In Germany, Angela Merkel is known as “mommy” — and judging from the desperate global reactions to the election as U.S. president of Donald Trump, it won’t be long before the rest of the world starts calling her that, too. With Trump having indicated an intention to abdicate America’s role as “leader of the free world,” a chorus of commentators have pointed to Germany under Merkel’s leadership as the most obvious replacement.
However, as Merkel herself has been quick to acknowledge — including on Nov. 20 when she announced she would run for a fourth term as chancellor — the idea is absurd. First, German power has always been regional, not global, which means it has little to offer vulnerable Western allies in Asia; Germany could therefore at most replace the United States as the “leader of a free Europe.”
But even that notion is a fantasy. If the leadership in question were purely a question of moral symbolism, Germany might qualify for it — though even that is questionable. But it also describes a set of concrete military responsibilities, stretching back to the Cold War, to defend the security of other democracies. These are responsibilities that Germany — which has only minimal military power and deep-seated reluctance, both political and cultural, to deploy what power it has — is singularly unable to fulfill.
Carol Giacomo of the New York Times suggested shortly after the U.S. election that Germany “replace America in leading NATO.” But any country either obliged or inclined — as Germany was, during a 2014 NATO exercise — to have its soldiers paint wooden sticks black and attach them to armored vehicles in lieu of heavy machine guns is not in a position to claim military leadership.
A simple comparison of the military budgets of Germany and the United States serves to illustrate the problem. In 2015, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. defense budget was $597.5 billion. Germany’s was $36.7 billion — about one-twentieth the size of America’s. Germany’s military budget is small even in comparison to that of France ($46.8 billion) and the United Kingdom ($56.2 billion), which are also, like the United Sates and unlike Germany, nuclear powers. In that sense, despite the political challenges they currently face, the heads of the French and British governments have a greater claim to be the “leader of the free world” than the chancellor of Germany.
Germany’s level of defense spending looks even more inadequate when one considers it in relation to the size of the German economy. NATO members collectively commit to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, but only four members apart from the United States (Greece, Estonia, Poland, and the United Kingdom) actually do so. For years, Germany had spent 1.3 percent — at the lower end of the scale of NATO members. But it has fallen further in the last couple of years and is now under 1.2 percent. This year, Merkel finally committed eventually to reach the 2 percent target — after the election of Trump, she has simply restated this position — but has not specified when she will do so. Berlin’s only hard commitment is an 8 percent uptick in defense spending in 2017, which will bring it to 1.22 percent of GDP.
A similar picture emerges when one goes beyond the figures on defense spending and considers capabilities. During the Cold War, the Bundeswehr, the Federal Republic’s armed forces, was a sizable force focused on slowing a Soviet advance west through Europe, with around half a million soldiers and 2,500 Leopard 2 main battle tanks. It has now shrunk to 176,752 active military personnel — less than a seventh of the 1.3 million the United States has — and just 200 Leopard 2s. The Luftwaffe, the German air force, has 109 Eurofighter Typhoons and 89 aging Tornados, compared with America’s vast numbers of F-35s, F-22s, F-16s, and F-15s. The gap in naval capabilities is even bigger: Whereas the United States has 12 aircraft carrier groups, Germany has nothing more formidable than frigates (of which it has 10).
This year, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced a plan to increase spending on equipment by 130 billion euros (about $140 billion) over 15 years. Some of the extra spending will go toward buying new kit. But much of it will be allocated for repairing existing equipment that — a series of reports in recent years have revealed — are no longer deployable as a result of cuts in spending on maintenance since 2010; in other words, it will simply go toward maintaining existing capabilities rather than increasing them. For example, it emerged that only 42 of the Bundeswehr’s 109 Eurofighter jets and only two of its NH90 helicopters were operable. Then there was that disastrously embarrassing black-broomstick-wielding 2014 NATO exercise, which, according to a confidential Bundeswehr report leaked to the German public service broadcaster ARD, resulted from a shortage of available heavy machine guns.
Germany’s low level of defense spending and limited capabilities are a function of its strategic culture.
Germany’s low level of defense spending and limited capabilities are a function of its strategic culture. The usual explanation given by Germans and non-Germans alike is that this is a reaction against the country’s disastrous militarist past. There is some truth to that. But it also obscures some of the shifts that have taken place over the last 25 years. In the first decade after reunification in 1990, Germany seemed to be converging with France and the U.K. on the question of the use of military force. This incremental shift culminated in Germany’s participation in the Kosovo War in 1999. “Never again Auschwitz” seemed to have replaced “never again war” as a fundamental principle of German foreign policy. But in the 2000s, against the backdrop of the deployment of the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan and the perceived failures of military interventions elsewhere, Germans seemed to revert to the principle of “never again war.” Germany refused to participate in the military intervention in Libya in 2011 — a decision that many Germans feel has been vindicated. And even the strategic shock of the Ukraine crisis hasn’t changed German attitudes about the use of military force. This summer, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described NATO military exercises — in which Germany was itself participating — as “saber rattling.”
Germany has increasingly come to see itself as a Friedensmacht, or “force for peace.” The term was originally used by the East German state to describe itself during the Cold War and was applied to the Federal Republic in 1993 by Alfred Mechtersheimer, a former German air force colonel who joined the Greens in the 1980s and later moved to the far-right of the political spectrum. The general public does not honor soldiers in the way the American public does. For example, it is impossible to imagine German soldiers being spontaneously applauded as American soldiers are when they walk through airports in the United States. This, in turn, means the Bundeswehr struggles to recruit. The Defense Ministry’s latest gambit to attract new soldiers is a reality TV show. In May, von der Leyen announced a planned increase in size of the Bundeswehr by 7,000 soldiers by 2023, but it’s not clear how she intends to achieve even that goal.
There has been some change in attitudes since the start of the Ukraine crisis. In a recent study by the government’s Military History and Social Sciences Center, half of Germans polled said they thought the defense budget should be increased, and, for the first time since the study began in 2000, a majority said they supported increasing troop numbers. But even now Germans still do not feel threatened by Russia — even if people in the Baltic states and Poland do. The refugee crisis — which affected Germans much more directly — might turn out to be more of a game-changer: It may be the fear of being overwhelmed by refugees rather than being attacked by Russia that prompts Germans to take security policy more seriously. According to the recent government study, a majority of Germans now support training and “stabilization” operations — though it’s worth noting that only a minority support combat operations.
Of course, it can be argued that in the 21st century economic power is more important than military power. But such arguments look a little less convincing in the context of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and territorial conflicts and an apparent arms race in Asia. In any case, Germany’s extreme reliance on exports — and thus dependence on foreign markets — means its economy is as much a source of vulnerability as a source of power.
Germany’s lack of hard power in the world beyond Europe, whether military or economic, means that Merkel can at most be a kind of “moral leader of the free world.” Given her approach to the euro crisis, it’s not clear she deserves even that title — no shortage of Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians would dispute it. But even if she does preside over the free world as a figurehead, it shouldn’t be reassuring for anyone who worries about a resurgence of authoritarianism. Rather, it brings to mind Joseph Stalin’s famous question about the pope: “How many divisions has he got?”
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