All Talk and No Action – Germany’s Unwillingness to Contribute to NATO

This April 4th, NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary – and Germany offers a sobering present by maybe being able to spend 1.5% of its GDP by 2024 on defense after having promised to spend 2.0% by that time. But wait – that was the situation in mid-2018 when even this blatant refusal of following terms one had agreed to in 2014 was considered a radical hike in defense spending. Doesn’t that say it all?

Unfortunately, no. Just as NATO is about to turn 70, Germany will reduce its commitment once more, stating that spending will reach 1.25% by 2023. Does Germany simply lack the funds? No – and that is why the federal budget will see a 1.7% hike to total spending of $412 billion. Major parts of the German government are able, yet unwilling, to contribute adequately to common defense.

Let’s get the facts straightened out: Instead of focusing on the matter at hand, significant parts of the German public, fueled by foul-mouthed politicians and magazines with an increasingly un-transatlantic agenda, lash out at the U.S. Ambassador to Germany for stating what the German parliamentary military commissioner says, too: Germany is not contributing sufficiently. Neither transatlantic, nor European partners can count on Germany right now.

Failing Both NATO and EU Commitments

Still, while more and more Germans feel like they “should not be pushed into increased defense spending by the Americans”, Germans ought to recall that the same promise they made to its NATO allies has been made to its European allies within the framework of Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union:

“Member States shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities.”

It’s that simple. Common defense has traditionally been something that was organized under NATO’s umbrella. While even the TEU points out that NATO is the organization where common defense is realized, those who criticize the ambassadorial statements must come to terms with the fact that their push for increased European cooperation is pointless as long as Germany fails to contribute in military terms.

Otherwise, German membership in the EU would slowly deteriorate into a role that would resemble the same cherry-picking attitude that one condemns the British for. At the same time, they lack the British honesty to say that they are simply not interested in participating in significant sectors of an ever closer union.

How to Spend 2.0% and Still Render Armed Forces Inoperable

Pointing out the fact that Germany is not fulfilling its promises on defense spending regularly triggers a response that features the – likely correct – statement that if one were to add development aid efforts, Germany would actually exceed the 2.0% promised. That is a very creative take on NATO’s 3 C’s of burden-sharing (cash, capabilities, contributions) – and it is a wrong one.

Not only does this point of view fail to take into account the fact that it is in Germany’s own interest to maintain armed forces that are capable of defending the country as required under Art. 87a of the Basic Law, it would, in addition, allow for a situation in which countries could claim that they followed the promise of increasing their contributions while ignoring that a significant share of their defense materiel is inoperable. That would contradict any trace of bona fide left.

Interestingly, the 2.0% spending goal is not a mutual promise made for the first time in 2014: NATO member countries agreed in 2002 already that they would increase their respective defense spending to 2.0%.

Why Criticizing the 2.0 Percent Goal Is the Wrong Way

Supporters of Germany spending more than 1.25% on its defense capabilities could refer to the Wales Summit declaration over and over again, consistently pointing out that promises were made that must now be kept. Still, let us choose a different way and ask ourselves whether an approach that follows the second “C” – capabilities – would result in Germany actually abiding by its obligations.

What about military mobility? The goal of enabling NATO forces to cross through Germany swiftly to reach the area of engagement? It took four months to find German railcars to get American equipment from Bulgaria back to Germany. What about the “Four Thirties” concept according to which NATO members should be able to move, among others, 30 battalions to the zone of engagement within thirty days? According to a RAND Corporation study, Germany only has two battalions with the necessary modern equipment that would make them worthy of facing the Russians. Mobilizing one battalion would require a week or more – moving it to its place of deployment would pose a completely new challenge.

Regardless of whether Germany tries to abide by the 2.0% promise, its watered-down 1.5% commitment or at least a meaningful contribution to the Four Thirties concept, the country is currently unable to fulfill any single of these commitments. Criticizing the 2.0% goal in this situation must seem grotesque to Germany’s allies.

Has Defense Become a Taboo Issue?

Instead of asking why its American allies have become increasingly unhappy with the German approach towards defense policy, parts of the public complain about the Ambassador having mentioned this unhappiness. After all, how dare he interfere in what they consider domestic issues?

By pledging to help its allies upon necessity, Germany agrees that defense is an issue that other countries have a stake in as well. Fittingly, 63% of Germans have a favorable view of NATO. At the same time, however, 53% think that Germany should not use military force to defend any ally that were to find itself in an armed conflict with Russia. It seems that the majority of Germans would like to reap the benefits of NATO membership while keeping its contributions as low as possible.

One reason for this may very well be the fact that it is the United States who push for an increase in German military expenditures. Choosing a deliberately uncooperative approach, German politicians imply that defense spending is inseparably connected to President Trump, thus acting as if any support for increased defense spending translated into support for the President. Despite the fact that any such statement ignores the responsibility that Germany agreed to bear for the well-being and sovereignty of all other allies, it is a fact that may not simply be disregarded by those who would like to see Germany make a step towards contributing its fair share.

America Will Not Let Europe Down

While the United States push for increased contributions for more than a decade, they will not let Europe down. American support for NATO is higher than in Germany – and two thirds of Americans approve of military support for allies who find themselves under attack. German failure to act upon justified requests will, however, lead to the center of gravity in defense move further eastward.

With more and more countries actually getting closer to spending what they promised to spend, Germany will find itself increasingly isolated from its allies – especially its European ones who counted on the 2002 and 2014 promises. Now, given the fact that nothing speaks in favor of the United States reducing its commitment to European defense, what is at stake for Germany?

The transatlantic partnership as a whole is in peril. Failure not only to uphold promises made, but to appreciate a partner’s valuable contribution is what lets the pillars on which this partnership has been carefully constructed after World War II erode. If Germany wants to act as a strong participant in a world of multilateralism, it needs to help renovate these pillars.

America is doing her fair share by contributing more than 3.5% of its GDP on defense – and while major parts of the amounts spent do not directly translate into the defense of European soil, American contributions to security in Asia are just as valuable for Europe. Europeans have, naturally, significant interest in a Western partner upholding the rule of law in an area where an autocracy tries to push its neighbors into submission more and more openly.

What is the Alternative?

With more and more Germans choosing a confrontative approach towards the United States, what’s the alternative to American contributions to German security? Who provides nuclear protection? How much more than 2.0% of its GDP would Germany have to spend to replace 32,000 Americans and their fighting strength?

The alternative to spending 2.0% is not spending 1.25% – it is, in fact, spending more than 2.0%. With the majority of Germans supporting NATO, a case must be made by German politicians in favor of contributing an objectively fair share. Any alternative would upset the relationship with Germany’s most important ally in defense – and would prompt the question of how to ensure nuclear deterrence in an era that sees the re-emergence of medium-range ballistic missiles.

Image source: U.S. Department of State

Lukas Posch is President of the Young Transatlantic Initiative – this statement constitutes a personal opinion and does not necessarily match the Initiative’s view.