Are Germans Free-riding on American Security?


A recent poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center suggests that Germans are free-riding on the U.S. ability to defend its NATO allies. Pew asked Germans the following question: “If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, do you think Germany should or should not use military force to defend that country?” Fifty-eight percent of Germans answered “No, Germany should not use military force.” At the same time, 68 percent of Germans think that the United States would use military force to defend NATO’s easternmost allies.

The poll comes at a critical juncture as NATO allies intensely debate how to respond to Russia’s hybrid warfare, employed so successfully in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. NATO’s easternmost members, particularly the Baltic States, have rightly pointed to the gaps in conventional military capabilities that exist between Russia and the alliance, fearing that it might not be prepared to take effective countermeasures if push comes to shove.

So far, NATO defense ministers have decided to expand NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force from 13,000 to 40,000 troops and to set up a brigade-strength (~5,000 personnel) multinational Spearhead Force. Additional Force Integration Units of several dozen command-and-control troops in six frontline states will prepare the ground for the Spearhead Force. Furthermore, NATO has increased military maneuvers in and around the Baltic States. This has been spurred by U.S. assurance measures, including an additional $1 billion per year for the Pentagon to fund rotational U.S. troop deployments to the region. Clearly, the alliance is in the process of closing the gaps.

But what about NATO unity? Doesn’t the poll suggest that some NATO members such as Germany are too weak, cautious, or afraid to seriously confront potential Russian aggression? And doesn’t that mean that only the United States can guarantee a Europe “whole” and “free”?

In fact, the poll paints a distorted picture that provides proponents of a “hard-line” approach towards Russia with additional rhetorical ammunition. To begin with, the correct question would have been to ask, “If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, and NATO member states decided by a majority to militarily assist the attacked ally, do you think that Germany, together with its allies, should or should not use military force to defend that country?” Had the question been worded this way, it would reflect the actual circumstances under which NATO’s Article V commitment would be triggered and its members would go to war. The German answer to this question, I expect, would have been different.

Make no mistake; the “German Michel” (a figure representing the average German — an easygoing and dozy 19th century German with nightcap and nightgown) is much less inclined to use military force than the average American is. This is the combined result of Germany’s starting two global wars that left millions of dead throughout Europe, and of a strict American-led re-education program for West Germans after the Second World War. Europe has since benefitted from the near-complete absence of German militarism.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Germany does not step up to defend its interests. German interests are closely connected to the institutional post-WWII network (NATO, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) that developed in Europe, particularly after the end of the Cold War. The recent aggressive behavior of Russia runs counter to German interests. There are a number of compelling facts and figures showing that Germany is certainly taking counter measures vis-à-vis Russia.

After the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, Germany was among the first EU countries to follow the U.S. line of sanctioning Russia for its behavior. Given that German-Russian economic relations have historically been very close, Berlin’s insistence on “targeted” sanctions is only understandable. Just recently, Germany and its EU partners agreed to extend sanctions for another six months. When fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, Germany and France, supported by the clandestine diplomatic efforts of Switzerland, brokered two ceasefire agreements — though those agreements remain extremely shaky. In April 2015, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced a German initiative to support the Baltic countries in building up Russian-language media outlets to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda, which is still having a huge impact on Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics.

Germany is also very active in terms of military defense. In the coming years, Germany will invest more than eight billion euros ($8.9 billion) in defense, increasing the number of main battle tanks it operates by roughly 100 to 330 in total. The merger of the German Krauss-Mafei Wegmann defense company with France’s Nexter is likely to lead to the development of the Leopard 3 tank as an answer to the new Russian T-14 Armata tank. Decommissioned German Leopard 2 tanks will be modernized and sold to eastern allies. German arms exports to Poland rose from 43 million euros in 2013 to 56 million in 2014. Berlin’s non-lethal arms exports to Ukraine even rose by 420 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Taken together, these facts and figures stand in stark contrast to the apparent unwillingness of Germans to contribute to the security and defense of NATO. Obviously, Germans are not free-riders.

Yet there is a problem with the controversy over the Pew report. When the focus is on alliance commitments, it is easy to overlook the fact that Germany’s approach to security is fundamentally different from that of the United States. While Washington has often relied on military might and “boots on the ground” and only found its way back to multilateral diplomatic initiatives under the Obama administration, Germany has always tried to mediate conflicts and to search for converging interests instead of stressing divergent ones. The politics of détente, Neue Ostpolitik, the achievements of cooperative security, and the Merkel government’s perpetual attempts to engage with the Kremlin are typical of that approach.

NATO’s ability to react to the new Russian challenges very much depends on a successful combination of the two approaches. Cooperative security can only be successful if advanced from a position of strength, while military force alone could easily lead to an escalating action-reaction cycle as was seen during the Cold War. Stressing the differences within NATO and portraying them as potential grounds for accusations of disloyalty only plays into the hands of Putin.

Statistics and opinion polls are important tools of empirical research. However, much depends on the political context in which they are generated, presented, and interpreted. In May 2015, the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel reported that, according to Russian statistics, U.S.-Russian trade rose by some 6 percent in 2014, while EU-Russian trade shrank by almost 10 percent during the same period. Does that mean that Washington is economically free-riding on EU sanctions? Probably not. More importantly, a March 2015 poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the University of Maryland suggested that a majority of 63 percent of Ukrainians (including the Donbas region) would find it at least tolerable for Ukraine to affirm a neutral position between the EU and Russia. Does that mean that Germany’s approach of identifying common ground in the ongoing conflict and avoiding either/or choices for Ukraine is the right one? Hopefully, it does.


Ulrich Kühn is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (Germany). He coordinates the trilateral U.S.-Russian-German “Deep Cuts Commission” and has been working for the German Federal Foreign Office. Twitter: @UliTKuehn.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe