Yes, Germany is Free Riding on American Security

July 8, 2015

Earlier this week, Ulrich Kühn took to these pages to argue that Germans are not free riding on U.S. security provisions, but merely take a different view of security and the way to achieve it. Yet, his arguments are fundamentally flawed and lead to a rather bizarre conclusion. What is more, Kühn fails to even define what it means to free ride.

Kühn argues that the numbers and statistics are not as bad as they might look, pointing to planned increases in defense expenditures. While Germany is planning to spend more on its military, Kühn skips over the fact that its defense budget is now at a mere 1.2 percent of GDP, well below the target of 2 percent set and agreed to by NATO members. Germany will remain well below the 2 percent target for many years to come. In fact, Berlin could not spend 2 percent of GDP on defense even if it wanted to, simply because it would not know what to buy. This is not a reflection of its investment acumen, but rather an expression of how rapidly and substantially Germany has cut its armed forces since the end of the Cold War. Re-establishing capabilities is an incredibly costly and time-consuming endeavor. In the same vein, Kühn wants us to believe that selling weapons to our allies is an expression of solidarity, whereas in reality it is simply good business. Or would Kühn seriously argue that German arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are an expression of German commitment to their security interests? Obviously not. The simple fact remains that even if Germany were to muster the political will to defend the alliance, its armed forces are not in a position to do so.

Kühn is taking things a step further when he argues that Germany’s approach to security is fundamentally different from that of the United States: Where Washington relies on “boots on the ground,” Berlin prefers multilateral initiatives and conflict mediation. The wisdom of this approach, Kühn argues, is now followed by the Obama administration. But this is a cliché, which reflects German navel-gazing more than the realities of international politics. The Bush administration tried multilateral diplomacy in hoping to defuse the North Korean nuclear issue and reached out to Russia after 9/11. The Bush administration opened a new diplomatic era in its relations with Vietnam and was the first to introduce a real U.S. strategy into Sub-Saharan Africa. That does not square with the almost comical image the Bush administration has in Germany. But the fact that so many Germans, and apparently so many German scholars, follow a ridiculous black-and-white approach in interpreting U.S. foreign policy is a problem in itself, and not an indication of the extent of Germany’s soft power (if anything, it shows a remarkable lack of it). Put differently, it is a meaningless stereotype to argue that the United States is good at doing the fighting, whereas Germany excels at diplomacy and development cooperation.

What about Germany’s actual diplomatic efforts in the current war between Russia and Ukraine? Kühn is right to point out that Berlin has taken a leading role in trying to end Russia’s aggression or at least limit the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine. However, it is at least a slight misrepresentation of recent history for him to argue that Germany took the lead in implementing sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. In reality, tougher sanctions were only implemented after the downing of the Malaysian airliner, months after the annexation of Crimea. With some imagination, this could be called an act of real decisiveness, but the delay reflects the reluctance with which Germany is coming to understand the systemic nature of the confrontation with Russia. In fact, the impact of the sanctions pale in comparison to the pain Russia has endured due to Saudi oil policy. Moreover, calling the Minsk ceasefires “shaky” has an almost comical ring to it. None of the ceasefires were ever adhered to, no matter how hard Germany pushed for them. But this is partly Germany’s own fault. It was Berlin that pushed the Ukrainians to accept an OSCE monitoring mission and not a European Union one, as Kiev preferred. Since Russia is an OSCE member, Berlin has in essence pushed for the fox to guard the henhouse with predictable results. Listening to Germany’s foreign minister, one would be forgiven for thinking that Frank-Walter Steinmeier still believes that the crisis is largely an atmospheric one, a result of miscommunication; it is Steinmeier who is lobbying for Russia to be re-admitted to the G7, even though Russia’s war in Ukraine continues unabated. And if you think Germany has begun re-examining it policies vis-à-vis Russia, think again. Its modernization partnership with Russia is an utter failure, but do not expect the Foreign Office to admit that.

All of that brings us to Kühn’s opening: the Pew poll. The pollsters found that some 58 percent of Germans think that the country should not rush to defend a NATO ally militarily against a Russian aggression, compared to the United States, where 56 percent think the country should. He is right in that the questions put forward by the pollsters were not adequately framed, yet the result still merits attention. After all, the very same questions were put to other European audiences as well, with starkly different results. Are we really to believe that this is because average Germans understand the minutiae of Article V better than their European contemporaries?

The Pew poll results, moreover, are not even surprising. Anyone who has followed the domestic debate on German foreign policy has to realize that a substantial part of the German public would like the country to be a big Switzerland. Engaged on the world stage? Sure. But showing teeth? Not so much. The real question, one that Kühn failed to ask, is what exactly is free riding? If it were to mean that Germany does absolutely, positively nothing to contribute to European defense, then Kühn would be correct: Germany is not free riding. It is, after all, doing something. If, however, free riding is meant as continuously and substantially underperforming and not spending the resources that the country could afford and would be sufficient to meet the challenge Europe faces, with an implicit understanding that if push comes to shove, the Americans would show up — well, than yes, Germany is free riding. It would indeed be reassuring to know that the Germans regard war as the failure of politics, not its continuation — if only the world would be a better place.


Dustin Dehez is Managing partner at Manatee Global Advisors, an international strategy consultancy. He is a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Young Foreign Policy Working Group of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation. His first book, Kalter Kaffee in Tiflis, was published by Random House in 2013 in Germany. Follow him on twitter @dustindehez.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe