Reluctant leadership

The disengaged culture of military moderation promoted by Berlin restricts the EU from playing a geopolitical role and puts the future of NATO at risk.

The EU defence policy faces many challenges but one of them may be more important than the others. Let’s call it the ‘German paradox’. In essence, it postulates that while the need for more common and individual efforts of the EU member states to provide for their own security has become obvious, their success depends largely on a country which does not feel any immediate security threats. Unlike in the past, Germany’s famous Mittellage (position in the middle of the continent) is not a source of discomfort but complacency. While the French, Italians and Spaniards look to the South plagued by wars, terrorism and irregular migration with apprehension, Poles and Romanians feel threatened by Putin’s revisionism. But the Germans – surrounded by friendly and stable neighbours – do not fear that their world is likely to collapse like a house of cards any time soon. In other words, the often announced return of the modern world has not yet materialized in post-modern Germany. But Europe as a whole will be unable to live up to its role as a security player unless its central power forsakes this imagined comfort zone.

Of course, German reluctance to take security policy as seriously as the needs of a Trumpian world would require is not only a geopolitical stance. The legacy of post-war pacifism is just as important to Germany as the American security umbrella over the European border states previously divided by the Iron Curtain. Both gave the (West) German elite good reason (and excuses) not to bother with strategic thinking and military engagement. With the rising unpredictability of the US, the instability of Europe’s neighbourhood, and the deliberate efforts of Russia and China to undermine the EU’s unity, the German ‘culture of restraint’ is becoming more and more anachronistic. In fact the stakes for Germany could not be higher: the country depends on the multilateral, rules based, liberal order more than any other. But because the Germans still feel relatively safe, they struggle to accept the obvious truth: without a fundamental rethinking of their approach to security, international responsibility and not least military engagement the whole framework they rely upon could be compromised.

This is the true ‘German paradox’ – or the new German question – which carries much more weight than the defence spending controversy dominating the policy agenda. To be clear: the state of the Bundeswehr and its level of underfunding are untenable. The warning issued by Hans-Peter Bartels, the all-powerful parliamentary spokesperson for Bundeswehr, who earlier this year admitted that the German army as a whole ‘is currently not deployable within the framework of the [NATO] alliance’ speaks volumes. The efforts to make the army fit for purpose undertaken by the federal government in recent months have been noteworthy – but still insufficient. To be sure, the Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen can lay claim to having successfully battled for an increase of her defence budget. Amounting to 39 billion euro (2 billion more than 2017) this year, it will climb to almost 43 billion in 2019 – a sum the former German cabinet only expected to reach by 2021. However, the planned increases are still far below what would be required to meet the NATO goal of two percent GDP in defence spending in 2024 and cover the required expenditure. The Merkel government has already announced that Germany will spend no more than one and a half percentage of its GDP by then – despite the fierce criticism by Donald Trump ahead of the recent NATO summit and pressure by other partners in the alliance. But the question of what this money can really buy is far more important than the mathematical calculations. According to an expert quoted by the Handelsblatt daily, ‘the spending will mostly be used to increase personnel and won’t begin to cover the urgently needed updating of equipment and weapons systems’. In April 2018 the ministry of defence announced a plan of acquisitionsfor the most needed equipment to fill the main gaps to be carried out until the end of the year. Eighteen projects worth more than 25 million euro each are now in the pipeline. But the slow process and bad management of the acquisition policy has always been the Achilles' heel of the German defence policy and needs to be improved no less urgently than its financial situation.

But it is again politics not money which remains key to Germany’s expected role as a pillar of Europe’s security policy. Only if the country abandons the shadow of its traditional strategic culture and geopolitical complacency can a breakthrough be possible – including a higher investment in military capabilities. This process has already started but it is still too early to say whether the glass is half empty or half full. Von der Leyen is right when she says that Germany should not be ashamed of its contribution to European security. Berlin is the second largest provider of troops for NATO missions (including the strengthening of the Eastern flank) and its engagement has been significantly bolstered in recent years – despite the financial shortages. More than 1000 German soldiers serve in Mali, even more in Afghanistan. The new concept behind the Bundeswehr foresees important adjustments: it puts more emphasis on territorial defence (an important message especially for Central and Eastern Europeans afraid of Germany’s traditionally soft stance on Russia) and has restored the theoretically obvious principle of full equipment for the entire army which had been officially scuppered over the years.

Germany’s leadership of EU’s security policy is both inevitable and (as things stand) impossible

On the other hand, there is little clarity about Germany’s strategic goals, how far it is willing to engage to defend Europe’s security and to what ends it intends todeploy its at least modestly increased or new capabilities. The debate about Germany’s new security role triggered in 2014 at the Munich Security Conference by seminal speeches by President Gauck and Minister von der Leyen has not yet provided a clear path forward. And, most importantly, they have not managed to significantly shift public perception, still highly scepticalof more security engagement. According to a 2017 poll by the Koerber Foundation more than 50% of Germans believe that the country should not get involved in international crises. And only 32% support an increase in the defence budget (this percentage is even lower today – perhaps as a reaction to Trump’s pressure).

The ‘German paradox’ is a European and Transatlantic challenge. Germany bashing as suggested by the American president does not seem to be the right way to sever this Gordian knot. It may lead to a few more hundred million euro beingspent on defence but it won't help Germany develop the kind of strategic culture required so that the country can take on its inevitable leadership role in Europe’s defense. As analyst Ulrich Speck notes, the opposite can be true: the current debate strengthens two radical tendencies in German foreign policy – the leftist rejection of the Transatlantic Agreeementand the right-wing ‘Germany first’ approach. Both would be a disaster for Europe.

The other side of the paradox is that Germany’s leadership of EU’s security policy is both inevitable and (as things stand) impossible. The latter is easily understood. But Germany has to lead the EU on defence and security not just because of its sheer economic and political might. Germany is – not just because of its comfortable Mittellage – the only country in the EU which could broker a much needed security deal for the EU ridden by diverging perceptions of danger and interests between East and West, North and South. Germany is genuinely interested in Europe’s cohesion and unity – and achieving these goals is a much more powerful lever for its security engagement (in Mali or on the Eastern flank) than its narrowly defined national security interests. But to fulfil its inevitable role it needs to bring more to the table – in terms of political guidance, strategy, engagement and capabilities. Should this continue not to be the case, Europe’s security and the future of NATO will be seriously jeopardised.

This article first appeared on 1st September in EastWest magazine

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


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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