Merkel’s Military Revival

Germany is poised to become Europe’s first line of defense, but facing down a revanchist Russia will require more spending and better coordination among NATO allies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks past sailors of the German Navy while visiting the "Braunschweig" warship on January 19, 2016 in Kiel, Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks past sailors of the German Navy while visiting the "Braunschweig" warship on January 19, 2016 in Kiel, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

For months after Germany’s September 2017 election, it was unclear whether Chancellor Angela Merkel could form a viable new government. The widespread anxiety over the outcome of the coalition talks finally dissipated after the Social Democratic Party (SPD) decided on March 4 to join the government, cementing Merkel’s continued leadership. With political instability and populism rising across Europe, the formation of a new coalition government in Germany led to universal expressions of relief.

But if Germany wishes to achieve its ambitious regional and global leadership goals, it will need to enhance the ability of its armed forces, the Bundeswehr, to act abroad. And this will require a substantial increase in national defense spending. Germany has long lagged in defense spending despite being Europe’s largest economy. Among NATO allies — all of whom are treaty-bound to meet a mandated annual defense target of 2 percent of GDP — Germany ranks 17th in the EU at 1.2 percent and is nowhere close to meeting this target at present. Over the past two decades, German defense spending has gradually decreased to the current level of $45.9 billion, which renders Germany largely unable to project force abroad.

Not surprisingly, amid a well-entrenched national culture of pacifism, defense spending has not been a popular campaign issue. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, has long called for Germany to meet the 2 percent target, but during the campaign she sought to downplay this pledge. Although the SPD used to be in favor of meeting the NATO target, when Donald Trump began to publicly criticize Germany for being a defense spending laggard, opposition on the German left spiked, and former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the SPD, declared that doubling Germany’s defense budget was no longer in the cards. (At the time, the SPD was trying to avoid losing voters to the Greens.)

Meeting the 2 percent target did not appear in the coalition agreement. While this may seem cause for pessimism, a range of factors suggests that Germany will make good on its earlier promises. The new grand coalition in Berlin will continue to ratchet up defense spending with each successive budget, with a seven-year goal of coming close to the 2 percent target. Most important, there is a growing German appetite for taking on the twin burdens of regional and global leadership. While the German public is only part of the way there, German elites and government officials now solidly believe that their rising power comes with greater responsibility.

Joachim Gauck, Germany’s former president, served as the catalyst for this critical shift. Gauck has expressed confidence in modern Germany’s acceptance of a greater global leadership role and even detected a newfound modicum of pride among German people about playing that role. As a result, Germany has become more active abroad in recent years and with less controversy. From Bundeswehr forces serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission to successful German efforts to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, Germany has made progressively greater contributions to global security. Long gone are the days when German officials would criticize NATO exercises or abstain on a U.N. Security Council vote, such as the March 2011 resolution to turn the NATO Libya operation into a U.N. operation.

Just after forming the new grand coalition this month, Merkel’s cabinet approved an expansion of foreign military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, including increasing the number of German troops in Afghanistan by 1,300 with plans for a long-term deployment. The mission to train Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq has largely been completed, but rather than withdraw its troops, Germany is stationing most of them in Baghdad. Moreover, 100 additional troops will be deployed to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali where Germany has just taken over command of a military base in Gao from the French. In addition, the German air force will continue its surveillance and refueling mission as part of the Western-allied campaign against the Islamic State. Finally, the coalition has also agreed to add $12.4 billion to the military budget over the next four years, coupled with a pledge from Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen that further resource increases are in the offing for the purpose of rebuilding German forces after successive decades of cuts.

Von der Leyen foreshadowed the new German government’s profoundly important policy decision in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in February. There, she announced that Germany was committed to greater burden sharing within NATO and specifically in the form of defense spending increases. In a further signal of the country’s growing role, a new NATO logistics command will be located in the German city of Ulm.

At a moment when small nations everywhere — and even some large and powerful ones — are moving into Russia’s orbit, German leaders have a crucial role to play. They must act to stop Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, from falling under Russian influence, but they will only succeed if other Western European governments join them.

Indeed, in the absence of Anglo-American leadership — after the traditional leaders of the Western alliance have faded from the global scene due to self-inflicted wounds — it is critically important to the West and the liberal international order that the new leadership team of Germany and France succeeds.

The principal challenge for Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and their partners involves threats from revanchist Russia, particularly in the form of a recent exercise that NATO military staff viewed as a major preparation for war — as well as the uptick in Russian provocations at sea and in the skies. Germany played a crucial role in helping the British government persuade other allies to expel Russian intelligence officers under diplomatic cover after the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in Britain.

As Europe’s Franco-German leadership faces this growing Russian threat, the greatest danger for them is that the West has fallen into a joint security trap. As with the classic prisoner’s dilemma, because the United States and European allies did not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin combining what was left, both ended up worse off and experienced a mutual loss of security.

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration and the governments of former British Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President François Hollande, the United States and its European allies independently slashed their defense budgets dramatically. Suddenly, the European Union and NATO no longer seemed up to the task of dealing with a major military threat. Indeed, this was one of the main factors that persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could continue his policy of annexation and war in Ukraine, bombing in Syria, and foreign meddling and intervention in Europe and the United States. Deterrence is an easy thing to lose and extremely difficult to re-establish.

Despite the February 2016 move by the Obama administration to quadruple funding for the European Reassurance Initiative — an overdue attempt to fund the forward placement of NATO troops and equipment in Poland — to $3.4 billion, this reinvestment in the U.S. military presence in Europe after decades of gradual troop and equipment withdrawal was too little too late. Conventional deterrence in Europe had already been squandered, and to this date Russia is undeterred from engaging in a range of threatening behaviors that mete out serious harm to Western security interests. In Syria, for example, Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s government forces have essentially won the war; meanwhile in Libya, Russia is disrupting the U.N.’s efforts to stabilize the country.

Europe has still not developed its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military force. Instead, a number of European allies have spent years reducing their defense budgets under broader economic austerity measures. Even today, the NATO allies are being held back by overlapping military communication systems and battle groupings that do not complement one another. Although the forward allied military presence in Poland and America’s newfound provision of offensive weapons to Ukraine are proving helpful, significant increases in defense spending, weapons procurement, and military exercises among Western allies are required for the alliance to escape the joint security trap.

Given this situation, all eyes have understandably turned to Germany and France. The Merkel-Macron team could not begin addressing the Russian threat until Merkel emerged in charge of a new governing coalition. Now, Germany’s coalition partners have called for a “new awakening for Europe” and pledged to work “work together with all their strength” to bring it about. Together, they are encouraging Europe to strike out on its own in response to threats posed by Russia and China, as well as the challenge of Trump’s unilateral approach to everything from global security to international trade.

However, the challenges for the two leaders remain considerable, and the rise of nativist populist parties has not helped. The new far-right Alternative for Germany party, which took nearly 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 election, has criticized Merkel’s increased spending on foreign military and diplomatic missions. Nevertheless, average Germans are becoming increasingly willing to let their country to play a global leadership role. From the open arms Germans offered to Syrian refugees to the public’s steadily growing support for military involvement abroad, we are witnessing the emergence of a new Germany that will benefit the rest of the world.

Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former official in the State Department from the Obama administration. He is author of Integrating Europe from Oxford University Press and the forthcoming Rise of the East, End of the West? Twitter: @JeffreyAStacey