Why is the War on Ukraine Decisive for the Future of the West? With Metin Hakverdi

April 5, 2022

Metin Hakverdi, Member of the German Bundestag, discusses the global implications of the German “Zeitwende”, or paradigm shift, in its foreign and security policy after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on International Horizons.

Metin Hakverdi, wearing a red sweater, appears to the left and a faded black and white image of the German Bundestag and a destroyed building in Ukraine appear on the right

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany has recently changed decisively its traditional post World War Two foreign and defense policy. In particular, it has agreed to substantially raise its military spending, as well as to give substantial weaponry to the Ukrainians to assist them to defend themselves. Recently installed, Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it “Zeitenwende," a “watershed” or perhaps more literally an “epochal transformation.”

Metin Hakverdi, Member of the German Bundestag from the Social Democratic Party, talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the global implications of the German defense budget increase, the revival of WW2 memories in the psyche of Germans witnessing the war in Ukraine, the role of the West as a bloc, and how the Western response to the Ukraine war is decisive for the liberal order.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:15

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany has recently changed decisively its traditional post World War Two foreign and defense policy. In particular, it has agreed to substantially raise its military spending, as well as to give substantial weaponry to the Ukrainians to assist them to defend themselves. Recently installed, Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it “Zeitenwende," a “watershed” or perhaps more literally an “epochal transformation.” It's been noted that this watershed development has also taken place with three women in the top security and defense jobs in the new German government: at defense Christine Lambrecht, minister of foreign affairs Annalena Baerbock, and interior affairs Minister Faeser.

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Metin Hakverdi, a Social Democratic member of the German Bundestag since 2013. He serves on the budget committee and the committee on European Union affairs. He's a lawyer who studied at both Indiana University here in the US, and Christian-Albrecht University in Kiel. Before attending university, he also went to high school in Simi Valley, California, so of course, he knows the United States very well. Thanks for joining us today, Metin Hakverdi.

Metin Hakverdi  01:53

Hi, John. Great to be here.

John Torpey  01:56

Great to have you with us. So as I noted in the introduction, and as many of our listeners know, Germany has undergone a striking transformation in its defense and foreign policy in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, this so-called "Zeitenwende." Can you explain what happened and why it's so significant?

Metin Hakverdi  02:16

On Thursday, February 24, the Russian forces attacked Ukraine weeks before this big military muscle up was performed. So it was a public situation. So everybody was talking about the situation; the Munich Security Conference took place just the weekend before the attack. So the situation was really tense and being debated how to react on it. So before the attack, there was a public debate, also in Germany, about sanctions about weapon delivery already. And the German government was not delivering weapons before the attack on Thursday, the 24th of February, while other governments as United States and the United Kingdom did so.  So then (how should I say this) then it happened. Then the real bad thing, and this is your occasion of today, the catastrophe happened, because it is a catastrophe for what happens in Ukraine up to today. The attack happened and that changed a lot within the government, but also within the German society as in reaction to that attack.

And this on a short term notice was the Sunday after the attack, that was February 27, was a special session of the German Bundestag, where Olaf Scholz held his "Regierungsansprache." It's not a State of the Union, but it's a special occasion speech where he announced this program of five points. We'll probably we get into details on those five, which were all very much a change in our foreign policy and security policy that we are as Germans traditionally focused on and bind to, but also for Social Democrats particularly. And don't forget, John, we had a special situation before this military buildup, before the attack, by just having a new government with a Social Democrat as chancellor, and with this three party coalition that so-called "traffic light" coalition of the Green Party, the Liberals and us, Social Democrats. So this all culminated in this one week of the attack itself, decision making, announcing it also publicly.

John Torpey  04:40

Right. So I mean, you've made a couple of points that I want to follow up on. One is, again, this sort of significance of this "Zeitenwende," this transformation of Germany's defense and foreign policy posture. It really is a sea change from the long time pacifistic leanings, shall we say, of the postwar Federal Republic. I mean, at least since the joining NATO and rearmament. You know, on the whole Germany has been seen as a kind of questionable partner for some of these things, certainly by elements of the United States foreign policy, bureaucracy and establishment.

So, one question here is really, what do the German people think? I mean, Schultz announced this somewhat out of the blue, I don't think there has been or there was no real preparation of the public for a shift of this kind. What was the sort of significance of this shift, you know, in terms of the history of the Federal Republic since World War Two, and the extent to which the public is really behind this or are on board for it?

Metin Hakverdi  05:58

John, just to be real frank on this one, this process has not ended yet. It is a long term development within German society, within the center-left parties generally, but also, of course, for the Social Democrats after World War Two. It is just a special focus point, but the process is not finished now. I would argue it just started. So others would describe it as a reality check. Because such a bad thing happened on the eastern borders of the European Union that Germany just couldn't afford any more this position of the old times after World War Two, as you describe it. I don't think it's either one or the other. I think it's a process. I think it's a process; we've described this process probably, you know (I know, you know) as a growing up of Germany, becoming a mature player of international affairs. So there are occasions in growing up where you grow up a little faster than the other weeks and years of your childhood and when you are a young adult. 

So this week, the last week of February was one where Germany was growing and was getting older a lot faster than the years before. So there is still of course, an old, pacifistic route within German society, of course. There's still a, I would say, ideology of pulling out of conflict, because of our history. And there are still all the anti-Cold War reflections on "If we go into a conflict, if we try actively to do something, we provoke an arms race, a polarization." And that's all there still, but there is a development in the general population, also in the Social Democratic Party, but also in other parts of society, that this idea, I would say, a more passive idea. I'm not saying pacifistic but a passive idea of policymaking is just not up to the challenge of our time. And we had this debate before. But obviously, there was a good [opportunity] in 2014 when Crimea got attacked, he could have asked all those questions already. Why would you continue on Nordstream 2 after the attack on Crimea on 2014? So there have been steps before, which culminated in this one moment attacking Ukraine, where the turning point was of "no, we have to get active."

And if you look at all those five points in the speech, before we come to this 1 billion Euro military spending budget, look at the other five points. The one is the economic the energy economic issue, to get independent in the future of energy deliveries from Russia, being more independent by not only from importing energy, but also producing energy in a more ecological way, as it was the idea before the attack but speeding that up. It is the idea of protecting the Eastern flank of NATO: protecting Poland, protecting the Baltic states, protecting Romania and others very actively with more troops.  It is the sanction regime of putting pressure, and those sanctions - maybe Americans are not aware of how tough the sanctions on Russia at this point? There's never been a case, even the Iranian case, there has never been a case of international sanctioning to put so severe sanctions on a nation that what we've done now, and with the consensus of Germany to do so. And then there's, of course, a fourth part, which also was disputed before this attack, and it is the support of the state of Ukraine itself by weapon delivery. So those are the four points. And then we come to what probably most American friends would regard as "zeitenwende," is that we're having a "zondafmud" special budget plan is to spend 100 billion Euros on defense. But that's just one part of the five.  You have to see the whole picture of realizing that the new world has already started before. But now we see that we have to catch up in dealing with that. And it is a process.

I can give you a report on talking to older Germans, older Germans that were either born before '45, or just right after, with the special point of German identity of the end of World War Two. And this "nie wieder" (never again) principle. It's important what they think and what they feel if you want to describe this change in German society. It's not that young people, younger folks, maybe are a little more easy on this one. But this generation that grew up without a war, but that were around with their parents basically being dominated by the experiences of the war and what happened before. And this generation of Germans, they were reminded by the pictures of Mariupol, by the pictures of Kharkiv, of what happened in World War Two. And for them, this pacifistic answer a lot of people gave before the last 60 or 70 years, they had a really, I would say sound feeling -it's a feeling it's an emotional thing- that this answer is not sufficient enough. If you see what happens to Ukrainian cities, and don't forget, John, an important issue is also the refugees. If you hang out at the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin, today, you will see at least 10, if not 11,000 refugees from Ukraine. Not in the capital, just the Hauptbahnhof, just one train station arriving there per day. So we see the results of this war. And this all combined made this big change, which Olaf Scholz managed to put in this one speech.

John Torpey  12:38

Yes. Well, I mean, I think what you've described is what we nowadays call "a wake up call". And obviously, this was a wake up call for a whole generation, two generations of Germans who lived with the legacy of World War Two and the lesson from that was, "nie wieder krieg"  (no war ever again) essentially. But as you say, that posture has been criticized for a long time in the past, not just with regard to the Germans, but also with regard to Europeans more generally, that they've been able to enjoy the security of the United States, and to put their money into butter rather than guns and these kinds of things.

Metin Hakverdi  13:23

A social welfare system! A very comprehensive welfare system.

John Torpey  13:26

Yeah, these kinds of controversies. But I think it's been a wake up call for the Germans, but you could also say that it's kind of the end of "the End of History", right? I mean, that we've also seen a kind of wake up call for the West, and a lot of people have been struck by the degree to which the West -the West in the form at least of NATO- has pulled together and seen this as a kind of common and galvanizing challenge. I mean, do you see that happening?

Metin Hakverdi  13:59

I'm not sure whether I understood your question, galvanizing for the West itself?

John Torpey  14:03

For the West itself. I mean, in other words, when I refer to Francis Fukuyama's famous essay and book on The End of History, which was soon challenged by Samuel Huntington's notion of The Clash of Civilizations. And, I think the galvanization through the Ukraine war of the West is also leading to suggestions that there's a kind of that Huntington's time, if it hasn't been before, it's arrived now, in a certain sense. And that there's this kind of global faceoff between democracy and autocracy or authoritarianism or something like that. And, of course, China is obviously a big part of this part of the discussion. So I just wonder how you read that, do you think that's really what's going on?

Metin Hakverdi  14:55

Okay, that's a big policy question. Right now, there is obviously a standing together, you say galvanisation of the West. And I have to think about when was the last time we that the West was that united. Probably in the first Iraqi war when Kuwait was invaded, and this big UN effort to free Kuwait, maybe that one. I don't know whether - but the West at this point, if you look how NATO reacted, if you look at - we have our issues with Poland, within the European Union, as you as you know. So we had no issues with refugees in 2015, 2016, within the European Union. We had our issues with the energy policy of importing so much gas. And by the way, it's not just Germany, it is also other countries like Portugal, Italy, and others. So we had all those issues before, where you say galvanisation, I would say were compromising was very complex, like always in the European Union. And then you know what, Brexit happened also; that's not a real good prerequisite for dealing with a big crisis. And of course, having Donald Trump as US president doesn't really help to build up trust for the "End of Time" on both sides of the Atlantic. 

So in spite of all these issues, the answer was impressive, I believe, for everybody in Moscow, but also very impressive for the government in Beijing, obviously. Because I'm surprised by the reaction of the West. So they are probably even more surprised. Whether this will be a new, I would say, tool in this time after the end of history, as you describe it, I don't know, let's see how this works out. As long as the attack is continuing in Ukraine, I'm pretty convinced that what we call West will be sticking together. At this point, it's more than the West. At this point. If you look at the United Nations, if you look at the global community, it's more than just the West.  But if it turns out to be a situation where on one side, liberal open societies are defending each other, and on the other side, authoritarian regimes try to accomplish something, well, at least me, I'm having problems describing it. If it's just an imperialistic attitude, if it's just an historic goal that Mr. Putin just tries to put in reality, whether it is a psychological disposition, I don't understand. But doing bad things by attacking big countries and killing other people and letting all those people flee and destroying cities, then it could be a good moment for us, the West, to ask ourselves, "okay, why are we the West? Why are we different? And what are our standards? And do we have a vision? Do we have a goal in the future, which is more than just reacting on those bad guys?" 

But maybe we're having an issue. Militaries would say, "should we put the pressure points on the others and not reacting?" But I don't want to share that nomenclature at this point. But thinking of what we are, what we can do and what we want for the future. And obviously those questions are immediately asked about the future of Ukraine, obviously. But there are other countries as well: think of Georgia, think of Moldova, think of a lot of countries on the African continent. Think of this global competition between China and the US about, I would say, third countries and the competition about pulling them into your own system. What is it that we have to offer? What does the West have to offer a not so well doing economy on the African continent? So is there anything but just making money for our companies? And that's a good time to ask those questions, I believe.

John Torpey  19:29

I think that's right. And, you know, I presume the shift of 100 billion Euros by the German government towards its defense budget is going to make a difference. I mean, this reminds me, I don't mean to offend, but the joke comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wrote a book a few years ago in which he said he thought Europe's highest political aspiration was to become the world's most comfortable retirement home. And the question is whether or not, whether he was right, perhaps, but also, you know, insofar as we've talked already about the development of these social welfare states in the post war period, is this shift in sensibility and in policy going to affect that?

Metin Hakverdi  20:16

It must. Because things outside Europe are happening. So it's not a matter of choice. So it will happen. The question is how we are reacting. And you know, I'm not happy that we're spending 100 billion Euros on military, so that you could have quite a lot of things being done with that money, instead. But I see that the world is changing around us, that it has been in movement before the attack, and it's a reality check. You said it's a wake up call; there were several wake up calls before, to be honest. So it is a matter of taking the responsibility of not only taking care of your own security. And security is more than just defending a territory; it is also a question of restoring economic power with social welfare, the good for the people, but also to have an influence outside your territory, which is a very, very difficult issue for Germans to think about, a super difficult issue, to have an influence outside your own territory. Maybe by selling cars, that's okay. But having a security policy, towards outside your territories is for historic reasons, super complex, but this has changed now. And it's good that it has changed. Because if we don't -and we not as Germans, we as the West -if we aren't making progress fast within those next years or so, others will do things, as we've just seen in this case.  So I'm not really happy; the occasion is awful. But it is good that Germany as a super big player, and don't forget that it's the biggest economy in Europe. If we are doing what we are committing ourselves to now in this process, we will end up having a not only by numbers a big military, but also in the mindset of the population being willing in combination with diplomacy, with sanctions, with economic ties, to take the responsibility or taking the fact that we know that we are also responsible for things that happen outside our country. And that doesn't make us, what you say a retirement place, Florida? (Well, the weather is different in Florida, I would say.) And this is very challenging. This will be very challenging for European policymakers, for German policymakers in the future.

It sounds all very sound today, because there is this war in Ukraine. But there will be a time after this war, I hope sooner than later, then the discussion will be a little more difficult and a little more differentiated in the political sphere, not only in Germany, but also between allies.  So what we should promise ourselves together now is don't forget February 24, 2022. Never forget that moment for the struggles we have within our camp in the future. And you know, there will be a lot of struggles because all the other issues I just mentioned they are still around. Hungary is still a problem in the European Union; Poland will be a problem. Can you see that refugees worldwide is a problem. And of course, I have no idea how your presidential elections, what they will bring your folks but also the world. But at this focus point, we forgot about what happened in Georgia in 2008. We basically wanted to forget what happened in 2014 to Crimea. We wanted to forget, so we can just continue our business as usual. 

And I would say after this February, we have to assure ourselves that there will be no going back before this end of February. And of course Germany and the German government has a particular responsibility, because we were -I'm not saying we were in the way of this development -that we had for good reasons of our history, we have good reasons to move slower than others. And, for me as a German I find it cool that we were the last country more or less to deliver weapons to Ukraine, as being a German, but you know what, then I see the pictures of Mariupol, I think we should have delivered earlier, come on. This, of course, it's my history, but now they are dying. So growing up and international responsibility is always difficult, but especially for Germans. But I think the occasion is awful, wake up call, the poor Ukrainians. I hope this will end in a way that most people would believe in a future of the country, I hope, at least.

John Torpey  25:38

Well, I mean, this brings us to an important question, which is, you know, whether or how this war might end. And I have to say, I've been listening to fairly depressing, dispiriting kind of assessments about what's likely to happen in the near future. Ironically, partially because of the successes of the Ukrainians in defending themselves, that a week or so ago, the buzzword, it seems to me was stalemate, now increasingly, it's sort of more in the quagmire direction. But in any case, it seems to foretell months ahead of us of carnage and destruction, which is obviously horrifying to contemplate. And, of course, one wants to bring this conflict to an end as quickly as possible. There are a lot of doubts about whether Vladimir Putin shares that interest and whether the negotiations are at all really worth paying attention to at this point.

And, there are questions of -I was just listening to another discussion from the Atlantic Council -about what the Ukrainians themselves would be prepared to accept as terms under which they'd be prepared to put an end to their own resistance.  So I wonder if you have any thoughts about that, I mean, what the likely outcome of this might be? I mean, obviously, the terms tend to be revolved around the idea of neutrality for Ukraine, giving up the parts of the country that had already been occupied by separatist forces, something along those lines, which, alas, you know, might have been achieved, in fact, before any shelling started, before any invasion, because those were on the table really before February 24. So this, of course, gets into questions of what actually led Putin to do this, whether it was a miscalculation or not, some have questioned whether he really miscalculated as many people have said. So anyway, a lot of questions there around how is this likely to end? And what terms do you think might bring it to a close sooner rather than later?

Metin Hakverdi  27:55

Difficult questions. The hope is to bring it to an end as soon as possible. But not only as Germans, but as the West, as the coalition that supports the fight on the Ukrainian side at this point. It has to be very, very difficult not to be in the position to put pressure on a Ukrainian government, any Ukrainian government, to put an end to this for our terms and their terms. So they have to bargain about this. And negotiations are led by Ukrainians and not by Germans or Americans. So, but obviously, if we are talking about the territorial integrity, about security, a system of security of the future of Ukraine, but maybe a new security architecture of Europe as a whole, obviously, it's not only a question of what the Ukrainian government wants, but also what other global players want. So all the questions on the table about EU membership, NATO membership, sovereignty as a general concept, a question of territorial sovereignty, as what parts of the country are supposed to be under the authority of Ukrainian governments are very difficult questions. 

And on top is the most important, the most difficult questions what's in the head of Mr. Putin? So what was the process on his side to start the war? You have to know that if you want to foresee under what circumstances would end the war, I believe that "zeitenwende" is not only a process within the German government and German society, it is just a reflection that things are changing on the planet.  You talked about China; it's not only China. I'll make this as clear as possible: if we don't manage to get out of this conflict without the impression worldwide that you have to be just more powerful than your neighbor, then it's in your power to move borders of sovereign states. If this impression will be the result of this process, it will be hell for us; it will be the worst of all worlds. It will be not the end of a war, it will be the beginning of a lot of wars. So we have to take this into account that the Ukrainians are telling the story, which is true in parts that we are defending democracy for all our countries there. It is, if you look at the reaction of Asian countries, neighboring countries of China, they are looking very, very closely at what's happening there. We are already defending a world order, a rule-based order of sovereign states. So this is above this issue of negotiating a peace for a ceasefire process in Ukraine.

So a lot of super important issues on the table. And I think it would be a mistake to compromise on either one of them so severely that there's nothing left of these issues I just mentioned. But in the center, I'm from Germany, and I'm traveling to the US, I have a house in Hamburg where I live in and it's not destroyed. So it's easy for me, at this point, the security and the territorial integrity of Ukraine is the most important issue. And it's awful. And it's awful. What the Russian government has decided, maybe that's why so many were surprised by this attack, because we did not want to live in that reality that something like this would be possible. That's why we psychologically ruled it out that it could happen, because it's so bad, it just causes so many problems.  If you think this to an end, you would think of what's the future of the Russian society and the Russian Government also, which could be connected to that. So very big issues.

But the jungle is out there, if we don't watch out for compromising on those deals after wars. And it's not only between Russia and NATO in Europe, it's in Asia, it's in Africa. If you look at the speech of the Kenyan ambassador to the UN, after the attack in the Security Council, you could feel it. They are African nations, with all the differences between them, they are super scared that they're entering a historic moment where borders are changed through force, because they know what that would mean to their continent. We have to do everything to prevent that, and at the same time, protect the interests of the Government of Ukraine, and also every single individual, every single citizen of Ukraine, because they are the victims of this attack. And this will be very difficult. 

And, maybe just one last thought on that, it will not all be done with one big deal; it will be a process. It will be a process with a lot of deals maybe inside NATO, maybe between NATO and others, the Russian Federation's security issues that what we tried with this security system after the Soviet Union collapsed of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine basically giving up their nuclear weapons and becoming normal states, which we see now they are not, but that was at least the attempt to do so. The idea was, in theory, super, super good. The idea was to have an internationalized security system for those countries to put a stability, peace, and sovereign identity to those and then having a normal future without war, even without a cold war, even without putting a lot of money into the military and spending that money for the prospects of their people. 

And the most frustrating thing right now, besides the damage that is being done now to Ukraine and the population of Ukraine is that this process has come to an end, and that we will have to build up, we'll have to set up a new process. And it will take every single one of us, it will take Germany, Western Europe, the United States, it will take Canada, maybe Japan, and maybe Australia, the Russian Federation, China, maybe, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, who knows. We had a super good idea in the past to internationalize this post-Cold War process. We didn't really fail. But we have a big pushback at this point and we have to deal with it. So this will take a longer time in conferencing, talking, negotiating. And while you're doing this, this will have an impact on our populations in Russia, in Ukraine, in an American presidential election, and also in the European Union and elections in their member states. So this will be an interesting time, the next years to come.

John Torpey  36:09

Well, thank you very much. I mean, I think that's a very thoughtful kind of reflection on the situation in which we find ourselves. It feels a little bit like building a new airplane while somebody is holding a gun to your head. That's sort of the situation I think that we find ourselves in and I want to thank Metin Hakverdi of the German Bundestag for sharing his insights about developments in Germany and beyond in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. I especially want to thank Steve Sokol and the American Council on Germany for helping us make this interview possible. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.