- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Germany is slowly shedding its reluctance to wield military power, announcing Wednesday it would boost the size of its armed forces to nearly 200,000 over the next seven years. While the move comes days after top U.S. officials called on Europe to step up on defense, former officials and experts say the latest announcement was years in the making.
“The Bundeswehr has rarely been as necessary as it is now,” German Defense Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen said in a statement on the announcement. “Whether it is the fight against ISIL terrorism, the stabilization of Mali, continuing support of Afghanistan, operations against migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean or with our increased NATO presence in the Baltics.”
The new decision is splashy, but not substantive. It will increase the military’s roster of professional soldiers from the current level of 178,000 to 198,000 by 2025. Last May, Germany already announced it would increase its troop size to 193,000 by 2023. The latest announcement adds only 5,000 troops to that number over a longer timespan.
At its height during the Cold War, the West German military swelled to a size of over 500,000, and was a central part of NATO’s plan to defend Europe against a Soviet armored incursion. Since the end of the Cold War, its size sharply declined, hitting a low of 166,500 in 2015.
Still, the move drew skepticism from some circles in Germany, including in Angela Merkel’s own government.
“One has to ask whether it would really calm Germany’s neighbours if we turned into a big military power in Europe,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters. “I have my doubts.”
Germany, like Japan, had a deeply-ingrained cultural aversion to military strength since the end of World War II. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to drag a reluctant public towards a more accepting view of using military power. In Germany, that all started to change in recent years after Russia invaded Ukraine and turmoil in the Middle East fueled Europe’s migration crisis. A 2015 poll found 56 percent of Germans favored expanding Germany’s military.
“Germany’s a serious player in Europe. They realized they’ve got a responsibility in NATO,” Jim Townsend, the Pentagon’s former top NATO official, told Foreign Policy.
Germany’s announcement comes amid growing European concerns of President Donald Trump disengaging from NATO. Trump called NATO “obsolete” on the campaign trail, and suggested Washington might not come to the defense of NATO allies if they were behind on their payments. During their respective visits to Brussels in recent weeks, both Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis sought to reassure allies of U.S. commitment to NATO, though Mattis warned the country would “moderate” its commitment to European security if allies didn’t foot their fair share of the defense bill.
It’s long been a thorn in the side of U.S.-European relations. Only five of NATO’s 28 members currently meet the obligation of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense: the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, and Greece. Germany spends 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense and would need to spend an additional $66 billion to reach the 2 percent threshold. The Pentagon declined to comment on Germany’s latest announcement.
Trump’s NATO skepticism rattled U.S. allies, who are advertising their increased defense spending as best they can to the new administration, much as corporations are touting months-old press releases on investment and job creation to placate a Twitter-happy White House.
But experts say credit for Germany’s troop increase goes more to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Islamic State than Donald Trump. Still, a nervous U.S. ally may not rush to correct Trump if he takes credit.
“While it is politically smart for the Germans to give Trump credit for this increase, the truth is that this is only an incremental improvement” over last year’s announcement, said NATO expert Jorge Benitez with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. Merkel first announced a heavy defense spending boost in October 2016, before Trump was elected.
“The Germans wouldn’t do something like this just to curry favor with Trump,” Townsend said.
Irrespective of motivation, it’s a sorely needed investment for the country’s cash-strapped military. After all, Germany’s laggard defense capabilities led to embarrassing incidents in the past. The German air force had to ground nearly half of its ageing Tornado warfighter fleet over maintenance issues in 2015. Also that year, German army units had to use broomsticks instead of machine guns in a NATO military exercise because of lack of equipment.
That makes the boost in Germany’s troop size a welcome, albeit modest, move. “Germany is doing the right thing, but in small doses,” Benitez said.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images