Explaining the Poverty of Germany’s Strategic Debate
Germany’s fitful attempts to grow into its relative heft in European institutions remain tortuous. There is no country that could do more to contribute to European collective security than Germany, the largest economy in Europe but also a persistently reticent power. Julianne Smith noted as much recently earlier this year, and the disconnect between words and actions continues to puzzle not just allies, but even the Germans themselves. The chairman of the Munich Security Conference criticized Germany’s government for avoiding tough decisions, pointing as evidence to when German politicians pay lip service to multilateralism and strengthening NATO, while at the same time pushing approval for the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline or continued underinvestment in the Bundeswehr.
At this year’s Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel captured the mood of the continent with a spirited defense of multilateralism and the importance of values in foreign policy. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister since 2013, considers higher budgets “a question of dependability towards the troops as well as for Germany internationally.” Unfortunately, exactly where the German level of ambition for defense actually lies — despite continued discussion at the policy level — is still unclear.
The voices of Germany’s uniformed servicemembers are conspicuously absent from the debate on their country’s role in the world. The Bundeswehr does not lack for intelligent and forward-thinking officers, but they do not seem to share the U.S. tradition of contributing to public debate on military and security matters. Even their highest-ranking general is heard relatively rarely in public, though the current chief of defense has worked harder to explain the Bundeswehr to his fellow Germans. The defense minister is striving to connect the military to public research and debate on defense matters with the recent formation of the German Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies. Designed as a think tank for the Bundeswehr and located in Hamburg with the General Staff College, it is still too new to assess its impact.
This is a pity, because the Bundeswehr comprises the largest existing cohort of Germans who think about and practice security policy. They have served alongside American forces in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and today conduct security force assistance in countries like Libya and Mali. The Germans in uniform I work with are convinced of NATO’s continued efficacy, not only as a question of collective security but in relation to Germany’s own national self-interest. Given that they have so much of value to say, why don’t they?
The ready answer is history, which the Germans refer to as a backpack they always carry with them. Germany’s reckoning with history deeply affects the Bundeswehr. In today’s Germany, references to personalities from World War II are touchy subjects. When right-wing extremists in uniform come to the attention of law enforcement, it becomes national news, and harsh political reactions can exacerbate civil-military tension. This reality complicates the traditional military practice of inculcating a connection between today’s soldiers and historical exploits.
As an anecdote, when the history department at the German Bundeswehr staff college taught our class a block of instruction on Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, instead of reviewing his campaigns or significant battles, the focus was on his relationship to the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. The takeaway was clear: If he was an active supporter of the plot, then today’s Bundeswehr can venerate him. If he was merely hedging his bets to see how the plot played out, he didn’t meet the standard. The World War II Wehrmacht is explicitly separated from a historical connection to the modern military. Two years ago the defense minister openly mused about renaming the one post in Germany named after Rommel. Meanwhile, most American officers I’ve met think of Rommel in glowing terms similar to the ones used by George C. Scott’s Patton. And some of the U.S. Army’s largest bases remain named after Confederate generals.
At the German Bundeswehr’s National General/Admiral Staff Officer Course, the most promising field-grade officers spend two years studying social science, history, and geopolitics in addition to the more task-oriented professional military education U.S. officers learn in courses like the Command and General Staff College. As the last piece of formal, professional military education offered to the officer corps, it is the capstone course in the Bundeswehr, and taught jointly to a combined class from all branches of service. And since this is Germany, the country that invented the General Staff, the class meets on a post named for Clausewitz, a daily reminder of a long military history. The students and instructors represent the future leadership of the German armed forces in a manner similar to cohorts at the U.S. war colleges.
After spending the last seven months in this course surrounded by German and other NATO partners, I am impressed and worried: Impressed by the quality of the allies as professional soldiers and the effort applied at a military level to solidifying NATO defense, and worried about the future trajectory of a defense alliance where the people most invested in its success seem to be the ones in uniform, who after all do not decide the direction of a political entity.
Germany’s Defense Challenges
Germany’s standing commitment to raising its defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025 is questioned by continued disagreements in the governing coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). As Germany’s export-driven economy threatens to stall, the SPD finance minister successfully pressed CDU Defense Minister von der Leyen to accept a smaller defense budget of 1.25 percent for the next five years. Current estimates foresee a 1.37 percent rate for 2020. The defense ministry has managed to consistently increase defense spending for the last five years, but the sticker shock of major projects makes each one a contested issue.
My own experience is that Germany’s military retains the thorough professionalism earned through the years serving as NATO’s front line, but its uniformed leaders are painfully aware of how little German society cares about security policy. As Nora Müller noted in a recent article, the Germans would like to behave like a “big Switzerland,” focused primarily on their economy, and remain blissfully uninterested in interstate competition beyond the economic sort. Germans’ recent mistrust of the United States makes their support for collective security even less likely. The national mood reminds me of Trotsky’s aphorism: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The only time Germans spare a thought for the Bundeswehr is when the media fixates upon an embarrassment, like the ballooning repair costs for the school ship Gorch Fock or the annual report on equipment readiness. It goes without saying that if the German people wanted to stop reading such reports, they would support an increased allocation to defense spending. But the reality of modern military procurement is that systems are exorbitantly expensive, especially when considered in terms of life cycle costs. Indeed, one of the key problems facing the Bundeswehr is the scarcity of replacement parts for major weapon systems. After all, Germany is not the kind of country that will keep a tank factory open just to send them into storage. And while the generals who frequently visit the course maintain that the readiness trend has evened out and will only improve going forward, German soldiers display the customary black humor universal to soldiering when we start talking about tanks or fighter jets’ operational readiness.
Although my German colleagues often look enviously at the high status of the U.S. military in American society or the plethora of high-end equipment at its disposal, I try to remind them that their country’s security reality is far different than the U.S. military’s. The United States has to look far beyond NATO, whether to safeguard the global commons, defend allies in the Pacific, or continue prosecuting longstanding conflicts in the Middle East. NATO partners play a role in many of these operations, but none has or needs the same global reach at scale. Germany has not needed to think beyond Europe since before the Cold War, and the modern Bundeswehr came of age training and equipping its forces to fight a delaying action against the Warsaw Pact, on its own soil, until reinforcements could arrive. Getting to the point where Germans could imagine their troops in armed combat operations far beyond their borders took the shock of September 11 and invoking NATO’s Article 5.
Germany’s Military Mindset
One of the questions German soldiers frequently debate amongst themselves is whether or not Germany even has a strategic culture. In the military and academic spheres, I certainly think they do, but just like the U.S. military, the Bundeswehr executes the orders of civilian political leaders who answer to voters. Müller traces the Germans’ security hesitancy to a nonexistent strategic debate, but I’m not certain that is the case. As she notes, the German populace is interested in security policy, and their press is currently inundated with commentary on NATO at 70 and the arguments over the defense budget. What I think is missing is an accepted idea of national agency, or a choice to affect the world in support of Germany’s interests. As an American officer living in Germany, I’m surprised by how closely Germans follow U.S. politics, and I often end up listening to polemics on the follies of American foreign policy. These run the gamut from American responsibility for the current instability in the Middle East, to the trade conflict with China, to current tensions with Russia, to others that date back to well before I put a uniform on. Left unsaid by my interlocutors is how Germany can contribute to improving any of these challenges.
Germany’s parliament has two different organs connecting it to the military, which together address most defense issues that generate public interest. The first is the Defense Committee, comprised of 36 members from every political party (even those outside of the government). Its ability to initiate investigations sua sponte is unique among the various parliamentary committees, and the German Constitution gives it the responsibility of assisting parliament in its control of the military. The Bundeswehr also has an ombudsman in the parliament, known as the military commissioner. His autonomy and wide-ranging portfolio make him a uniquely powerful civil servant. Soldiers can file complaints directly to him on any service-related matters, he can inspect troops — globally — without notice, and he publishes an annual report on his work. So while no laws or regulations prohibit soldiers from adding to the conversation about Germany’s role in the world, the lack of civic interest coupled with strong connections to parliament lead to a feeling that to do so is beyond their role.
The German military articulates its current defense strategy as defined by policy priorities through a “White Book,” last published in 2016. The conclusions drawn from the White Book — which was drafted in the defense ministry by uniformed and civilian civil servants — inform much of the curriculum taught at the National General/Admiral Staff Officers Course, or Führungsakademie. These currently include joint capability development, enhancing local partners, and integrating the armed forces of Europe.
At the NGASOC, the Bundeswehr has clearly refocused its rising senior staff officers to shift their focus from the stabilization operations they’ve conducted in Afghanistan, Mali, and Kosovo toward what they call “LV/BV,” the German abbreviation for homeland defense and collective defense. The scenarios we respond to as division and brigade staffs are firmly grounded in the specter of a NATO Article 5 response to a peer competitor, and the majority of visiting flag officers discuss restructuring the organizations and capabilities built for contingencies like Afghanistan to something higher in intensity and closer to home.
One peculiarity I’ve noticed studying here is that German officers are more politically aware than their American counterparts are, and don’t shy away from discussing politics. They frequently work in multinational NATO staffs, and many of the instructors at the Führungsakademie have spent time at educational assignments such as the United States Army Captain’s Career Course, Command and General Staff College, or the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. They are often amazed at how many American officers consider themselves so separate from the political process that they refuse to vote. Since the Bundeswehr is legally tasked with producing “citizens in uniform,” the very idea is foreign to them, as is the U.S. military’s separation from society at large. They also differ from the other larger European militaries like those of France and Britain by lacking a deep colonial history. The end of conscription and demographic pressure have further complicated the task of fielding a modern military, forcing talk of opening the Bundeswehr to E.U. citizens. Given all these headwinds, it’s ambitious to think Germany can field three divisions by 2032.
Also of interest here is the idea of “Drehscheibe Deutschland,” or “Turntable Germany.” This capability is talked about frequently in relation to force flow. In any NATO collective defense scenario, the bulk of the alliance’s combat power would have to flow into theater from the United States, and the infrastructure to do so is mostly in Germany. Germany has the ports, airports, and experienced NATO military logisticians necessary to get the thousands of troops and vehicles through a reception, staging, onward movement and integration (RSO&I) process into theater. The need for excellent infrastructure to move these formations is why some commentators, like retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, argue that including infrastructure investment in NATO commitments makes sense.
Spending time in a multinational course like this one helps me realize just how similar professional soldiers are, regardless of the uniform we wear. NATO militaries are all professionalized and subordinate to civilian leadership. The seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and repeated deployments to Iraq have built a high degree of interoperability and familiarity within the alliance. The Bundeswehr possesses capable soldiers with a sound appreciation for their strategic environment and continued fondness for the United States. Of course, they do not see themselves as the institution that will convince their compatriots of the need for a more engaged Germany. The locus of control lies elsewhere.
Commentators often look at the same events and draw different conclusions, which is useful to keep in mind when Walter Russell Mead declares NATO to be in dire straits while the Economist runs a special report on its continued usefulness. Just as in the U.S. Army, the Bundeswehr is ultimately led by elected politicians. Since politicians react primarily to the concerns of their voters — who as stated have little appetite for an active security policy — the chances of the Bundeswehr undertaking a more active role in NATO are slim. Given the domestic focus of the governing coalition and this year’s European Parliamentary elections, my own assessment is that any significant changes before the national elections scheduled for 2020 are unlikely.
The Price of Liberty
Something I worry about watching Germany grapple with these questions is the possibility that, instead of getting Germany to become more like America, the reverse happens. As Dan Drezner and David Gioe recently noted, the United States risks a reduction in public support for massive defense budgets, open-ended combat deployments, and foreign entanglements. American demography isn’t as unforgiving as Europe’s yet, but the Army did fail to meet its recruiting target last year. If all that citizens see is the costs, even American society’s enviable trust in its military won’t be enough to avoid major retrenchments.
The first major speech Dwight Eisenhower gave in his time as president was the Chance for Peace speech, shortly after Joseph Stalin died. Years before warning of the military-industrial complex, he counseled Americans that:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. […] This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
If U.S. leaders fail to articulate the benefits of the international system built in the years during and after Eisenhower’s administration that has served the United States—and its allies—so well, Americans may end up making a similar decision to the one Germans have made: to give fewer resources and less space in the public sphere to those most engaged in the execution of security policy. Eisenhower understood the costs of war better than most, but he also understood the value to NATO members of collective defense, and the “unshakable conviction that, as long as there persists a threat to freedom, they must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war. […] The free world knows, out of the bitter wisdom of experience, that vigilance and sacrifice are the price of liberty.” The priorities of nations are not set facts, and in democracies they require constant debate and renewal.
Maj. Walter Haynes is a student at the Command and Staff College of the German Armed Forces. He most recently served as the civil affairs officer for 2/75 Infantry (Ranger). The views expressed here are the author’s, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.