An expert's point of view on a current event.

Trump Is Right About Germany’s Low-Energy Military

Berlin needs to spend more on defense, but the U.S. president's public demands are making it politically impossible.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel chats with sailors of the German Navy while she visited the "Braunschweig" warship on January 19, 2016 in Kiel, Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel chats with sailors of the German Navy while she visited the "Braunschweig" warship on January 19, 2016 in Kiel, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

German generals don’t receive much public pity. They draw decent salaries and have relatively stable careers. They’re generally respected by their population. And, so far, they haven’t had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to recruit enough soldiers. But they lack the funds they need to use their troops and much of the Bundeswehr’s equipment is not deployable.

Germany’s top brass has for years been raising the alarm about the poor state of their forces’ readiness, but German politicians haven’t acted. Now, as NATO prepares to meet for its annual summit in Brussels later this week, U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to bully Berlin into spending more on defense — which makes it political suicide at home to do so. As a result, the generals and the many able officers and soldiers under their command are likely to lose out again.

“In the past several years, we have been increasing defense spending, but if we move to swiftly increase it further, it will look as if we’re doing it for Trump,” said Carlo Masala, a professor of international politics at the Bundeswehr University Munich, which provides civilian education for military officers. “That just won’t fly with the German voters.”

The German government has indeed been increasing its spending on its armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr. Five years ago, defense spending amounted to 32.8 billion euros (about $38 billion); two years later, the figure was 34 billion euros (just under $40 billion); last year it hit 36.9 billion euros ($43 billion, about 1.2 percent of Germany’s GDP). On July 5, the Bundestag passed the government’s new budget, which includes 38.5 billion euros ($45 billion) for defense.

Further increases are planned for the next two years — next year, the defense budget is due to reach nearly 42 billion euros (just over $49 billion). And early last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel promised that Germany’s defense spending would reach 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025 — about 49 billion euros ($57 billion). By comparison, this year the U.S. Defense Department has $700 billion at its disposal.

Although these increases are unpopular with Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the increases were going down fine with the voters. Indeed, though Germans are often described as pacifists, they do support their troops. According to the most recent annual survey conducted by the Center for Military History and Social Sciences in Potsdam, 47 percent of Germans support increased military spending, while only 9 percent want it reduced. Nearly half of Germans surveyed wanted more soldiers; only 7 percent wanted a smaller Bundeswehr.

Then came Donald Trump, whom 48 percent of Germans consider to be the world leader most dangerous to world peace — by comparison, 21 percent regard North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as more dangerous, and 15 percent live in fear of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. president has repeatedly lashed out at Germany for not spending enough on defense. And last month, he sent unusually harsh letters to Merkel and several other European NATO leaders, taking them to task for insufficient defense spending.

“Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model,” he lectured Merkel. The Pentagon has also reportedly assessed the costs of withdrawing the about 35,000 U.S. troops currently based in Germany — a step that could be interpreted as a veiled threat. (The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, has told reporters that there are no such plans.) Although Germany functions primarily as the U.S. military’s logistics hub — from which it dispatches troops to regions such as the Middle East and maintains an enormous military hospital — the U.S. military presence there is also seen as security guarantee for Germany and the rest of Europe.

Trump dispatched the letter despite Merkel’s 1.5 percent pledge earlier in the month. And he sent it even though NATO member states at their 2014 Wales summit agreed to “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade.” Seen from that perspective, Merkel’s vow to reach 1.5 percent is a big step — especially since her SPD coalition partners are extremely wary of defense spending. “No single issue troubles the Social Democrats as much as defense spending,” said Wilfried von Bredow, a professor emeritus at the University of Marburg who specializes in German politics. “We don’t have Social Democrats like [former Chancellor] Helmut Schmidt anymore, who supported a strong Bundeswehr.” The SPD could probably convince some voters that increases are needed by talking about the perilous security situation in Europe, but, von Bredow argued, “they don’t seem to understand that.”

The Social Democrats, the original advocates for low-income Germans, should be especially concerned about the fate of the Bundeswehr, which, like armed forces everywhere, consists mostly of regular soldiers who come overwhelmingly from families with modest means. But the SPD seems to have lost that working-class identity — without finding a new one. In last year’s national elections, the party won 20.5 percent of the vote, its worst result since 1945.

If the Social Democrats had connected Bundeswehr troops and European security, they might have performed a bit better — because there’s plenty of hardship in the barracks crying out for political attention. Troops lack tents, bulletproof vests, and winter clothes. Up to three-quarters of tanks are not battle-ready, and earlier this year it emerged that five of the German Navy’s six submarines are likewise not deployable. Shortly after taking over as head of the German Air Force this spring, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz reported that many helicopters and fighter jets can’t be used because of missing spare parts. A lack of parts also means that fighter jet maintenance takes 14 months instead of the standard seven.

“Two percent defense spending, that’s something nobody can want,” wrote Martin Schulz, the SPD’s then-leader, in an op-ed for local newspapers ahead of last year’s elections. Maybe not. But 47 percent do support increased spending. Incidentally, 1.5 percent of Germany’s GDP is about the same as 2 percent of France’s or Britain’s GDP — and these countries’ defense spending includes the maintenance of expensive nuclear arsenals. A mere 1.5 percent would go a long way in Germany.

In the midst of this fraught domestic debate, Trump has unwittingly formed an alliance with Germany’s Social Democrats. By berating Merkel publicly and loudly demanding more money for the Bundeswehr, the U.S. president has strengthened the SPD and its misguided pacifist narrative, threatening to deprive the Bundeswehr’s 179,000 troops of the additional funding they desperately need despite Merkel’s best intentions. And that’s really what NATO’s spending benchmark is about: Making sure that member states’ armed forces are of maximum use to their countries and the alliance — not browbeating allies in the public spotlight to the point that they are politically hamstrung.

If the unholy alliance between Trump and the SPD continues, it will cause enormous harm to the Bundeswehr. The armed forces are already short 21,000 officers and noncommissioned officers — and if the Bundeswehr’s public crucifixion continues, recruitment will deteriorate further. “We can’t afford to have armed forces consisting mostly of the underprivileged,” von Bredow said. If the Bundeswehr suffers, so, of course, does European security.

Sure, Germany’s generals could have been protesting more forcefully against the cuts that decimated the Bundeswehr before 2014. And since then, they should have been arguing more loudly for faster increases. (Several valiant officers have, to be fair, consistently proposed reforms in detailed reports that few people read.) Finally, following Europe’s wake-up call after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it seemed that the long-suffering Bundeswehr would see its fortunes change, as German politicians had concluded that European security was deteriorating. Now that opportunity is slipping away, too.

Masala, the Bundeswehr University professor, has a solution: French President Emmanuel Macron. “Most Germans would spend 2 percent for Macron,” he contends. “What needs to happen is that Trump should say nothing about German defense spending, and Macron should instead make the case for large increases. Then it would be possible.” It’s true that SPD leaders have a strong affection for the Europhile French president; after last year’s elections, Schulz promised to push Germans to embrace Macron’s ideas.

Masala’s plan might actually work. But for Trump’s ambitions for German defense spending to go anywhere, the first step is for Trump himself to shut his mouth.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist for Foreign Policy  and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw