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Opposition Social Democrats Run against Angela Merkel -- and Defense of Germany and Europe

11 Sep 2017

Doug Bandow

Even before becoming president Donald Trump railed against the
Europeans’ refusal to spend more on their own defense. Since
entering the Oval Office he focused much of his ire on Germany, the
continent’s wealthiest nation which had repeatedly
demonstrated its prowess in war.

“Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO,” said the
president earlier this year. America “must be paid for the
powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to
Germany!” Berlin wasn’t pleased with President
Trump’s musings. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen
declared that the “modern concept of security” required
more than spending on weapons, even as her nation relied on
America’ prodigious spending on weapons.

Still, the Merkel government increased defense outlays in 2016.
Berlin claimed even greater success in raising the percentage of
GDP devoted to the military from 1.18 percent then to 1.22 percent
this year—a number still unlikely to impress Americans who
have been paying for decades to send troops and materiel to Germany
and elsewhere on the continent. Indeed, despite the
president’s criticisms, his administration proposed spending
$4.8 billion next year on the “European Reassurance
Initiative,” intended to help people who won’t hike
their own defense outlays sleep better at night.

At least Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that
Germany’s anemic military spending was inadequate and pledged
to meet the NATO standard of two percent of GDP by 2024. (Only four
European members do so today.) However, no one takes her promise
seriously: at its present rate of increase Germany won’t hit
that level until 2030, and the defense budget is expected to fall
back to 1.17 percent of GDP in 2018, below last year’s level.
In January the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces
pointedly complained that “The greatest problem now
is—a lack of urgency!”

Without a foreign policy that justifies a larger military,
Berlin is left playing arbitrary statistical games. Argued Stefan
Theil of Handelsblatt Global Magazine: “As long as
Germany does not have a clear strategy for how and why it deploys
its forces, its military upgrades will remain halfhearted. And as
long as the Bundeswehr’s mandates nearly always exclude
combat, the country’s allies will continue to worry that
Germany will shirk its responsibilities in a security
crisis.”

But a bigger problem is voter opposition to higher military
outlays. Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, who trails
Merkel in the polls, targeted the government’s proposed
increase, which he tied to President Trump, who has a five percent
approval rating in Germany. Schulz and SPD parliamentary head
Thomas Oppermann wrote: “We say a clear no to the
‘two-percent target’ of Trump” and Merkel’s
party. Schulz and Oppermann added: “It’s not only
unrealistic, it is simply the wrong goal.” Foreign Minister
Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member of the coalition government, said the
election offered a vote on whether Germany “remained a force
for peace or followed Trump’s armament madness.”

Would the two-thirds of
Germans who currently oppose increasing military outlays continue
to do so if the U.S. dropped its promise to fight for Berlin to the
last American?

Schulz’s strategy may be a desperation “Hail
Mary,” but 15 years ago SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
staged a come-from-behind victory by attacking George W.
Bush’s plan to invade Iraq. Schroeder had the advantage of
being the incumbent and running against a war rather than a
statistic. Still, on defense Schulz is closer to the voters than
Chancellor Merkel.

Obviously, the German people are entitled to decide on how much
they want to spend on the military. After World War II
Germany’s neighbors feared a Teutonic revival. But the Cold
War required Europe’s dominant military power to rearm. Then
came what journalist Elizabeth Braw described as “two and a
half decades of cuts that saw the Bundeswehr’s budget shrink
almost every year—from 3.2 percent of German GDP in 1983 to
1.2 percent in 2014.” In 1990 Germany had a half million men
and women under arms. The number was 175,000 last year.

Moreover, explained Braw: “The German military
doesn’t just lack equipment: over recent years, maintenance
has been so neglected that much of Germany’s existing stock
has been unusable.” This year’s parliamentary
assessment of the Bundeswehr found a lack of such essentials as
uniforms, guns, and ammunition; soldiers used broomsticks instead
of guns and vans instead of armored personnel carriers in training.
Even Poland, once among the states which most feared a powerful
Germany, complained of Berlin’s military weakness.

But with even greater cause for complaint is the U.S. Germany
led the Europeans in cutting military outlays and capabilities. At
this point, argued the University of Sydney’s Salvatore
Babones, “NATO’s vaunted Article 5 commitment to
collective defense has become, in effect, a unilateral U.S.
security guarantee.” Such a system made sense in the
immediate aftermath of World War II, when American forces were
needed to shield war-ravaged Western Europe from Soviet coercion or
conquest. But not today, when the continent equals U.S. economic
strength and possesses a greater population.

Over the last couple of years more European states, Germany
included, decided they at least had to appear to be doing more. But
while the Merkel government claims to be going in the right
direction, the Bundeswehr remains a shadow of its once formidable
self—even something of a joke. A few years ago British
tabloid papers ran stories on fat and indolent Germany soldiers
gorging themselves on sausages and beer while stationed in
Afghanistan.

Even Berlin’s ongoing efforts to rearm show how far the
Bundeswehr has to go. For instance, the latter plans to increase
its fleet of main battle tanks from 225 to 320—but not until
2023. (Russia has 2700 MBTs today.) Overall, complained the
Parliamentary Commissioner, “the growth in defense spending
planned beyond 2017 is too small to guarantee the personnel and
materiel gaps found in the Bundeswehr will be closed.” Thus,
more money must come from a skeptical public.

Which suggests that even a reelected Chancellor Merkel would
find it difficult if not impossible to essentially double military
outlays. Foreign Minister Gabriel called the objective
“completely unrealistic” which no German politician
“would claim that is reachable nor desirable.”

The problem is simple: the German people don’t perceive a
serious threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a nasty
character, but no one imagines a revived Red Army again marching on
Berlin. And, truth be told, the Germans don’t care much about
the Baltic States, which feel most vulnerable, even though Moscow
isn’t likely to attack them either.

Unlike a succession of U.S. administrations, no German
government is interested in coddling, counseling, and
“reassuring” its NATO allies. If Moscow unexpectedly
invaded one of the border states, Germany would leave the heavy
lifting to America. In fact, a May Pew Research Center poll found
just 40 percent Germans willing to support other member states
against a Russian attack, the lowest percentage in eight nations
polled.

Alas, as long as the U.S. insists on defending allies which
aren’t interested in doing much to defend themselves or their
neighbors, why should Germany or anyone else do more? A parade of
U.S. presidents and defense secretaries have urged, commanded, and
begged the Europeans to spend more. And the latter have dissembled,
while refusing to divert money from their nations’ generous
welfares states. President Trump’s unusually blunt demands
have gotten the continent’s attention, but with an evanescent
attention span he seems likely to be satisfied by minimal increases
and unconvincing promises, precisely what Berlin has so far
delivered. Substantively, nothing is likely to change.

At least the Trump administration has created some uncertainty,
perhaps inadvertently. In May Chancellor Merkel told a political
rally: “the times in which we could totally rely on others
are to some extent over.” Now is the time for Europeans to
“take their destiny into their own hands.” That is a
better message than the Obama administration’s attempt at
constant reassurance, with little pressure on fellow NATO members
to do more for themselves.

The spectacle of American again becoming a political issue in
Germany is a good reminder why Washington shouldn’t attempt
to micromanage the world. When President Trump tells Europe what he
wants he naturally sparks angry resistance. Even if Schulz loses
the election, the passions he inflamed will make it harder for
another Merkel government to follow through on its promise.

Instead, American officials should explain what America will and
will not do. Washington should state simply that it won’t subsidize
the defense of even good friends if they are capable of protecting
themselves. In the case of Europe the U.S. should turn NATO’s
leadership over to the Europeans, shift to an associate role, and
bring home its troops. The two continents should cooperate and
coordinate, but on issues of mutual interest where American
assistance is necessary.

Washington’s role shouldn’t depend on how much the Europeans
spend on the military. U.S. forces should be withdrawn because they
no longer are needed. If Germany and its neighbors don’t want to
spend the money necessary to guarantee their own security, that
would be fine. They just would have to bear the consequences. There
would be no U.S. bail-out for governments unwilling to act.

What that means for Germany is difficult to predict. Would the
two-thirds of Germans who currently oppose increasing military
outlays continue to do so if the U.S. dropped its promise to fight
for Berlin to the last American? We won’t know until a president
finally treats alliances as a matter of security rather than
charity and puts this nation’s interests before those of other
states.

U.S. officials have spent decades pressing for more
burden-sharing. That’s proved to be a frustrating and ultimately
unfruitful demand. The Europeans have mostly ignored Washington’s
pleas and continued to enjoy nestling in Uncle Sam’s outstretched
arms. Instead, American officials should engage in burden-shedding,
leaving other peoples with responsibility to protect themselves. If
they refuse to do so, Washington won’t bother them. However, there
will be no new American Expeditionary Force to save them.

Donald Trump’s criticisms of Europe and NATO are well-founded.
But instead of trying to force America’s defense dependents to act
responsibly, Washington should simply stop providing the
international equivalent of welfare. It is up to the people of
Germany and other alliance members to decide whether their nations
are worth defending.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, former Special Assistant to
President Ronald Reagan, and a Senior Fellow in International
Religious Persecution with the Institute on Religion and Public
Policy.

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