10. März 2022

From the ashes of wishful thinking: Living up to the new world of power politics

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made one thing clear: power politics is back on the table. Unfortunately, we seem unprepared for it. The commitment to peaceful means, wishful thinking, and institutional complacency have made the German public largely ignorant to strategic considerations. That needs to change.

A comment by Christoph M. Abels, Maximilian Schranner, Cara Thielen, David Weyl


It is a surreal moment in history – on Sunday the 27.02, within a single speech, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wiped decades of foreign policy principles off the table. After trying to tread a fine line between economic incentives and moral necessities, the German government fully committed itself to defending democracy in Ukraine. 

While the German government acknowledged that standing up for its values sometimes means accepting the rules of power politics (including hard-power through military force), the post-Cold War generation, understood here as those born around 1989 and afterwards, might still need time to adjust to the new reality. This is problematic given that democracy is increasingly contested globally, demanding the West to act in defence of its values. We subsequently focus on the problems that emerged within this generation, to which we count ourselves, and not their origins.


Sleepwalking: strategic thinking nowhere to be found

Last year, Ulrike Franke pointed out the lack of strategic thinking among millennials. The absence of major conflict in Europe, Germany’s embeddedness in the international community – metaphorically and literally – as well as the protective security umbrella under the United States provided an environment in which strategic thinking, seen as the planful long-time pursuit of goals through various means including military force, was unnecessary. At least it was perceived as such. 

This indifference towards strategic necessities is hardly surprising. Thomas Bagger, foreign policy advisor to Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, saw this as a consequence of Germany’s reality after 1989. In 2018 already, he observed that the end of history, proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama, was especially attractive to a reunified Germany as it finally found itself on the right side of  history again. German millennials did not even have to choose – as the clash of ideas seemed to be largely settled in favour of liberal democracy, there was no need to develop an understanding of how to protect and strengthen democracy from a strategic point of view. This is certainly true for other countries as well.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was not short on crises, neither politically nor militarily. Yet, while some countries, especially China and Russia, employed military power as a manifestation of strategic considerations, other means fitted more comfortably into Germany’s foreign policy approach. International law and diplomacy seemed very German in this respect: orderly, predictable, and (more or less) based on a shared agreement of governments. A set of rules that governs the conduct between states, negotiated in good faith, certainly was the preferred framework in which many German minds could fearlessly find themselves. Without the will to mirror other nations’ reliances on strategy and power, Germany never really developed a mindset that recognised these resources as a necessity for successful foreign policy. 

However, given Germany’s historic responsibility after the Second World War and the founding of both German states in 1949, this passive approach to foreign policy is deep-rooted in German society and institutions, making honest and substantial rethinking difficult. Various issues come to mind. The German press does not prioritise coverage of foreign affairs, given an apparent lack of demand, and can therefore not be regarded as a conveyor of a strategic mindset for the general public. At the same time, strategic and security studies are barely enacted in university curricula. A lot more than just defence spending therefore remains to be addressed to change Germany’s collective perception of and willingness to employ power politics.


Wake-up call: The end of the Western model?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows the limits of Western, or, more precisely, EU foreign policy thinking and making. The bloc largely relies on soft power – an approach based on convincing or persuading other governments to follow by attraction – and positive incentives rather than punishments. Although several member states do have a respectable military force, Europe’s defence relies almost solely on NATO, thus the US’ commitments. 

Germany has not been able to contribute in a meaningful way. European security issues concerning its military and overseas deployments are not embedded in German society. Hence, most citizens apparently overlook the connection to their individual lives. Similar domestic centred developments can be seen in the US.

While soft power lies at the heart of EU foreign policy, the current crisis shows the flaws of this approach with a classic scenario of game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma: Once a foreign government pursues its own agenda with military means, the reliance on soft power substantially limits the room to manoeuvre. Beyond that, as the Russian government has shown, the reliance on diplomatic means can be exploited by those acting in bad faith – the repeated promises of Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops and avoid further escalation turned out to be lies, potentially undermining future attempts to employ diplomatic deescalation. But diplomatic dialogue can only be a feasible option, if there is a theoretic alternative option to fall back on. Deterrence was neglected and seen as a different strategic way, as if it was a binary choice. 

It seems as if maintaining security and Western values through economic interdependence does not seem to work anymore, facing Russia, or China. Certain strategic production industries are gradually decoupled between different continents (e.g. health goods during the Covid-19 pandemic). The European Chips Act, addressing semiconductors, is another step towards the resurrection of the concept of strategic autonomy. 

With the EU’s current state as a lame duck in the military realm, it seems possible that China will exploit the current situation and take Taiwan by force. Military exercises in the South China Sea have already been announced. Thus, the EU needs to become more aware of the complex power dynamics in Asia, and especially between China and Russia – historically and at present, the relationship between those two main systemic competitors has been a contentious one. 

To counteract China’s influence, Russia forces relations with India and Taiwan. As a result of this, India voted in favour of Russia within the UN during this Ukrainian war. The EU needs to become aware that to counteract Russia and defend its own regional security interests, further engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is needed. In this sense, European security will also be defended in Asia, by economic as well as geostrategic means. 


Shake it off: How to overcome wishful thinking

On February 24th, Europe felt surprised and overwhelmed by this new world of great power competition. Like in the weeks before, no purposeful policy response had been prepared. If Europe wants to retain the capacity to act and stop just being pushed around, this “Zeitenwende” has to be implemented resolutely, beyond achieving just a minimum of strategic awareness

In all matters of policy, that requires aims, means, knowledge of your environment, and some imagination about possible futures. Of course, there has to be transparency with regard to the means. If ships don’t sail and guns don’t shoot, larger investments will be required. Moreover, as the governing traffic light coalition said on February 27th, the public debate has to focus on which means we should employ.

But that is not enough. Education, expert knowledge on areas, and strategic foresight are necessary to know what is happening around us, and to shed some light on the uncertainties of the future. Awareness of basic foreign and security policy principles as well as the ability to imagine future world(s) – desirable or to avoid – must be set up and deepend in parties, ministries as well as among the broader public. Most importantly, there has to be more clarity about goal-setting. 

In Germany especially, one has to find a balance between hard (economic) interests and moral claims. Without clearly defined goals, wishful thinking about the future will endure, and situations like the Russia-Ukraine crisis right now or the Afghanistan disaster will occur again and again. This should by no means lead to a militarisation of politics. However, our analysis should take into account that other actors might pursue different ends with more violent means. Strategic thinking does not equal following such goals. But it acknowledges that we have to consider those opposing strategies while protecting our values, while pursuing soft power tactics. 

Ultimately, in democracies, realistic and strategic policies can only be developed and implemented in communication with and legitimised by the population. Think tanks and other institutions have been demanding strategic thinking and policy making in foreign and security politics as well as policy for years now. The basis for their implementation has to be derived from a strategic consciousness of the electorate. Developing such consciousness is not a process to be finalised in the coming weeks or based on ad hoc reactions from the memorable Bundestag session. 

It will require education, knowledge, and debates on multiple levels. But it also entails addressing painful truths transparently and with foresight, not only after they become unalterable reality. Debates around the military and global security issues need to be normalised. If citizens cannot relate to their country’s military or its foreign policy, these fields will hardly ever be properly democratised. 

A greater understanding of long-term goals is further useful to see individual policies in a larger context, e.g. a strategic transformation reaching from security policy to the ‘Energiewende,’ as outlined by Christian Lindner and Robert Habeck. Especially, in younger generations, raising awareness of present and future strategic threats and challenges is needed to contribute to sound strategic policy making.


Time is due and we need to prepare

The EU has two more years until the next presidential elections in the US to formulate an independent foreign policy and military strategy. If Donald Trump gets reelected, the EU cannot rely on the US anymore. The Economist’s columnist Charlemagne described Europe as “a free-rider continent.” Rightly so. As the bloc’s largest economy, Germany needs to stand up for its values and join its partners in levelling the EU to the new reality of resurfacing power politics – after decades of protection from the US, the EU and Europe more generally. 

The financial commitments announced through German Chancellor Scholz‘ „Zeitenwende“ speech should not lull us back into sleep – the sheer will to invest 100 billion euro into the military and subsequently spend more than 2 percent of GDP on security is not enough to address today’s challenges. Unlike what former US President Barack Obama tried to do with Russia, climate change, soaring inequality and societal polarisation can not be sidelined while we address other traditional security issues. All these issues require us to stop wishful dreaming and start strategic thinking.

One may discuss whether it is preferable to adopt strategic thinking in the first place; however, we are no longer in the position to decide on that question for now. The current situation inevitably pushes for a transparent evaluation and discussion of our goals, means, and our (future) environments. It is time to see this Zeitenwende as an opportunity and avoid the romantic and inconsistent approach to global challenges that were adopted after 1989, which German society and governments applied for too many years. Future generations might learn from our mistakes.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash 



Christoph co-heads the Digital Transformation & Cyber Security programme at Polis180. He is a doctoral researcher at the Hertie School in Berlin, focusing on misinformation. He holds degrees in psychology and public policy.

Maximilian is a PhD-Student at the Center for Advanced, Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (CASSIS) at the University of Bonn. He explores the relationship between epidemics and armed conflict, and the concept and implementation of Strategic Foresight. At Polis180, he heads the Regional Group Rhineland.

Cara heads the programme Peace & Conflict at Polis180. She studies Asian- and Africa studies at the Humboldt University Berlin and has an undergraduate degree of sociology, politics and economics from Zeppelin University.

David is active at the programme connectingAsia at Polis180. He is a part of its current board. He studies Economics in Berlin at the Humboldt University and in Maastricht. His main interest is the political power play between Europe and Asia.


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