Instability emanating from Russia, the U.S. and the Middle East is waking Germany up from its post-Cold War slumber. Berlin is finally beginning to accept that it must take more responsibility for its own security. Nonetheless, the German military will remain weak for the foreseeable future.
A hint of realpolitik is returning to Germany’s security politics. While all NATO members were alarmed by Donald Trump’s victory, in Germany the consternation has been particularly profound – so profound that it has caused what could become a fundamental change in the way the country views its security.
A reflexive pacifism has resided deep within the German psyche since 1945. The country’s first overseas deployment – to Kosovo in 1999 – was extremely controversial despite its humanitarian nature. The end of the Cold War saw Bundeswehr (German military) personnel numbers drop by 70%. This decline accelerated in the wake of the financial crisis, which saw further spending cuts. The best equipment and personnel were funnelled into the Afghanistan mission, which cannibalised resources from units based at home.
German military personnel numbers, 1991-2014. Source: World Bank.
The deterioration of the Bundeswehr has occurred despite its increasing responsibilities. Since 2008 Berlin has deployed its military in Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Lithuania. The armed forces coped by instituting a policy of “dynamic availability management”, which means that units must borrow from each other whenever they conduct exercises or are deployed. Warships returning from missions often see parts detached and disassembled as soon as they dock so that the next unit can use them. In one particularly striking example, the battalion that was to serve as the spear tip of NATO’s rapid-reaction Response Force had to borrow 15,000 items from 56 other units before it was ready for deployment.
Up until now such problems were viewed as lamentable but more or less acceptable by a Berlin whose priorities lay elsewhere. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 rudely re-awoke Germany to geopolitical realities. In the following year, Germans began to feel the tangible effects of Middle Eastern turmoil when over one million refugees streamed into their country. Trump’s election, compounded by Washington’s threat of potentially “moderating its commitment” to NATO, has produced a sea change in Germany’s security discourse.
Let no thought be taboo
The strongest sign of this is the breaking of the nuclear taboo. The publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative newspaper, recently editorialised that the time had come to consider “the altogether unthinkable for a German brain, the question of a nuclear deterrence capability, which could make up for doubts about American guarantees”. A prominent foreign policy expert in Merkel’s party agreed and noted that the idea of a European nuclear umbrella “is being debated in the backrooms of Berlin”. The mainstream German media is awash with articles arguing for a radical rethink of the country’s security strategy. Even Der Spiegel, a left-leaning magazine, wrote that reaching an understanding with Russia will only be possible if Moscow takes Europe’s military seriously. The Cold War concept of peace through deterrence is returning to Germany.
This is one reason why the American demand that NATO allies increase military spending to at least 2% of GDP has actually been well-received in Berlin. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen declared that “we Germans, we Europeans, must invest more in our own security…it is unfair that the Americans spend double as much as all of Europe put together.” Germany’s finance minister added that continually rising defence expenditures are possible within the context of a balanced budget – a major admission from a government obsessed with fiscal responsibility.
Nonetheless, powerful factors militate against the realisation of these intentions. The most immediate of these is the politicisation of military spending in this year’s federal elections.
Defence spending as a political football
Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, leader (though not candidate) of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), has come out swinging against his colleagues in Berlin. He has called von der Leyen’s ideas about German security politics “naive” and warned against “blind obedience” to Washington. Gabriel is attempting to cast resistance to increased defence spending as resistance to Trump – a sure-fire vote-winner. His party has stuck to the post-Cold War mantra of peace with Russia through engagement. The SPD puts less stock in the hard-headed logic of deterrence than Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Moreover, the Social Democrats will have to form a coalition with The Left and The Greens – two doggedly pacifist parties – to have any chance of unseating Merkel.
Merkel’s problem is that the SPD’s criticisms will fall on receptive ears. A 2015 poll revealed that only 38% of Germans would support defending NATO allies bordering Russia if they were attacked. Last year another survey found that 53% of Germans thought that NATO reinforcement of Poland and the Baltics was a bad idea. Barely a third of the population supports higher military spending. The chancellor will therefore have to walk a fine line between appeasing Washington and pleasing her constituents. The defence budget is set to rise by 5% this year, but only from 1.19% to 1.22% of GDP.
Even if Merkel wins September’s election and decides to boost spending sharply, it would take over a decade for the Bundeswehr to become a capable fighting force. Any funding increases will first go towards buying ammunition, hiring long-needed personnel, replacing worn-out equipment and generally refilling the military’s hollowed-out structure. The decay must stop before repairs can begin.
Instead, Berlin is likely to focus on European military integration. It is currently committed to developing submarines, naval missiles, and transport aircraft together with other EU nations. This will help begin to address the €25 billion inefficiency costs stemming from Europe’s fragmented arms industry (EU member states operate 154 different weapons systems, while the U.S. only has 27). Germany also is exploring forming combined units with its neighbours. Now that the UK’s opposition to a permanent EU military headquarters has been made irrelevant by Brexit, Germany and France can forge ahead with building a unified European command structure.
German soldiers during exercises as part of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in Poland. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
While these initiatives are helpful, they will not compensate for Germany’s continued unwillingness to pull its weight in the EU and NATO. While the Berlin elite might have hit an inflection point in its outlook on security, this will not translate into remilitarisation until popular opposition weakens. A sea change may have occurred, but only in thought – not in deed. Germany has finally realised it must improve its military fitness, but – despite earnest resolutions to the contrary – it isn’t planning on going to the gym anytime soon.