In Germany, interparty negotiations to form a ruling government continue. Odds are a “stoplight” coalition of the Reds (Social Democratic Party), Yellows (Free Democratic Party) and Greens (Green Party) will take over sometime before year’s end.
While the final governing platform still needs to be hashed out, these three parties have now outlined a preliminary understanding to guide their negotiations. In the document’s list of 10 priorities, defense comes in dead last, and this does not bode well for Western security.
The parties pledge to improve the German military’s equipment in the preliminary document, but worryingly, they fail to reiterate Germany’s NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That commitment is critical. Here’s why.
How much money is spent on defense is ultimately a political decision, and as with any expenditure of public money, it must be continuously justified. It is incumbent upon Germany's next government to make a case for additional military spending and engagement and to remind the German public that their security and economic prosperity is wrapped tightly in transatlantic bonds.
Military capabilities and the security they help provide are the basis of peace and prosperity. This argument must be made to the German public to overcome deep cultural and historic antipathy and hostility toward defense spending and military service.
Failure to recommit to attaining the 2% benchmark would tell the German public that Berlin no longer considers defense a priority. It would send a negative signal to the U.S. and other NATO allies and encourage NATO’s adversaries.
That would be a mistake. The world is becoming more dangerous, more competitive, which leaves NATO more in need of a Germany willing to assume a larger role within the alliance--one commensurate with its economic and political heft.
A consistent, cogent argument on the need to increase defense spending would likely meet with public support. A recent poll found that 68 percent of Germans believe NATO is either very important or somewhat important for the nation's security. A strong NATO requires member states to be equipped with robust military capabilities sufficient to deter Russia and deflect increased Chinese aggression. And, let’s be honest, it will take Germany some time to get capabilities up to adequate, much less robust. It’s a case that must be made by Whoever fills the Chancellery, and federal ministries next must be willing to make the case for sustained major investments in the military.
To encourage such investment, NATO in 2006 set a target for member states to spend 2% of gross domestic product annually on defense. At the 2014 Wales Summit, member states recommitted to reaching the 2% benchmark by 2024 and pledged that 20% of their defense budgets would go to “major equipment” purchases.
But Berlin dropped the ball. In 2019, Germany announced it would miss the 2024 deadline, instead of attaining 2% in…2031.
This is not to say that Germany has made no progress since the Wales Summit. Berlin today spends $25 billion more on defense than it did in 2015, going from a measly 1.19% of GDP to 1.53%.
Much of the impetus for that increase came from the Trump administration’s constant harping on the need for NATO members to make good on their funding promises. Now, however, Trump is gone.
Changing domestic priorities, combined with a false belief that 2% no longer matters to the U.S., could lead a possible stoplight coalition government to throw up red to further defense increases.
Such a signal would be interpreted in Moscow as weakness and in eastern Europe as fecklessness. In the U.S., it would give ammunition to those who believe poor European defense spending is reason enough for the U.S. to disengage from Europe.
Outgoing Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently reiterated the importance of living up to the 2% pledge: “If one would come to the conclusion to say that we are no longer keeping what we promised as a solidarity alliance also in terms of financial commitments, then I believe that this was the completely wrong answer for Germany, and also for the security of this country and the security of our partners.”
Whoever becomes the next Chancellor has a duty to make the argument to the German people that it’s time for the nation to start pulling its weight militarily within NATO at a level commensurate with its economic and political clout.
NATO's 2% goal will make their job much easier. The political negotiators in Berlin should think twice before discarding it.
This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Defense