Germany’s Confounding Foreign Policy: Conservatives Favor Peace, Greens Plan for War

Germany’s chancellor for the last 16 years, Angela Merkel, will retire after her country’s September election. Although the Greens enjoyed a temporary burst of popularity, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is back in the lead.

If the CDU, which runs in tandem with the Christian Social Union, based only in Bavaria, gains a plurality it likely will lead the resulting coalition with its head, Armin Laschet, becoming the next chancellor. Unless the CDU gains a bigger majority than expected, which would allow a coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the CDU is likely to align with the Greens. In that case, the latter’s leader, Annalena Baerbock, probably would end up as foreign minister.

Depending on the final vote totals there might be other alternatives, including the Greens and Social Democrats relying on the neo-communist Die Linke party to freeze out the CDU, which has held the pole position in the last four governments. However, the betting is that a solid plurality of Germans will vote for stability as Merkel departs. Her chief accomplishment may be having neutered the CSU, which today is but a pale version of the Republican Party at its most vacuous.

Merkel visited America last week not so much to work as to celebrate. She first came to Washington when George W. Bush was president. She then worked with Barack Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. She outlasted Donald Trump, who famously calling her a word which rhymes with witch. She and Biden talked shop, of course, but to little effect. She will leave office soon – the exact date depends on the speed of coalition negotiations after the vote, which is only two months away – while he is still staffing his administration, reevaluating policy, and asserting control.

Nevertheless, the Merkel-Biden meeting had a "wide-ranging agenda," reported the Washington Post. They apparently chatted about Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement which Trump foolishly repudiated. Both want to bring both America and Iran back into compliance. Berlin has little to do on the issue, but Biden must face down GOP warhawks supplemented by Democrats fearful of Israel’s political clout.

An even more difficult issue was China, against which Washington wants to enlist Germany in a veritable economic war. However, the People’s Republic became Germany’s biggest trading partner in 2016 and Berlin is not inclined to get tough lest Chinese retaliation cost export sales.

The German people are even less willing to back the U.S. Reported the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor: "Data from the end of Trump’s term showed that while Americans view Germany as a partner on key foreign policy issues, the feeling was not often reciprocated. Polling data from Pew Research released last year found that 55 percent of Germans thought China had overtaken the United States as the world’s leading economic power. A poll conducted for the Welt newspaper by polling firm Infratest Dimap in December found that only 17 percent of Germans supported siding with the United States in a potential U.S.-China conflict, with three-quarters preferring to remain neutral."

So much for a close alliance!

The two leaders talked about Afghanistan, on which Biden administration has set the pace by announcing its withdrawal. Biden also pushed Germany to support waiver of patent rights on vaccines. Berlin continued to resist, evidently recognizing the importance of intellectual property in promoting future research. Rather than preserve incentives for future pharmaceutical development by negotiating to purchase patent rights for a specific emergency period, the Biden administration wants to claim political credit while imposing the costs on others.

And there is the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, on which Congress, never reluctant to dictate policy to the entire world, imposed sanctions. Biden opposes the project but is more concerned about repairing bilateral ties, which suffered under Trump when US arrogance hit overweening. So far Biden has exempted the project from penalties. "We’ve come to different assessments," said Merkel. We are "united in our conviction that Russia should not be able to use energy as a weapon," responded the president.

There are other issues. Trade, which was defused by Washington’s concession over aircraft subsidies during Biden’s recent trip to Europe. Climate change, on which he has moved much closer to Europe. Relations with Russia, with which Germany is more determined to have a passable relationship, since they share a continent. Also discussed were American COVID-19 restrictions on German tourists.

The forgoing mostly represent a normal relationship between countries. Heavily commercial, nothing extraordinary, generally safe, and mostly friendly.

Then there is foreign/defense policy. Biden canceled Trump’s planned redeployment of 12,000 military personnel from Germany. However, the issue of "burden-sharing" remains, though it apparently was not on last week’s agenda. Berlin lags not only America, but also many of NATO’s European members in military outlays as a percentage of GDP. Like most everyone else in the alliance, Germans prefer to put their money into social welfare than military outlays. And why not, so long as Uncle Sucker is willing to pick up the security tab!? Trump vociferously but ineffectively sought to change Europe’s, and especially Berlin’s, determination to cheap ride on America.

A succession of CDU-led governments promised to move Germany toward two percent of GDP on defense but slow-walked the process. It seems German "conservatives," like most everyone else, prefer to save money by leeching off the superpower across the ocean. The Social Democratic Party, Germany’s venerable left-wing party and the CDU’s current coalition partner, is even more hostile to proposals to hike military outlays.

But not the Greens. Although the party base historically leaned pacifist, and true-believers formed the Fundi faction, the leadership overwhelming belongs to the Realo, or realist, grouping. That includes Baerbock, who says she wants to spend more on the military, as well as cancel Nord Stream 2 and punish China for human rights offenses. (The German Marshall Fund’s Sudha David-Wilp said 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.") If chosen for either chancellor or foreign minister, Baerbock would likely push Berlin closer to the US, though any coalition agreement necessarily would limit her influence.

She is pushing another theme of interest: "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?" The answer from Biden should be an enthusiastic yes, along with the suggestion that Europe accept equal obligations as well. After all, she announced: "I think that it’s not only appropriate but also needed that Europeans, and therefore Germans, have to take more responsibility for our own security." The Greens even pledged to "securely" fund the Bundeswehr, though without specifying the amount.

A new governing coalition will provide the Biden administration with a good opportunity to change the approach to Europe’s defense, and especially Berlin’s role. The latter matters disproportionately because Germany has the continent’s largest economy. Any effective European defense requires a serious effort from its major players, Germany as well as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain. What they spend is far more important than outlays by such minimal states as Montenegro, North Macedonia, Estonia, Albania, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Luxembourg. Yet Germany, Italy, and Spain are big time laggards.

Obviously, outlays as a share of GDP is an arbitrary standard, but it at least offers some measure of effort. Germany came in at just 1.56 percent last year – up from 1.36 percent in 2019, primarily because of COVID-19’s negative impact on economic growth. However, even this is too much in the view of many Germans, who propose allowing Germany to count non-defense items, such as development aid, as defense spending. That would be committing policy fraud: only armed forces can fulfill certain essential tasks. Indeed, if the Germans inflate their defense numbers, so should the US, maintaining if not expanding – depending on the creativity involved in its accounting – the military spending gap.

By any normal measure Berlin is not spending enough. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted as such last fall when speaking to German military officers:

"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."

For years German officials and foreign observers have complained about the German military’s lack of readiness and inefficient procurement process. Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs cited: "low readiness of the armed forces. We have decades of underinvestment, 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."

The Defense & Security Monitor reviewed the Bundeswehr’s shortcomings and shortages, reporting: "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." Last year Hans-Peter Bartels, the Bundestag member then charged with monitoring the military, reported that "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."

Also important is alliance commitment. Most of Europe’s leadership and intellectual classes appear to favor a consolidated continental government, but most Europeans remain practical if not ideological nationalists. For instance, in the recent European Football [soccer] Championship no one cheered for a European team; among the early grudge matches was Germany versus England. In the championship game the battle was between Italy and England, with exultation and anguish the respective emotions for backers of the former and latter.

Such a stance is reflected in the professed unwillingness of Europeans to fight for one another. Last year the Pew Research Center found most Europeans liked NATO but rejected their alliance obligation to defend their neighbors. In Germany, which was the chief frontline state defended by NATO throughout the Cold War, only a third of people favored extending the same courtesy to other alliance members. Although 57 percent of Germans still had a positive view of NATO in 2019, that was down from 73 percent in 2009. Of the countries surveyed, only France suffered a larger drop.

With Angela Merkel on her way out, the Biden administration should focus on refashioning the bilateral relationship. Most fundamentally, Washington should treat Berlin as an equal – no more misusing the US financial system in hopes of coercing friendly states to follow American policy, absent a compelling security justification. That is not the case with the Nord Stream 2 project. Indeed, Europeans suspect that Washington, where the assault is being led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, wants to kill the project with Russia for profit, by hiking demand for US liquefied natural gas.

As for military spending, the president should not lecture Berlin on what to do about defense. Rather, the president should tell the German government what America will do. That is, bring home all forward-deployed troops in Germany and elsewhere on the continent over the coming three years. And initiate negotiations for shifting America to associate membership in NATO, ready to cooperate on common projects but no longer willing to maintain a defense dole so that populous and prosperous allies can shirk their own security responsibilities.

This would be moving into uncharted geopolitical waters, but nevertheless reflects what the alliance was originally intended to be. Foreign policy scholar Mark Sheetz explained: "The purpose of America’s ‘temporary’ intervention in Western Europe was to eliminate the need for ‘permanent’ intervention." Few Americans wanted to provide a permanent garrison. Particularly noteworthy was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s view: "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."

This is even more the case today. As a share of GDP federal debt now rivals the record set by World War II. And the numbers will get worse. At current rates of spending that percentage will almost double by 2050, hitting 200 percent. That would be a prescription for financial catastrophe in a republic with a rapidly aging population and burgeoning social welfare obligations.

Despite the bad personal blood evident between former president Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, the underlying U.S.-German relationship remained solid, held together by history, culture, interest, and values. And that will continue in the future.

However, the upcoming election provides a good opportunity to begin a security transition, in which military responsibilities for Germany and the continent are shifted onto Germany, as well as other European countries, especially the quartet of more significant powers. The Europeans may need time to "get on their own military feet," but they should begin doing so now.

If the German people do not believe they face a serious threat or do not need a serious military to confront whatever threats exist, that is up to them. However, that is inconsistent with membership in NATO and alliance with America and they should not plan to call on the US for rescue if they are proved wrong. Joe Biden, perhaps the most pro-Atlanticist president ever, would be the perfect person to deliver that sobering message to the Germans and their European counterparts.

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.