The next Zeitenwende

Berlin think-tank calls for the Bundeswehr to switch from small-scale military operations around the world to a total focus – military and societal – on war with Russia. This aligns with US strategists’ ideas on fighting three parallel wars.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (own report) - Germany and Europe are on the brink of a second ‘Zeitenwende’ – another epochal turning point. At least this is a scenario predicted by the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in a recent study. The think-tank points out the likelihood of a significant reduction in US military activities in Europe after the US presidential election on 5 November – not only if Donald Trump wins but also if Joe Biden emerges victorious. When it comes to the crunch, Biden will, according to the SWP’s analysis, prioritise preparation for a war against China over Taiwan over any future support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. The authors argue that ‘the main task’ of German foreign and military policy should be to ‘secure’ the EU and the NATO states of Europe against Russia in the future. ‘All aspects’ of the ongoing arms build-up in Europe must be ‘geared to this objective’. Berlin should, therefore, step away from small-scale military missions all around the world. This policy recommendation dovetails with strategic deliberations in the US on the feasibility of waging three wars simultaneously: against Russia, against adversaries in the Middle East, and against China. The threat of such a military scenario could only be realised with the support of US allies and a massive arms build-up.

Two candidates, one direction

Following the upcoming presidential election in the United States, on 5 November this year, the countries of Europe ‘will be confronted with another Zeitenwende’, i.e. another epochal turning point, predicts the SWP think-tank in a recent study.[1] Joe Biden and Donald Trump are ‘two opposing schools of thought’ who ‘define the role of the US very differently with regard to American policy in and towards Europe’. Trump’s intention to scale back the United States’ military activities on the European continent is well known. However, this cannot hide the fact that the ‘geopolitical ... focus’ of the Biden administration is also ‘on the Indo-Pacific region’. The study says that ‘the current engagement in Europe’ is, for Biden, too, just an ‘exception’. ‘The social currents and cohesive forces in the United States are ‘pushing the foreign policy programmes of both candidates in the same direction’.

Trump and the ‘restrainers’

The Berlin-based think-tank characterises Donald Trump – despite some reservations – as having close proximity to a US foreign policy faction whose members are sometimes referred to as the ‘restrainers’. They are said to advocate ‘selective engagement by Washington in international politics’, which should be exclusively ‘geared to US national interests’. ‘Restrainers’ take the view that the US has had ‘in the past ... too many security policy commitments’ and should now ‘reduce’ them. They see the Ukraine war as a ‘peripheral war in the eastern edges of Europe’. It ‘does not affect America’s core strategic interests’ and therefore does not justify any significant active US involvement. On Ukraine, the ‘restrainers’ have been calling for a massive ‘burden shift ... away from the US and towards Europe’. This could, according to the analysis, ‘lead to a Europeanised NATO’, in which the United States would limit itself to acting as a kind of ‘logistics service provider of last resort’ and ‘guarantor of free shipping lanes and trade routes’.

Biden and the ‘primacists’

Joe Biden, for his part, is seen by the SWP’s analysts as being close to a ‘primacist’ school of thought. The ‘primacists’ insist on the United States striving to ‘maintain its geopolitical supremacy’ in international politics. The ‘foundation’ of ‘global supremacy’ remains ‘the country’s unrivalled military superiority’. However, the Biden administration is aware that this superiority has its limits. The US ‘cannot manage two wars – that of Russia against Ukraine and a potential one between China and Taiwan – at the same time’. It is clear that ‘when it comes to the crunch’ the US would ‘give precedence to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait’. Militarily, a ‘Biden administration 2.0’ would therefore ‘push for significantly greater burden-sharing’ in Europe, argues the study. Like the burden-shifting clearly expected from a new Trump administration, the Biden alternative would also require a significantly strengthened ‘European pillar of NATO’.

Everything moves towards the same goal

In both scenarios, the ‘main task’ of German foreign and military policy will be to ‘secure the EU and the European NATO members against an aggressive, revisionist Russia,’ write the SWP authors. From now on, ‘all aspects of planning for the Bundeswehr – financial, personnel, armaments and forces planning – should be geared towards this goal.’ The Bundeswehr budget would have to reach at least 75 to 80 billion euros a year from 2028 onwards. The study recalls that in 1963, for example, the German defence budget was as high as 4.9 per cent of GDP. This level of spending would, it notes, be unwelcome in today’s society. It could ‘probably only be achieved again as a reaction to a foreign policy shock.’ The military focus on a power struggle with Russia would require Germany to ‘refrain from international crisis management’ and, in future, from engaging in military operations around the world. The SWP paper explicitly rejects Bundeswehr participation in manoeuvres in the Asia-Pacific region: ‘isolated attempts to portray the Bundeswehr ... as a ‘provider of security’ in the Indian and Pacific Oceans could ‘not express a serious orientation of German security policy’.

‘Activate 900,000 reservists’

Indeed, the German government is already aligning its plans to the maxim of having all available resources focused on preparations for a possible war against Russia. It is goes further than ever before in this direction. Defence Minister Boris Pistorius is now calling for “us” to be “ready for war by 2029”.[2] In order to be ‘resilient and upgradeable’, the Bundeswehr needs, he says, “young men and women” in far greater numbers. He therefore sees a new form of compulsory military service as essential. Moreover, early last week there were calls to make it easier to mobilise former Bundeswehr soldiers. This would necessitate steps to “collect registration data again and then determine the state of health” of potential reservists, said the chair of the Bundeswehr reservists’ association, Patrick Sensburg (CDU).[3] The outgoing chair of the Bundestag Defence Committee, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP), has called for the mobilisation of the “approximately 900,000” former soldiers “that we have in Germany”. Germany must, she has said, “become defence-capable as quickly as possible.”[4]

Three wars at the same time

The greatest possible mobilisation of resources for a possible war against Russia is beneficial for the scenarios being developed by US strategists. They do not rule out the possibility of Washington fighting not two but three wars simultaneously in the foreseeable future. The United States is already involved in two wars, namely the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza. And ‘a third’ military conflict is already looming on the horizon, this time against China over Taiwan,[5] says a recent online article in Foreign Affairs, the leading American foreign policy journal. Its author goes on to write that it is now proving detrimental to US hegemony that official statements came out of Washington during President Barack Obama’s term of office to the effect that the US – given its limited military capabilities despite immense strength – would, in future, no longer be able to fight two major wars simultaneously. This analysis claims that the US global position has been weakened by moves in recent years to deprioritise Europe and pull back from the Middle East in an effort to focus forces on China. Such a scenario in which the US may be waging as many as three wars at the same time makes it a matter of urgency for US policy to harness the growing military potential of its allies. With all the resources in Germany and Europe being directed at a possible war against Russia, the US will have its back free for attacking China and maintaining its forces in the Middle East. This European reorientation literally facilitates a third world war.


[1] Citations here and below taken from: Markus Kaim, Ronja Kempin: Die Neuvermessung der amerikanisch-europäischen Sicherheitsbeziehungen. Von Zeitenwende zu Zeitenwende. SWP-Studie 2024/S 15. Berlin, 21.05.2024.

[2] Boris Pistorius: Wir müssen bis 2029 kriegstüchtig sein. 05.06.2024.

[3] Reservisten sollen auf Einsetzbarkeit geprüft werden. 03.06.2024.

[4] Strack-Zimmermann fordert Aktivierung von 900.000 Reservisten in Deutschland. 01.06.2024.

[5] Thomas G. Mahnken: A Three-Theater Defense Strategy. 05.06.2024.