How to Spend It: Three Simple Suggestions to Increase German Military Spending


Recently, the German Defense Ministry announced the seventh restructuring of the German army in 25 years. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen will present the official plan to create three new fully equipped divisions to NATO defense ministers in June. Germans have found it hard in the post-Cold War era to decide what a German military should do, what the country’s history allows it to do, and how it fits into international defense structures like NATO. The current version of Germany’s new defense pragmatism calls for a multi-pronged strategy of creating joint bilateral initiatives within Europe, committing soldiers to NATO, and engaging in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Still, Germans have tended to push back heavily on suggestions that they rapidly ramp up military spending. There are understandable historical and practical reasons for this. But there are ways to spend more on defense without preparing for Germany to go nuclear — a suggestion floated somewhat outlandishly and in violation of Germany’s international treaty obligations after the election of Donald Trump. Germans need to think more broadly about what constitutes military spending, realizing that it comprises far more than hardware. Let me suggest three solutions that kill many birds with one stone. Germany can spend money discriminately to boost its economy, secure its population, and strengthen its role in sustaining the international order.

Although Berlin increased its defense budget by 8 percent in 2017, Germany has come under intense pressure to move faster to boost its military budget from the current 1.2 percent of GDP.

President Trump has been most direct in demanding that Europeans pull their weight. In May 2016, he said that NATO was “costing us a fortune,” though the full ramifications of such statements remain unclear. When Merkel visited Trump in March 2017, the tension between the two was palpable. After the meeting, Trump maintained an aggressive stance, tweeting that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

The discussion about spending 2 percent of GDP on the military in line with NATO commitments is omnipresent and began before the 2016 presidential campaign. Like many presidents before him, Barack Obama also complained about “free riding”  and called for increased burden-sharing. Germany committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014. The German Defense Ministry issued a white book in July 2016 detailing plans for expanding and reforming the military. The language indicated somewhat vague long-term thinking, noting on page 69 that Germany was “determined to aim to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defense…over the long term and subject to available resources.”

German politicians and diplomats give four main reasons for not becoming big spenders on defense. First, it is impossible to spend the money that fast. Second, Germany would like to engage in a common European defense policy to avoid the problem of duplication. Third, Germany’s military engagement has already changed dramatically by German standards and the white book represents a paradigm shift to take more leadership in military matters. Germany was the third-largest contributor to the NATO mission in Afghanistan starting in 2002. It was the first time German troops had really faced combat since World War II. Germany also contributed to the U.N. mission to Mali starting in 2013. In January, the German parliament voted to expand Germany’s role, making Mali the country with the largest German military presence of up to 1000 soldiers and eight helicopters. Fourth, 2 percent of GDP is an arbitrary metric. Leading German policymakers joke in private that the fastest way to achieve the 2 percent goal is to plunge the German economy into a recession. They maintain that it’s more important to increase efficiency than spend more money.

These reasons all make sense from a German perspective. But the current American administration looks at things differently. In Brussels on February 15, Defense Secretary James Mattis asked for a plan with fixed dates for NATO countries to reach the 2 percent goal.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen reiterated Germany’s commitment to increase military spending at the Munich Security Conference. But there is no indication that this will be sufficient for Washington. The White House would like to see a clear reaction based on a budgetary target that is easily represented in a bullet point or a graph. Here are three productive ways that Germans might advance rapidly to doing more on defense and satisfying critics in Washington.

First, invest in higher education laboratories engaged in defense research. Defense projects that originally began as moonshots like DARPA in the United States produced significant long-term economic gains, as Harold James points out. The European Commission recently noted defense spending’s “positive spill-over effect on the European economy.” Every euro spent on defense already creates a return of 1.6 through employment, exports, and innovation. Defense spending can boost innovation in the long run. Plus, Germany can take advantage of the current mood in the United States and the United Kingdom, where plenty of academics would happily accept a job leading a lab in Germany that they might have turned down two years ago. Why not create a German equivalent of the Stanford Computer Security Laboratory? This boosts innovation, strengthens the higher education sector, and increases military spending.

Second, increase cybersecurity personnel swiftly. The Germans have just launched a cyber command as the sixth branch of the military (alongside the army, navy, air force, medical service, and joint support service.) But it is difficult to recruit qualified personnel. The solution is to hire people from Google and other digital companies already working in Germany. Pay them a starting bonus and incomes equivalent to their current pay-scale, even if six-figure salaries seem a little outrageous compared to others in the Bundeswehr. If these recruits can help stop hacking and build credible cyber-defense, might that be a small price to pay to shore up democratic institutions? Germany can rapidly acquire a team skilled enough to deal with hacking and cybersecurity issues that are particularly urgent with the upcoming election. This secures Germany’s cyber-infrastructure, combats terrorism, does not duplicate current European capabilities, and increases military spending through the classic tactic of recruiting more personnel. It also dovetails with the priorities of Estonia, the E.U. Council president in the second half of 2017.

Third, increase spending on health. Health has always been a military as well as a civilian issue. This is particularly true with the millions of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who are suffering appalling physical and mental health problems. Germany already has several institutes that could expand swiftly to address these and other future problems. These include the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich and Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg. These two institutes have already developed modular mobile laboratories that can be deployed worldwide as rapid response units to epidemics like Ebola. The Institute of Microbiology already investigates outbreaks and provides international training. Increased personnel and research capacity could ease the crisis of refugees in the Middle East and North Africa and make Germany a leading partner with the World Health Organization in responding to the next global health emergency.

There are other similar strategies. Military spending might promote research into climate change alongside developing better solar panels and renewable energy technology. Then there are the more conventional methods of committing to purchase military hardware like planes and tanks or upgrading existing equipment.

Simple suggestions undoubtedly create real logistical challenges. But they hold the advantage of practical solutions to pressing problems. Not rapidly increasing military spending could carry enormous risks for the transatlantic alliance, as lecturer on government at Harvard and fellow in the political reform program at New America Yascha Mounk has pointed out. Germans might contemplate these three suggestions when they think about how to spend it.


Dr. Heidi Tworek (Twitter: @HeidiTworek) is Assistant Professor of International History at the University of British Columbia and Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, Washington DC. She received her PhD from Harvard University.