November 9, 2016 | Issue Brief on Alliances
President Obama will travel to Europe from November 15–18, starting in Greece before traveling to Germany. In his sixth visit to Germany, Obama will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the leaders of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Germany is an important security partner of the United States and the largest economy in Europe. Because decisions made by Germany greatly affect transatlantic security, the President should use this visit to advocate for policies that enhance NATO, support the fight against Islamist terrorism, and assist the people of Ukraine. Most important, the President should carry the message that the U.S. will remain committed to transatlantic security.
Germany has long underspent on its defense. In 2015, defense spending in Germany constituted a paltry 1.19 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), well below the NATO benchmark of 2 percent. In a positive sign, in 2016, the German defense budget increased by 1.2 billion euros. In October, Chancellor Merkel laid out a goal of increasing defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, saying, “We have to spend more for our external security. The conflicts of this world are currently on Europe’s doorstep, massively so.” The Chancellor specifically cited U.S. pressure as a catalyst for her pledge to reach 2 percent.
As the second-most populous NATO member after the U.S., Germany should take on a larger role in bolstering collective defense. In 2017, Germany will deploy 500 troops to Lithuania as a framework nation for NATO’s enhanced forward presence there; in addition, Germany has pledged to contribute capabilities as NATO increases its presence in the Black Sea region. The German government should consistently make the case to its citizens that increased defense spending and a greater role in NATO are in their interests.
Importantly, President Obama should make clear that the U.S. views NATO as the bedrock of security in Europe and that the creation of duplicative EU military structures will compromise the continent’s long-term security by undermining the alliance and diverting scare resources.
The President should discuss continuing assistance for Ukraine, including sending defensive weapons, promoting economic and political reform, and extending sanctions against Russia for its invasion and annexation of Crimea and continued aggression in the Donbas. Trade and investment ties between Germany and Russia run deep. Many of Germany’s leading corporations have established strong ties to Russia. Some German companies have even skirted EU sanctions by utilizing subsidiaries to sell products in occupied Crimea.
This past June, the EU extended sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea for one year. Separate sanctions, over Russia’s continued war in the Donbas, are up for renewal in December. Germany should lead in pushing for their renewal and consider a term longer than six months. Former NATO Secretary General Rasmussen recently stated that renewing sanctions for a year would send a clear message to Moscow and “help present a united transatlantic front…. [T]he EU would align itself more closely with the US, which renews its Russia sanctions on an annual basis.”
President Obama should advocate policies that will help Europe comprehensively address the threat posed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups. Although Germany is a key partner in this fight, Chancellor Merkel’s earlier open-door policy on refugees has made the challenges Europe faces even more complex.
A key problem was identified in February by the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency Hans-Georg Maassen: “[W]e have repeatedly seen that terrorists…have slipped in camouflaged or disguised as refugees.” There are multiple examples of this: Members of the ISIS cell responsible for the November 2015 attacks in Paris entered Europe as refugees as did members of the ISIS cell that had pledged to commit an attack before being arrested by German authorities in September 2016.
Even if asylum applications are known to be bogus, German authorities have not always acted quickly enough to expel such individuals. In July 2016, a Syrian refugee (and member of ISIS) injured 15 in a suicide bombing in Ansbach. He was in the country despite having his asylum application rejected and receiving two deportation orders.
The problem is not limited to physical infiltration by ISIS. In September 2016, a teenage Syrian asylum seeker was arrested in a German refugee shelter having been in contact with an ISIS operative abroad via an instant messaging service. ISIS had provided information on bomb-making, causing maximum casualties, and theological justification for the proposed attack.
President Obama should call on Germany to increase military support in the fight against ISIS abroad while pursuing an aggressive counter-terrorism policy against Islamist terrorists domestically. President Obama must ask what assurances Germany can give that its ability to do so is not being complicated by the weaknesses of its refugee policy.
In his final trip to Germany, President Obama should encourage Chancellor Merkel to pursue policies that advance security. He should:
President Obama’s final visit to Germany is an opportunity to bolster transatlantic security by strengthening ties with a critical ally. He should advance policies that enhance NATO, support Ukraine, and address the challenges posed by Islamist terrorism.—Daniel Kochis is Policy Analyst in European Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Robin Simcox is Margaret Thatcher Fellow in the Thatcher Center.
 Press release, “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016),” NATO Public Diplomacy Division, July 4, 2016, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf (accessed November 4, 2016).
 Stefan Wagstyl, “German Military No Longer Standing at Ease as Security Fears Grow,” Financial Times, March 31, 2015, https://next.ft.com/content/90cd4e70-d310-11e4-9b0a-00144feab7de (accessed June 6, 2016).
 John Vandiver, “Germany’s Merkel Calls for Large Increase in Military Spending,” Stars and Stripes, October 18, 2016, http://www.stripes.com/news/germany-s-merkel-calls-for-large-increase-in-military-spending-1.434617 (accessed November 4, 2016).
 News release, “UK and Germany Step up Defence Cooperation on Day of Unity,” United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, October 7, 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-germany-step-up-defence-cooperation-on-day-of-unity (accessed November 4, 2016).
 “Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, October 27, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm# (accessed November 4, 2016).
 Luke Coffey and Nile Gardiner, “The United States Should Not Back a European Union Army,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4616, October 20, 2016, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2016/10/the-united-states-should-not-back-a-european-union-army.
 Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov, and Olga Sichkar, “Exclusive: How EU Firms Skirt Sanctions to Do Business in Crimea,” Reuters, September 21, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-crimea-sanctions-insig-idUSKCN11R1AN (accessed November 4, 2016).
 Laurence Norman, “EU to Extend Crimea Sanctions by Year,” The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-to-extend-crimea-sanctions-by-year-1466169675 (accessed November 4, 2016).
 Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “Extend European Sanctions to Keep Russia in Check,” Financial Times, October 13, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/980274f4-9123-11e6-a72e-b428cb934b78 (accessed November 4, 2016).
 “German Spy Agency Says IS Sending Fighters Disguised as Refugees,” Reuters, February 5, 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-germany-security-idUKKCN0VE0XA (accessed November 4, 2016).