Germany will soon have a new chancellor. It could be Annalena Baerbock from the Greens, once a minor party focused on the environment. She promises a tougher foreign policy, but so far refuses to back the stronger military necessary to implement her rhetoric.
The incumbent, Angela Merkel, is not running again. A member of the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s great political success was stealing the agenda from the longtime rival Social Democratic Party. By making the two leading parties almost indistinguishable middle-mush Merkel gave the nominal right the advantage and has so far served 17 years as chancellor. The CDU remains in contention to again lead the nation while the SDP, Germany’s oldest party, languishes well behind.
The Greens once were largely pacifist. However, that changed after party leader Joschka Fischer gained the foreign ministry in a 1998 coalition deal with the SDP. He supported NATO’s 1999 war against Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened any alliance member. He left office after Merkel led the CDU to victory in 2005 and the Greens have been in opposition ever since. In fact, this is the first time they bothered to name a chancellor candidate.
Now the 40-year-old Baerbock is rated higher than her competitors and, more important, the Greens currently lead surveys for the September Bundestag election, which will determine the next government. A lot can happen in six months – Greens traditionally poll better than their election results. However, the SPD, currently overshadowed by the CDU in an unloved "grand coalition," is almost universally treated as an also-ran. And the CDU (with its Bavaria-based sister party the Christian Social Union) suffered through a bitter fight to choose a chancellor candidate universally viewed as lackluster and uninspiring.
Although the Green party base still leans toward pacifism, Baerbock hails from the more hawkish "realo" wing of the party. Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund noted that Baerbock "puts human rights at the center of a German foreign policy … but sees that there are times where a hardline stance is important, set against these authoritarian or revisionist powers like China and Russia."
Exactly how that would emerge in practice is unclear, but a shift away from the CDU-SPD emphasis on commerce over confrontation would be likely. (In fact, the SDP is positioning itself as the peace party in a direct attack on the more militaristic sounding Greens.) Baerbock said she wanted "dialogue and toughness," with seeming emphasis on the latter, toward Moscow and Beijing. She urged greater pressure on Moscow over Ukraine. She desires to end the Nord Stream 2 natural gas project with Russia, gaining her fans in Washington, which imposed economic sanctions on one of its closest allies in an attempt to impose America’s will on the issue. On China she seeks more balance, with greater attention to its human rights violations, though to uncertain effect.
She supports a more active German and European international role. She argued that "Germany is the biggest player in the EU and it’s crucial that if the EU wants to be strong, if the EU wants to play an international role and also a role in its own neighborhood, that it needs a strong, open, but active German foreign policy. It’s not about Germany telling the others what to do, but if we are behaving very passively, it’s hard for the others."
Indeed, she sounded like she wants more. She opined: "We should use this chance and reframe transatlantic relations, with Europeans on an equal footing with Americans. I would ask [Biden]: We should strengthen international relations across the Atlantic together – are you with us?"
Berlin is of course free to set its own foreign policy. However, it is not clear Baerbock would put Germany’s money and people where her mouth is. That is, if her government sought greater influence and confronted larger powers, would it take its military obligations more seriously? So far the answer appears to be no.
The Green party program calls NATO an "indispensable actor for European security." Earlier this month she said: "I think that’s it’s very not only appropriate but also needed that Europeans, and therefore Germans, have to take more responsibility for our own security." However, for 76 years almost everyone in Europe interpreted that to mean it is America’s job to protect Europe while the continent focused on expanding its generous welfare state and meeting other domestic needs. America agreed to do the defending, Europe agreed to be defended.
True, the Greens promised to "securely" fund the Bundeswehr, but that would be achieved by simply guaranteeing a budget of whatever size they chose to set. Baerbock previously opposed military spending increases and criticized NATO’s guideline setting military outlays at two percent of GDP. Berlin agreed to the target but continues to fall well short. The number is arbitrary, as she complained, but provides at least one measure to hold members accountable. Some observers delicately suggest "tension" between her positions.
Germany’s failure to meet its obligations has had a major impact on Europe’s ability to act as a peer to America and China. Germany has Europe’s largest economy. No one is concerned about military outlays by Luxembourg, North Macedonia, or Montenegro. No one would even notice if they disbanded their militaries. However, Berlin’s cheap-riding affects everyone on the continent. Other European states similarly believe that they also can offload security worries on America. Italy and Spain have sizable economies but minimal militaries. Even France and the United Kingdom, which possess Europe’s most capable armed forces, leave the greatest burden on Americans to defend a continent which could do so much more.
The disparity likely would grow if Baerbock pushed a more activist international agenda, especially against Moscow. If anyone would be expected to defend Europe from Russia, it would be the U.S., not Germany. If anyone would be expected to protect Ukraine or Georgia from Russia, it would be the US, not Germany. If anyone would be expected to revive military intervention in North Africa or the Middle East, it would be the US, not Germany.
Berlin’s military outlays last year were 1.56 percent of GDP. However, that share was inflated because Germany’s economy shrunk. In 2019 the number was 1.36 percent, which likely is more indicative in the future. Even the CDU-dominated coalition has repeatedly pushed back the projected date of reaching two percent of GDP.
The process is akin to asymptotic lines and curves in mathematics: creeping ever closer but never reaching the goal. Last week Claudia Major, with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, explained: "The first issue for Germany is the lack of public support. It’s quite curious to see when you have polls about who the public trusts, and the armed forces are usually ranked pretty highly. But what the armed forces do – the typical work of a soldier – doesn’t get much support."
What makes that process particularly irritating for Americans is how tightly Germans grasp the US security guarantee. Out of pique rather than policy President Donald Trump planned to move some American forces currently stationed in Germany, a decision since reversed by President Joe Biden. With Trump’s announcement German commentators, policymakers, and politicians feared the good times at American expense would end.
Andreas Nick complained that America moving Americans was "A purely politically motivated decision." Norbert Roettgen called the reduction in implicit defense subsidy to Germany "deplorable" and "regrettable." The US expecting Berlin to do more would "break down trans-Atlantic bridges," insisted Peter Beyer, and was "completely unacceptable," presumably meaning to welfare-dependent Germans. Washington’s decision to lighten the military load of Americans neglected "basic leadership tasks," contended Johann Wadephul. Worse, declared Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: expecting Germany to do more to look after itself would deny it "deterrent capability."
Abroad as well as at home, welfare enervates its recipients. What pitiful whining by a purported European leader.
German’s and Europe’s apparent helplessness seven decades after NATO was founded and three decades after the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact disappeared is simply shameful. And many Germans acknowledge the problem. For instance, last fall Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer discussed the continent’s continuing reliance on American arms:
"According to estimates by the renowned London-based RUSI institute, the United States currently provides 75 percent of all NATO capabilities.
It provides 70 percent of what we call ‘strategic enablers,’ which include reconnaissance, helicopters, air refueling and satellite communications capabilities.
It contributes almost 100 percent of defense capabilities against ballistic missiles to NATO. And of course, the United States provides the vast majority of nuclear deterrence capabilities.
Some 76,000 US soldiers are deployed in Europe. This is not counting the troops that the United States would send for reinforcement in the event of war.
Credible estimates suggest that to compensate for all this would take decades, and would leave our current defense budgets looking quite meagre."
The problem is not just inadequate spending. "The readiness of the Germany military is abysmal," complained the Atlantic Council’s Jorge Benitez a couple years ago, when reports were rife about the Bundeswehr’s sorry state. Bundestag Military Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels issued a report which warned: "There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage."
Defense & Security Monitor reported that the military lacked available and operational aircraft, helicopters, ships, and submarines. Not even 30 percent of Germany’s Eurofighters could fly; a smaller share of helicopters was ready for action. Germany, which pioneered the combat use of submarines, could not deploy even one. Once renowned for panzer warfare, Berlin lacked spare parts for its main battle tank, the Leopard 2. Body armor and even winter clothing was in short supply.
These and other failings obviously impact combat capability. DSM politely stated the obvious: "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 internal evaluations concluded that "German soldiers mostly don’t know how to use their weapons" and they "have no or little experience driving armored vehicles." Berlin sought to limit combat exposure for its forces by imposing "caveats" restricting their use. Britain’s Daily Mail gleefully reported: "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."
The issue has received less attention since then, but Bartels’ 2020 report was not encouraging: "I wish I could report a sweeping and noticeable improvement in the conditions our servicewomen and men are serving under. But the ‘trend reversals’ that have been initiated for the very most part are still not being felt. All the problems that need to be solved are well known; they have been described, analyzed, evaluated and conceptually factored in one way or another. But every time the Parliamentary Commissioner visits the troops, every time members of parliament, heads of ministries and the chiefs of staff of the military organizational elements visit the troops, servicewomen and men repeatedly raise the same concerns: too little materiel, too few personnel, too much bureaucracy."
Last week Major complained of "low readiness of the armed forces. We have decades of under-investment, poor management, lack of political attention, and this all has affected the Bundeswehr German armed forces, and the availability of forces for both collective defense and operations." She also said the "overregulated, outdated" procurement system "currently doesn’t allow us to swiftly improve our capabilities."
Similarly, Baerbock admitted: "Germany has increased its defense budget by €10 billion since 2016 … but the soldiers’ equipment and security have not noticeably improved." The logical response would be for Germany and the rest of Europe to get busy. However, her reaction was equivocal, complaining about waste and arguing: "We have to talk about strategic realignment first, then about spending," whatever that means.
The problem runs deep. The Europeans aren’t very high on defending each other. Last year the Pew Research Center survey found most Europeans expected the US to protect them but they didn’t want to fight for their continental neighbors. In just four of the 14 countries polled did popular majorities favor assisting fellow NATO members. Only a third of Germans supported doing so! Only a quarter of Greeks and Italians believed in aiding their neighbors militarily. Should this even be called an alliance?
Europe evidently is dominated by a welfare mentality, even though NATO was always intended to be a short-term expedient. For instance, James McAllister, author of No Exit: America and the German Problem, explained: "American policymakers from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower strenuously tried to avoid having the future of Europe dependent on a permanent US military presence on the continent."
Foreign policy scholar Mark Sheetz noted that "The purpose of America’s ‘temporary’ intervention in Western Europe was to eliminate the need for ‘permanent’ intervention." This point was made clearly by Dwight D. Eisenhower, World War II allied European commander, NATO Supreme Commander, and US president: "We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions if for no other reason than that these are not, politically, our frontiers. What we must do is to assist these people [to] regain their confidence and get on their own military feet."
Seventy-six years after the end of World War II, surely it is time for the Europeans to "get on their own military feet." At least, it is time for America to stop providing defense welfare. Baerbock inadvertently made the case for a US withdrawal when she noted of military outlays: "the biggest responsibility also with regard of taxpayers and society is to be more efficient with this money going into the military budget. Because if it goes in the military budget it doesn’t go into housing, into health care, in the school budget."
That applies even more to the US which is in far worse fiscal shape than Germany. This year the national debt will hit 108 percent, passing the previous record of 106 percent coming out of World War II. The Congressional Budget Office warns that figure is heading toward 200 percent by 2050. The rapidly aging population is going to put ever increasing pressure on federal outlays. Taking care of Americans surely should be more important than subsidizing well-off Europeans to Washington.
The Baerbock boomlet might come to naught. Her party might fade in the polls and could be shut out of government. Even if the Greens win, allowing her to claim the chancellorship, the result likely would be a three-way coalition that would require compromise all around. However, absent an electoral earthquake, the Greens will be in government, and even if number two behind the CDU she might claim the foreign ministry, as did Fischer in 1998.
In short, German foreign policy is likely to become more active and contentious. If so, the critical test for Baerbock and her colleagues will be their willingness to have their country take over from America responsibility for Germany’s defense. It is not serious for Berlin to talk about being tough while continuing to expect Washington to succor, indulge, coddle, suckle, cosset, subsidize, pamper, and spoil the Germans, and Europeans more broadly, when it comes to defense. If prospective German Chancellor Baerbock doesn’t understand that, American President Joe Biden should explain it to her.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.