Ask What You Can Do for Your Country

Western countries need national service programs, and Germany is leading the way.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks to the media to present the Bundeswehr's new volunteer service program on July 23, in Berlin.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks to the media to present the Bundeswehr's new volunteer service program on July 23, in Berlin. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Spend a year serving your country. Twenty years ago the idea sounded old-fashioned—so old-fashioned that most of the countries that had national service did away with it. But threats to democracies are growing, and, what’s more, Western societies are fragmenting. The concept of serving one’s country—whether in the armed forces or a care home—is making a return.

Last month, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, presented her new “Your Year for Germany” program, which will be launched next spring, while members of the U.S. Congress are pursuing a “CORPS Act” (short for “Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service”) to aid the country’s coronavirus recovery through civic engagement. National service is exactly the answer Western countries need to some of their most serious problems.

“What keeps our society together? What’s the mortar in our society?” asked Kramp-Karrenbauer on July 23, when she introduced the program. At the moment, the answer is: not very much. The United States clearly suffers from particularly strong polarization, but other liberal democracies are struggling as well.

“What keeps our society together? What’s the mortar in our society?” asked German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on July 23. At the moment, the answer is: not very much.

Verbal attacks cast an ugly shadow over Poland’s recent presidential election campaign; British police officers have been attacked with bricks in the United Kingdom; extremists on both sides, piggybacking on peaceful Black Lives Matter marches, have attacked both each other and assorted bystanders, buildings, and monuments. And in the United States, uninvited federal troops have been dispatched to quell protests but instead appear to have made things worse. If there is any mortar left between society’s bricks, it is barely holding things together.

At the same time, threats to European and North American national security are increasing. Russia’s annexation of Crimea six years ago famously made the West realize that history hadn’t ended, and since then most European countries have increased their defense spending.

Some countries have returned to national service, too: Lithuania (whose previous national service system was a continuation of the Soviet Union’s mandatory military service) introduced selective national service in 2015 in response to the Russian threat, and two years later Sweden reinstated national service (suspended in 2009) as a highly selective program in which only up to 5,000 of Sweden’s around 90,000 19-year-olds are chosen. Sweden also made military service gender-neutral, as Norway had done the year before. And French President Emmanuel Macron introduced one-month national service for 16-year-olds in 2018, though it focuses on civic culture.

During the Cold War, lots of Western countries mandated military service for men. The purpose was training for the defense of the country, but conscription also functioned as citizen service, with young men learning that being a citizen of a liberal democracy includes responsibilities as well as rights. Military service also helped with social cohesion; it brought together young men from all walks of life in a way that few if any other venues can. But with no pressing need for military service, countries did away with it: France in 1997, Sweden in 2010, Germany the following year.

But even if there is a revival of national service, virtually no country today needs tens of thousands of new conscripts in its armed forces every year. (That’s why Norway, Sweden, and Lithuania, as well as Denmark, operate Ivy League-style competitive selection processes.) Israel, with its near-universal mandatory military service for all Israelis, is an exception.

With “Your Year for Germany,” Kramp-Karrenbauer is trying to improve on Cold War national service. The defense minister’s program offers voluntary national service to young Germans. Participants will spend a year in the armed forces, but, unlike in the past, they won’t simply serve in a random regiment. After six months’ training, they will practice “homeland protection” in their home regions and participate in crisis operations there.

Though lightly trained homeland protectors are hardly the same thing as the 12,000 professional troops the United States is withdrawing from Germany, they’ll strengthen Germany’s resilience in the face of crises, whether ones caused by Mother Nature or a hostile state—and such crises, not the prospect of a Russian invasion, are Western countries’ most immediate national security concern.

Kramp-Karrenbauer calls such resilience “Helping Hands.” At the press conference where she introduced “Your Year for Germany,” she noted that if the coronavirus had been accompanied by another contingency or hostile-state attack, the armed forces would not have been able to spare troops for coronavirus duty, a point I’ve previously made in Foreign Policy.

In Germany’s civilian service track (the so-called Voluntary Social Year), young citizens can volunteer for training and work in social institutions, including care homes and hospitals—another face of resilience. Under Germany’s previous national service system, young men who didn’t want to carry weapons could opt for similar civilian service. But as with the military track, this time participation is voluntary—and open to women.

“Your Year for Germany” will also be highly selective, with initially only 1,000 volunteers chosen each year. Within a week of the defense minister’s announcement, 500 young Germans had already expressed an interest in joining. With Kramp-Karrenbauer’s program, Germany is thus following in the footsteps of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, where the selective nature of the program has made military service a highly attractive proposition. The teenagers selected get a desirable entry on their resumes; the government gets the best and the brightest.

More countries are joining the national service trend. In the United States, leaders such as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal have long been pushing for it—not for military purposes but as societal glue. “At this scale of one full quarter of an age cohort, serving together to solve public problems will build attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another and a new generation of leaders who can get things done. I saw these effects for 34 years in the U.S. Army. We need them in civilian life,” McCrystal wrote three years ago.

That’s even more true today—so true, in fact, that in June a rare encouraging event took place in the deeply divided U.S. Senate. A group of senators ranging from the pro-Trump Republican Lindsey Graham to former Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker introduced the aforementioned CORPS Act, which if passed will see the U.S. government fund and administer a national community service initiative with space for up to 250,000 participants annually.

If adopted by Congress the national service plan will help the United States recover from the devastation brought by the coronavirus.

Crucially, if adopted by Congress the national service plan—which will build on the existing AmeriCorps, 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, and Senior Corps programs—will help the United States recover from the devastation brought by the coronavirus. “This legislation will help elevate national service to uplift people and communities, strengthen our democracy, and help us address health, economic, and social challenges,” Democratic Sen. Jack Reed said in a press statement.

Scotland looks likely to pursue a similar path. While national defense is the responsibility of the U.K. government, the devolved Scottish government (led by the Scottish National Party) oversees resilience. Earlier this year, the party’s defense spokesperson, Stewart McDonald, presented a new plan called Resilience Scotland. The plan, building on ideas I’ve put forward elsewhere, foresees voluntary resilience training offered to Scots from all walks of life; McDonald sees particular potential among teenagers, people between jobs, and recent retirees. Thus equipped, Scots would be much better prepared to tackle the next crisis.

And the next crisis will happen. Russia and China engage in needle-prick aggression aimed to cause discomfort, distrust, and discord in Western societies. Assorted extremist groups are likewise out to cause harm. And as a result of climate change, Mother Nature will spout more frequent extreme-weather events. The police, emergency medics, and the armed forces alone can’t tackle such contingencies. Indeed, it would be an unforgivable waste not to utilize the population’s potential to make society more resilient. Germany is showing the way. To use Kramp-Karrenbauer terminology, every Western country needs more mortar to hold itself together.

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