuttle ships carrying liquid natural gas (LNG) from the U.S. and Middle East sail into the port multiple times a day. The process creates a lot of noise and vibration, keeping residents in nearby Spandowerhagen awake at night. More importantly, the process is far less efficient than the previous arrangement, meaning higher energy bills for the rest of the country. So far, it's a price Germany has been willing to pay to stand in solidarity with the rest of the Europe and the U.S.

How long will that last?

This solidarity costs more than high prices and additional sweaters. A moral foreign policy simply isn't the same as adopting a U.S. stance. Germany's pacifist ideology was born out of the lessons of World War II and the millions of lives taken and lost. Acceding to U.S. pressure in sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine means abandoning dearly held and hard-learned values.

And there is also the question of whether NATO policy is truly in Germany's best interests. The fear of escalation is real, and if it happens, Germany, not the U.S., would be on the front line.

If all those concerns weren't enough, there is a fractured electorate, tinged with extremism and paranoia. The Reichsbürger movement, based on the conspiracy theory that Germany is not an independent state, is a growing threat to the country's democracy. It's not hard to see why people are latching on to the theory. Scenes like the one in which Scholz stood by while Biden promised to end the Nordstream 2 pipeline do make Germany seem like a U.S. lackey. Alongside this, the country's far-right movement is growing, fueled by economic dissatisfaction.

Lastly, for most Germans, from both east and west, the climate crisis consistently ranks as a top issue, and also a moral one. Any new Zeitenwende, will also need to keep that in consideration.

With all these elements in play, it is not surprising that Germany's foreign policy remains amorphous. But the Russian bear is knocking on the door and there is little time for the nation to decide what it wants to be on the world stage.

Madhvi Ramani is a writer and editor based in Berlin. She writes articles, essays, children's books, short stories, plays and screenplays.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.