Germany’s New Defense Pragmatism is Not Measured in Euros


When representatives from the Trump administration travelled to Europe last month, they made sure to stay on message. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence underlined that they expect Europeans to quickly spend more on defense. Germany and its peers were asked to make concrete proposals on how to reach the NATO target of spending 2 percent of the national GDP on defense. The real transformation for Germany’s defense policy is, however, not the planned increase of defense spending, but its new pragmatism in pushing Europe towards cooperation on military matters.

Germany was singled out as the main target of the U.S. burden-sharing demands. Even though Berlin increased its defense budget by 8 percent in 2017 and is allocating 1.22 percent of its GDP to its military, the biggest European economy still falls far behind the alliance’s defense spending goals. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her defense minister Ursula von der Leyen were quick to confirm that Germany will do its utmost to fulfill the 2 percent commitment.

However, these two leaders from the Christian Democratic Union also underlined that the process will take time. Red tape, understaffed planning offices as well as the German tendency to do things right, all serve to slow down the procurement process. The German forces also  lack an appropriate number of recruits to bolster the military build-up and, as a result, have started a charm offensive to win over young people.

Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister from the Social Democratic Party, used the debate on defense spending to appeal to the pacifist segment of his party’s electorate. He defended Germany’s position by referring to the 30 to 40 billion euros ($32 to $42 billion) that Germany spends on supporting refugees that arrived in Europe as a result of past failed interventions in the Middle East. According to him, “this should be considered a contribution to stabilization” and crisis prevention and development cooperation are equally important to increase security. He wants to see this broader concept of security reflected in the burden-sharing assessment.

Although German government representatives from both parties quickly agreed that their country must do more on defense, the damage caused by U.S. statements on spending was already done. By putting the focus on the 2 percent goal and ignoring the reality of Germany’s organizational and political difficulties in swiftly reaching this target, the U.S. administration – perhaps unintentionally – triggered the stereotypical portrayal of Germany as a reluctant power. This is unfortunate, as it completely disregards the far-reaching changes in Germany’s military activities in recent years. Germany is already stepping up its military role in close cooperation with neighbors and advocates for European priorities in the face of crises across the continent. In an unusual move for Germany, however, its new defense pragmatism is not only implemented through working groups and white papers tabled at the European Union in Brussels, but instead through bilateral initiatives.

While most observers focused on the attempts from both sides of the Atlantic to promote renewed trust in the NATO alliance, in recent weeks Germany has taken concrete action in bolstering European defense with its neighbors on the continent. The broad German initiative, which was dubbed by one newspaper as the transformation of the German forces to a European “anchor army,” included a long list of bilateral agreements. In capabilities across land, sea, and air Germany has initiated partnerships with European neighbors. For instance, Joint procurement and maintenance programs with Norway on submarines, Lockheed transport aircraft with France, tanker aircraft with Benelux and Norway and drones with France and Italy are  all under way. While not all details on these plans are fixed, the defense spending on aircrafts and submarines alone will amount to several billion euros. In addition, Germany is creating joint military structures together with Romania and the Czech Republic. With the United Kingdom, Berlin is currently working on a defense roadmap to deepen cooperation despite London’s recent divorce from the European Union.

The new push for bilateral agreements and integration of military capabilities and structures is part of a larger pragmatism on defense integration in Europe. Many politicians in Europe carefully avoid any mention of the traditional “European Army” buzzword that has captured the imagination of Europhile politicians for decades. The truth is that the lofty concept of a E.U. multinational force did more harm than good in the name of strengthening European defense. The E.U. battlegroups – several 1500 soldier-strong battalions – were never deployed and showed that multinational forces are paralyzed when the participating countries lack a common strategic culture. Some European NATO members, especially the Baltics and Poland, feared that deeper E.U. military integration might undermine the allies’ commitments to NATO.

Instead of standing still, however, Europe started to integrate its military through a bottom-up approach. Rather than organizing Europe’s national forces from the E.U. level, defense ministries interwove their militaries through bilateral agreements. E.U. member states are less concerned about the specific form of the defense cooperation, but more about its function: how to achieve and maintain a full spectrum of military capabilities that allows Europeans to respond to external crises without depending on the infrastructure and capabilities of the United States.

It is still not entirely clear what part the European Union can play in the future transformation of Europe’s militaries. In March, E.U. member states agreed to set up a military planning and conduct capability. The new unit is not the E.U. military headquarters that Germany wanted to see. It is, instead, restricted to non-executive training missions. However, its swift creation after the Brexit vote indicates a new dynamic. Federica Mogherini, the E.U. foreign policy chief, is also working together with member states on plans for a “permanent structured cooperation”. Germany, France, Italy and Spain are especially interested in this mechanism that allows a core group of E.U. member states to forge closer ties on military initiatives. Ideas currently in the mix include a joint defense fund, a logistics hub, and a medical command.

A stronger European defense pillar also means greater autonomy in prioritizing where and how to act. Europe cannot defend itself without the U.S. security umbrella. But NATO will not address all the security challenges facing Europe in the coming years. For example, von der Leyen already made clear that North Africa and the Sahel region will receive a major share of Europe’s attention in the coming decades. This is not only a question of showing solidarity with France and their historically exposed role south of the Mediterranean Sea. The migration crisis also brought the risks connected to the instability in that region closer to the attention of the German public and policy makers. NATO has a limited role to play in North Africa which has pushed Germany and France to consider more specific European capabilities to swiftly intervene in crisis situations in the region. According to recent a poll, seven out of 10 Germans think that Germany cannot trust the United States anymore. As such, the unpopular Trump administration is another factor that causes Europeans to reflect on their own defense and foreign policy priorities.  With the United Kingdom on the way out of the European Union, Berlin is in a good position to shape this debate.

Critics point out that Germany has always been good at organizing structures, but when the call for military action came, they preferred tasks a safe distance from the frontline. For legitimate historical reasons, Germany is reluctant to send troops into combat. However, Germans also care deeply about European unity. German politicians have a more persuasive argument in their pocket when sending German troops to defend European interests and values versus justification based on commitment to the U.S. partnership alone. This European solidarity  was seen clearly when the German parliament approved a military mandate in record time after France asked for E.U. assistance in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.

The skepticism with which some Americans react to announcements and plans pouring out of Brussels and other European capitals is understandable. Too often, Europeans have created paper armies, only to then be divided and incapable of acting when it counted. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to disregard the evolutionary changes that have occurred in the last couple of years. In contrast to past efforts, these changes are designed by defense ministries and not by foreign ministries and European politicians. The changes alter the shape of the armed forces and thus go beyond the political debates of recent years on the competences of E.U. institutions. At the same time, Germany’s attitude to the use of military forces has shifted as crises hit closer to home and have put Germany’s favorite project, a united Europe, at risk. Germany reacted and is taking substantial action in increasing its contribution to European – not national – defense.


Niklas Helwig (twitter: @nhelwig) is a Transatlantic Post-Doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security at the Center for Transatlantic Relation at SAIS Johns Hopkins. His research focuses on German and European foreign and security policy. He received his Ph.D. jointly from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cologne.

Image: U.S. Army Europe photo by Visual Information Specialist Markus Rauchenberger