Passing the buck? Berlin and the 2016 NATO Summit

For now, Germany can live with the results of the NATO summit in Warsaw. But if Germany's allies want an engaged partner on defence matters, they will need to engage in active public diplomacy to avoid German retrenchment. 

The annual NATO summit, which took place last week in Warsaw was awaited anxiously by both Berlin and its neighbours on the eastern flank. It is now two years since the German President Joachim Gauck called for more German responsibility for Europe and European security. Today the domestic limits of Germany’s approach to these issues has become all too apparent.

Until autumn 2015 debates about the future of German security policy were much clearer and focused than they are today. Previously Russia invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, threatened NATO members with nuclear strikes, and embarked on a frightening course of domestic militarisation. These were all issues that NATO needed to respond to but that could not be solved by employing the strategies of the past. Germany’s past policy of trying to engage Russia as much as possible while ignoring the security threat it poses is now outdated. Even strategies and actions that have been employed by Berlin and seen by partners as a continuation of Germany's “balanced” approach were interpreted in a very different way in Berlin. German officials preparing for the OSCE presidency for 2016, for example, stated that engagement through the OSCE was not meant to bring about détente but to manage the most pressing issues in the Russian-European conflict. Nonetheless, with Berlin's expectation that a strong NATO stance would be decided upon in Warsaw, some level of dialogue needed to be preserved – if only to signal to the German domestic audience that it still plays an important role in Berlin’s policy. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and the deterrence strategy needs to be bolstered in the face of abundant talk about dialogue and engagement. What has led us to this point?

The first reason for this change in strategy is the refugee crisis, which not only unsettled Berlin's relations with many central and eastern European states, but also exposed how little Berlin could shape the normative consensus in Europe and Germany. Especially now – one year before the Bundestag elections – the appetite to engage in more controversial policy areas is wearing thin. The second issue is the October 2015 elections that took place in Poland. Although Berlin avoids commenting on Polish domestic affairs, many observers are struck by the idea that the Law and Justice Party (PiS) is running its identity campaign more with German rather than Russian aggression in mind. To many in Berlin, this is an indication that – contrary to its public pronouncements – Warsaw doesn’t feel particularly threatened by Moscow. If so, why should Germany engage a reluctant public to justify a policy of deterrence that is utterly unpopular? And, finally, the Brexit vote gave ample warning about how quickly the mood of a country – even if judged rational and pragmatic – can change in a heartbeat.

In Berlin, and even more in Bonn, decision-makers are aware and mindful of the dangers of a resurgent and militaristic Russia. But with the Federal Ministry of Defence situated literally in another city (Bonn), and no dedicated military think-tank in town (like IISS, RUSI, etc.), German discussions only focus on the political aspects of the debate and are, at times, quite detached from military realities. Although Minister of Defence, Ursula Von der Leyen, tried to widen the debate through writing a new “white book” on defence, the debate in Warsaw has remained within a very narrow circle of experts. With Berlin-Warsaw relations at risk of turning sour, the few officials and politicians engaged in defence discussions feared that any broader discussion on NATO in the run-up to the summit might be sabotaged by debate about the state of Polish democracy. Hence the advocates of deterrence remained silent, while those promoting more dialogue and “strategic partnership” quickly seized the discursive void to present their ideas.

Similarly, on the southern flank the deterioration of German-Turkish relations, and especially Ankara’s prohibition of German MPs visiting German troops, is deeply disturbing and might erode public support for Germany's contribution to the anti-ISIS campaign. As on the eastern flank deterrence success is not a matter of whether one likes Kaczyński or not, just as the fight against ISIS is not primarily an issue of what one thinks of Erdoğan.

That the discussion about certain figures and leaders is overshadowing the strategic substance of defence decisions inserts a further momentum and unpredictability into the German debate. While Germany is one of the lead nations on the eastern flank, positioning one forward battalion into Lithuania, this effort was hardly communicated at home. As NATO is only putting small numbers of troops into more prominent positions, larger forces need to sit deeper as reinforcements, practising their deployment to the eastern flank to ensure a quick reaction in case of crisis. While in winter this sort of reinforcement plan was being debated more or less openly, discussion on this issue has fallen entirely silent.

Frank Walter Steinmeier's comments on NATO's “sabre-rattling” manoeuvres (heavily criticised by the Conservatives) suggest that the topic will be made an issue in the election campaign. If so, the discussions on the outcome of the NATO summit reveal the new ideological position of Germany. The Conservatives and the Greens are pretty much satisfied with the results, although the Greens’ fear that a new arms-race could be triggered is greater than among the Conservatives. The Social Democrats are in effect split on the issue, and even the infamous interview Steinmeier gave in the Bild-Zeitung contains several contradictions between reassurance and appeasement. While the extreme right Alternative für Deutschland and extreme left Die Linke denounce the deployment of German troops on the eastern flank as pure anti-Russian provocation.

For now, at least, Germany can live with the results coming out of the NATO summit in Warsaw – as there were no substantial new demands. German soldiers, in fact, have been present in the Baltic states since summer 2014 as a reassurance measure and nobody has made a fuss out of it. But the problem for Berlin is that the measures agreed upon are only the beginning of a long process of rebuilding the alliance's military capabilities. On missile defence and nuclear deterrence, more strategic debate has to follow the summit. For a non-nuclear state like Germany, the Russian debate on the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons is deeply unsettling and will sooner or later have to be answered within the alliance. However, Germany was unable to prevent giving off the impression that it would rather pass the buck on that and push it to the background of the political debate – at least until 2017.

Of course, this would be ideal for Germany, but the world will not wait until the Bundestag election. It would be wise for Germany’s allies not to watch the internal German debate on defence unfolding like a soap opera on TV but to actively engage in public diplomacy in Germany in order to shape it as well.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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