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NATO's German Problem: Who Needs Soldiers or Weapons?

10 Apr 2019

Doug Bandow

The foreign ministers of America’s European allies visited
Washington to celebrate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO)’s seventieth anniversary. Members engaged in an orgy
of self-congratulation over an alliance which remains better called
“North America and The Others.” One of the meeting
highlights was preparing to bring in the military behemoth of
(North) Macedonia, following the inclusion of equally mighty
Montenegro two years ago.

One discordant subject was Germany’s military outlays, or
lack thereof. Berlin had promised to hike expenditures to two
percent of GDP by 2024—subsequently downgraded to 1.5
percent—but new budget figures indicated that the real amount
would be lower still. Germany’s government evidently lacks
the political will to put Europe’s defense first.

Without a hint of shame, the German Foreign Office responded to
criticism by tweeting: “Germany wholeheartedly
supports @NATO. We will stand by our commitments. True solidarity
is measured in terms of commitment, not Euros.”
Unfortunately, a barrage of bullets and bombs would be more
effective than mere statements of commitments against an
aggressor.

Europeans should not rely
on Americans to spend, fight, and die for them.

Germany has been a “problem” for a century and a
half. Originally Berlin was overly-militarized and insufficiently
restrained. These failings were on dramatic display in World War
II. No wonder General Hastings Ismay, the former Churchill aide
tapped to serve as NATO’s first secretary general, allowed
that one purpose of the alliance was to “keep the Germans
down.”

Moreover, decades later when the Berlin Wall came crashing down,
the venerable Margaret Thatcher was not alone in opposing German
reunification. Some Europeans saw the specter of the Fourth Reich,
and one wit explained that he loved Germany so much he wanted two
of them.

However, the Federal Republic’s militaristic heritage has not
stirred in the years since; even what passes for Germany’s new
nationalistic, xenophobic right offers no politician who hints at
being Adolf Hitler reincarnated. Certainly, neither avuncular
Helmut Kohl, the first chancellor of a united Germany, nor Angela
Merkel, who has dominated German politics for more than a decade,
acted the part of dictator-wannabe.

Far from clamoring to create a military capable of turning the
country into a Weltmacht, the German people seemed to forget the
reason for establishing armed forces. According to a Pew Research
Center poll, four of ten Germans don’t want to defend NATO
allies from attack. For years among the Bundeswehr’s strongest
advocates were social service agencies, which benefited from
draftees choosing alternative service. Furthermore, in January the
Bundeswehr dispatched mountain troops to Bavaria to… shovel snow
from the roofs of homes after a big winter storm.

Berlin’s lack of interest in all things military
wouldn’t much matter if the United States wasn’t
expected to carry the resulting burden. However, Europeans are
counting on America to contribute dollars, lots of them, not just
professions of “commitment.” Of course, Germany is not
the only free, or more accurately cheap, rider. Among major states,
the United Kingdom does best, though it engages in a bit of
statistical legerdemain to hit two percent of GDP. France comes
close. Other nations with sizeable economies include Italy, which
barely breaks one percent, and Spain, which doesn’t even meet
that minimal level.

Yet Germany’s preference to contribute love and kisses
rather than manpower and material to Europe’s defense is
particularly significant. The Federal Republic has the largest
population and economy in Europe. It benefited the most from the
defense efforts of others during the Cold War and emerged as a
continental leader. For Beijing to continue to rely on other states
shows a distinct lack of the solidarity in which German officials
claim to believe.

Now Berlin appears to be walking back from even its unduly
modest military commitments. The Merkel government affirmed
NATO’s objective of spending two percent of GDP on the armed
forces by 2024 but recently said that wouldn’t happen until
2030. However, Germany insisted, it was still fulfilling its pledge
in spirit since it would be “moving toward” the goal.
Outlays would be 1.5 percent by 2024, Germany promised.

Alas, that was then. German outlays ran a dismal 1.27 percent
last year and are supposed to hit 1.37 percent in 2020. But Berlin
recently projected that number falling to 1.25 percent in 2023.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas insisted that Germany still would meet
its commitments, but the prospect of hitting 1.5 percent, let alone
2.0 percent, in a few years, appears to be infinitesimal.

In Berlin’s defense, some German analysts pointed to the
steady, though small, increase in military outlays since 2014.
Through last year, real spending had increased by almost 12
percent. But that mainly reflected robust economic growth. As a
percentage of GDP outlays barely increased, from 1.18 percent to
1.24 percent. Recent expenditure hikes look even less impressive
when considering per capita spending. Last year Washington spent
$1898 per person on the military. Germany contributed $589. That
was up only $56 since 2014.

Overall outlays are important. However, noted Defense &
Security Monitor
, “the greater concern for core security
partners such as France and Britain remains the operational
shortcomings of the Bundeswehr.” The Atlantic Council’s
Jorge Benitez said simply: “The readiness of the Germany
military is abysmal.”

In January, Bundestag Military Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels
issued a new report which found few of the military’s
shortcomings to have been fixed, despite increased expenditures. He
complained: “There is neither enough personnel nor materiel,
and often one confronts shortage upon shortage.” He urged the
government, of which his Social Democratic Party is a member, to
speed procurement, insisting that “Soldiers need this
equipment now to do their jobs.”

The Defense & Security Monitor pointed to a lack of
available combat and transport aircraft, helicopters, operational
submarines, and naval frigates. Fewer than 30 percent of German
Eurofighters were ready for action; fewer than 20 percent of combat
helicopters were airworthy. None of Germany’s subs could be
deployed. Added DSM, “The Army’s main battle
tank, the Leopard 2, also suffers from a lack of spare parts and
sufficient work-up to bring the fleet into operational
readiness.”

The army borrowed equipment for deployments. There are shortages
of everything from body armor to winter clothing. Recruitment lags
and many roles go unfilled. NATO officials recently discovered that
German soldiers stationed in Lithuania used cell phones to
communicate since secure radios were not available. All told,
delicately concluded DSM, “These
conditions render German contributions to security missions under
an EU- or NATO-led mandate less than optimal, as its troop
deployments lack proper logistical support and effective firepower
capability.”

In Afghanistan, German troops had to rely on civilian
helicopters, while Bundeswehr helicopter pilots surrendered their
flying licenses since they lacked adequate training time. German
forces there also were dependent on U.S. transport and MedEvac
helicopters and Ukrainian cargo planes. Internal assessments in
Afghanistan concluded “German soldiers mostly
don’t know how to use their weapons” and they
“have no or little experience driving armored
vehicles,” including not knowing how to avoid roadside bombs.
Berlin attempted to protect its troops by imposing numerous
“caveats” on their deployment in combat.

Allies were familiar with Germany’s difficulties. In 2017,
the Rand Corporation figured that it would take Berlin a month to
mobilize a heavy armored brigade for dispatch to the
Baltics—and would require denuding other units of equipment.
Years before that, Britain’s Daily Mail reported with malicious delight: “They
drink too much and they’re too fat to fight, that’s the
damning conclusion of German parliamentary reports into the
country’s 3,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan.” At
the time, Berlin acknowledged that a greater percentage of soldiers
than of the overall population was overweight.

In January DeutscheWelle affirmed that “The German Bundeswehr is
still underequipped, understaffed and overly bureaucratic.”
This is why German officials admit that much more needs to be done.
However, with few evident threats facing the Federal Republic to
justify such expenditures, military spending is likely to become an
increasingly partisan issue. The grand coalition between Social
Democrats and Christian Democrats is fraying, and the former,
desperate to distinguish themselves, appear likely to make defense
outlays an issue in the next election.

Even if Merkel’s CDU continues to dominate Germany’s
ruling coalition, it is not likely to find public support for
nearly doubling military outlays. But if Berlin fails to fulfill
its commitment, transatlantic relations will only get more
acrimonious. During the seventieth anniversary festivities, Vice
President Mike Pence insisted: “Germany must do more.”
After all, “It is simply unacceptable for Europe’s
largest economy to continue to ignore the threat of Russian
aggression and neglect its own self-defense and our common
defense.”

The problem is twofold. First, few Europeans living in
“Old Europe,” as Donald Rumsfeld characterized the
west, fear for their international safety. The only plausible
threat is Russia, and no one, outside of the most deranged
neoconservative, imagines Moscow sending a revived Red Army on a
joyride across Europe. The cost of “victory,” whatever
that means, would be too high, the risks of war against
nuclear-armed powers (Britain and France along with America) would
be beyond imagination. For most Europeans, the military appears to
be a quaint anachronism that provides some nicely uniformed fellows
to showcase visiting dignitaries.

Even those NATO members located further east have little to
fear. From attacking the Baltic States, Moscow would gain little
other than some wrecked real estate. Poland would be indigestible.
Even President Donald Trump could not easily ignore explicit treaty
obligations to defend these nations, creating great risk for
Russia. Although angry at America and Europe for violating promises
not to expand the alliance to its borders, Moscow nevertheless
looks cautious and practical, most interested in preventing the
addition of Georgia and Ukraine to the transatlantic alliance.

Second, the Europeans, including residents of Germany, rely on
America to do their military dirty work. Until now Washington
always did what was expected, spending more, increasing commitments
of manpower and materiel, and reassuring allies. However unsettling
the president’s rhetoric to the European consensus, his aides
have carried on policy as usual. So why would any rational European
politician propose a major increase in military outlays?

Washington’s preferences have had little impact on Europe’s
behavior. For years presidents, secretaries of defense, secretaries
of state, and other officials have demanded, begged, insisted,
requested, whined, and urged NATO’s European members to do more.
Nevertheless, as a percentage of GDP, the continent’s military
expenditures remain below those of seven years ago. That number
fell to 1.4 percent in 2014; it was only slightly higher 1.47
percent last year. Primary responsibility for that increase is
Russia’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine, which sparked a slight
bump in allied expenditures. Additionally, that increase started
well before President Trump took office. But, as in the case of
Germany, it is unlikely to go much higher.

The only policy change which would make a difference is for the
United States to end Europe’s military dependency and turn
responsibility for Europe’s defense over to Europe. With ten times
the economic strength and four times the population of Russia, the
continent is well able to defend itself. European governments then
could spend as much or as little as desired on the military, free
of hectoring by Washington.

America and Europe still could cooperate militarily on shared
interests. Should an unexpected hegemonic threat arise, the United
States could reengage. But after seventy years of NATO, the
American people should declare their work in Europe done. It is
time for the Europeans to take over responsibility for their
security.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special
assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several
books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal