U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for an honor cordon and bilateral meeting, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 23, 2019.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for an honor cordon and bilateral meeting, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 23, 2019. DoD / Lisa Ferdinando

The Strangely Quiet Visit of Germany’s New Defense Minister

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s do-little trip to Washington shows the uncertain state of U.S.-German relations.

When a high-ranking official from one of America’s top allies visits Washington for the first time, the occasion is usually seen as a political home game for both sides. Assurances of mutual support and statements of solidarity are made, shared values and interests are emphasized, and the opportunity is seized to publicly showcase the successes of close cooperation. If all goes well, the visit will make national headlines in both countries.

Looking back with these expectations, one might rub their eyes in amazement to know that the new German defense minister even visited Washington, D.C., last week. And Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — or AKK as she is commonly known — is notable not just as Germany’s six-weeks-on-the-job top defense official. She is closely watched back home as a likely successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Kramp-Karrenbauer made the transatlantic trip solely to meet with her newish counterpart Mark Esper, and otherwise avoided the political public in Washington. There was no meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, no background conversation with American journalists, no big think tank policy speech. It almost seemed as if the entire trip was a bit unpleasant for the Ministry of Defense.

There can only be speculation about the reasons for the unusual organization of this inaugural visit. Perhaps it was simply her political duties as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union that prevented Kramp-Karrenbauer from staying longer in Washington. Or perhaps the UN General Assembly absorbed the political attention. Perhaps, however, the course of this visit also symbolizes the current state of German-American security relations: Berlin and Washington have no great political expectations of each other. The different perspectives on defense spending levels are well known, and the existing cooperation in joint operations like in Afghanistan or against the Islamic State is largely smooth—albeit increasingly listless on the German side. 

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To be sure, Kramp-Karrenbauer crossed the Atlantic with only small gifts to offer the Pentagon. She was able to inform her American counterpart that Germany would continue to participate in the anti-Islamic State operation in Syria and Iraq beyond October 31. However, U.S. officials already knew that the extension runs only through March, and even that extension encountered much political resistance. She also discussed burden-sharing within NATO, a topic that continues to frustrate the Trump Administration. Kramp-Karrenbauer delivered the message that Berlin would allocate 1.5 percent of gross national product to defense through 2024, still far from the 2 percent guideline agreed by the NATO partners. The fact that she described this agreement as merely a “political goal” is more likely to anger than reassure U.S. officials. Finally, she defended the German government's decision to purchase the European Future Combat Air System instead of the American F-35 as an imminent replacement for the Luftwaffe's Tornado fighter-bombers.  

At home, Kramp-Karrenbauer and other German leaders have emphasized the extent to which Germany must step up to unprecedented global security challenges, but this attitude has not necessarily been reflected in U.S.-German security dialogue. While questions surrounding the F-35 program and Germany’s contributions to NATO are surely important, there are others that need answers, and soon. To name a few examples:

First, Washington is waiting for a clarification of what the European NATO members intend with their efforts for a greater “strategic autonomy” of Europe, both militarily and politically, and what consequences this will have for NATO as a transatlantic framework for action. German calls for the establishment of a European army have sparked concerns in Washington about a security-related decoupling of Europe.

Another looming question that Berlin and Washington have yet to confront is the increasing competition between the United States and China, and the potential consequences for transatlantic security cooperation. Germany still defines itself as part of the West, alongside the USA. It cannot be ruled out that the Europeans will be confronted with greater military expectations in Washington in the future, e.g. in the surveillance of sea routes in Asia.

Finally, a new security policy strategy towards Russia, jointly supported by U.S. and European NATO partners, is becoming more and more urgent. The cooperation declarations of the 1990s and 2000s still hold, but the end of the INF Treaty means that the scales are tilting toward a strategy of conventional and nuclear deterrence when dealing with Russia.

At the NATO summit in December at the latest, Washington and Berlin should revitalize their security relations with greater ambition and seek dialogue on these issues. Failure to address these bigger challenges would amount to another missed opportunity, and precious time lost.