French President Emmanuel Macron challenged Europe on March 4 to create a new “European Renaissance” that includes more defense spending and a new defense and security treaty. The proposal drew some quick applause from Germany: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded German Chancellor Angela Merkel as head of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, responded five days later with her own proposal to build a “European aircraft carrier” and rebuild European strategy and organizations to ensure global security and peace.
It is unlikely, however, that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ideas, which were endorsed by Merkel, will move beyond symbolic gestures any time soon. This is bad news for Macron — without support from both halves of Europe’s Franco-German core, major political changes on the continent are unlikely.
It is also bad news for Germany. In a country still haunted by its militarist and totalitarian past, German politicians have little incentive to reconsider their cautious approach to the military. But the world is at the dawn of a new age of great power competition between the United States, Russia and China, and Europe is caught in the middle. Germany faces the very real possibility that its much-prized “Weltinnenpolitik” — an “international system with highly constrained exercise of the use of force and a legitimate authority to arbitrate” — could quickly crumble.
Persuading the country will not be easy. While 43 percent of Germans, according to a September 2018 poll, are in favor of increasing defense spending, 55 percent are against Germany playing a more active diplomatic and military role in international crises.
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Germans simply don’t care about military power. Just visit any Gasthaus in the German countryside and talk to the people. War is equated with the history of war—primarily the history of the Second World War—and not any future wars that Germany might have to fight.
Today, the current military mission of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan also barely makes the news. Wars are fought elsewhere and not related to Germany’s domestic security.
Like Kramp-Karrenbauer, other German politicians are quick to join their French counterparts in rhetorically advocating for a militarily stronger Europe, lest the continent become a “plaything” of states “pursuing an aggressive foreign policy direction,” but they have repeatedly failed to put their money where their mouth is.
A case in point is Germany’s Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who has repeatedly rejected substantial increases in German defense spending. His reluctance even casts into doubt whether Germany will meet its NATO pledge to spend 1.5 percent of economic output on defense by 2024.
Scholz is a member of the Social Democratic Party, which is in a grand coalition government with the CDU and Christian Social Union. The party remains deeply skeptical of any larger changes in Germany’s defense posture and policy, especially when it comes to defense exports. For example, the Social Democrats are delaying the start of a replacement program for 85 aging Tornado fighter jets which will be retired beginning in 2025. Some of those jets can deliver the U.S. nuclear warheads Germany hosts under NATO’s nuclear sharing policy. Without a timely decision on their replacement, Germany’s influence on NATO deliberations on nuclear policy and strategy will be diminished.
As difficult as the argument may be for a country with Germany’s history, there are good reasons for a more robust German foreign policy that may include military action and mandate increases in defense spending.
First, the slow-motion end of the U.S.-led liberal order will make the world an increasingly more dangerous place — and that will have both a security and an economic impact. The German economy relies heavily on exports: The country shipped US$1.547 trillion worth of goods around the globe in 2018. Should the U.S. Navy cease to rule the waves (even if it did so primarily for American interests), a German Marine short of personnel and ships would not be able to take over the protection of global shipping routes important to German commerce.
Second, the lack of debate in Germany surrounding the termination of the INF treaty indicates a shocking lack of understanding of the basic foundations of the German and European security architecture. That includes the concepts of conventional and nuclear deterrence — more defense spending, and better military capabilities does not automatically lead to war but can actually deter a potential adversary from aggressive action. In other words, a strong Bundeswehr actually reduces the changes of Germany getting involved in a large-scale military conflict.
Third, revisionist powers like Russia do present a real danger to German security. Vladimir Putin has two major foreign policy objectives: the destruction of NATO and of the European Union. Those represent the two principal military and economic pillars underwriting Germany’s national security. Consequently, Berlin and Moscow can never be close partners. A militarily weak Germany is also bound to embolden Russian military adventurism in the Baltics and elsewhere.
Fourth, the German Bundeswehr will need to think about not just the existing stabilization missions but also combat operations abroad. For example, military force might be necessary in preventing state failures in Africa or the Middle East to avoid another, perhaps worse, European refugee crisis.
Last, German politicians should remember that stronger conventional German military forces can also strengthen Germany’s position in inter-alliance negotiations within NATO. It may also boost Europe’s overall bargaining position vis-à-vis the Trump administration. (U.S. officials, by the way, can best help Germany move toward the NATO spending goals by, bluntly, shutting up about it. It was counterproductive for Trump’s ambassador to call “unacceptable” the news that Germany will not meet its 2-percent goal by 2024; it was also counterproductive for Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Germany, to praise Merkel for her efforts to raise defense spending.)
Still, there are glimpses that the country has begun to see the importance of a stronger military in today’s geopolitical environment. In a 2018 survey charting the top fears of Germans, nearly 70 percent of respondents said that President Trump and an increasingly more dangerous world are their top concerns. France and Germany are jointly developing a new main battle tank and a next-generation fighter aircraft. They are also cooperating on various pan-European defense initiatives and recently reiterated their bilateral defense commitments in the Aachen treaty.
German politicians should seize on Macron’s invitation to substantially increase defense spending and push for more assertive foreign and defense policies. To fail to do so will undermine German national security, its economy, and a European peace that has prevailed for decades.