Who Is Olaf Scholz, the Man Leading Germany?

Mr. Scholz’s tendency to wait until the last minute to act — a kind of strategic bystanderism — has been most damaging when it comes to Ukraine. In the months it took him to forge his tank deal, thousands of Ukrainians died from Russian bombs, rockets and artillery. Potentially even more Ukrainians and Russians are going to die in the months that it will now take to make the tanks, both American and German, operational.

These deaths, of course, are not Mr. Scholz’s fault. But a quicker, bolder decision on tanks could have alleviated the situation, allowing the Ukrainians to make decisive breakthroughs and shift the battlefield dynamics in their favor. Instead, as the British historian Timothy Garton Ash has warned, the conflict is in danger of becoming an “escalating stalemate,” with both sides dug in for World War I-style trench warfare.

Securing the United States’ support, in the form of 31 M1 Abrams tanks, is generally seen as a success. But there’s a drawback here, too. By insisting that the United States take an equal risk in opposing Vladimir Putin with battle tanks, Mr. Scholz has shown a lack of faith in a core principle of NATO itself. Article 5, after all, states that an attack on one member will be considered as an attack on all members. Forcing the issue, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a foreign policy expert in the opposition Christian Democratic Party, “undermines the credibility of the alliance.”

Mr. Scholz proudly calls it “responsible” to have gained an extra layer of reassurance. He reportedly sees his move in the tradition of one of his predecessors as chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt, also a Social Democrat, pressed the Americans to station medium-range Pershing II missiles in Germany in the 1980s. He wanted Washington to be able to retaliate in kind should the Soviets attack Europe with their new SS-20 missiles.

But Mr. Schmidt’s main intention was to close a defense gap, while Mr. Scholz’s is seemingly to fill a courage gap. The German public is split on the Leopards decision, not least because Germany does not have a nuclear deterrent of its own. But was it wise to leverage this anxiety against a resolute alliance partner like the United States? Real leadership should have meant the opposite: to use the alliance with the United States, longstanding and of indisputable worth, to assuage German angst. The fact that Mr. Scholz didn’t chose this option will be remembered not only in Washington but also in Moscow.