President Obama Should Push for Greater Transatlantic Security During Berlin Visit

Report Global Politics

President Obama Should Push for Greater Transatlantic Security During Berlin Visit

November 9, 2016 5 min read Download Report

Authors: Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis

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.

A Greater Role in NATO

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.[1] In a positive sign, in 2016, the German defense budget increased by 1.2 billion euros.[2] 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.”[3] 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;[4] in addition, Germany has pledged to contribute capabilities as NATO increases its presence in the Black Sea region.[5] 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.[6]

Ukraine Remains Important

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.[7]

This past June, the EU extended sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea for one year.[8] 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.”[9]

Tackling Islamist Terror

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.”[10] 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.

Carrying the Message to Berlin

In his final trip to Germany, President Obama should encourage Chancellor Merkel to pursue policies that advance security. He should:

  • Press for increased German defense spending. German defense spending has begun increasing. The President should encourage Chancellor Merkel to follow through on her pledge to make defense expenditure 2 percent of GDP.
  • Encourage Germany’s larger role in NATO. The President should encourage Germany to take a larger role in collective defense.
  • Push back against deeper EU defense integration and oppose creation of an EU army. Creation of duplicative EU defense institutions with the long-term goal of creating an EU army only serves to undermine NATO, the bedrock of transatlantic security, and to divert scarce resources away from the alliance.
  • Advocate for assistance to Ukraine. President Obama should encourage our allies not to forget about Ukraine. He should make the case for continued assistance, including sending defensive weapons and promoting economic and political reform.
  • Extend sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. The President should encourage Germany to lead the way in an extension of sanctions on Russia for its continuing role in the ongoing war in Donbass.
  • Implement policies to weaken Islamist ideology. Germany and the U.S. should share best-practices on policies being implemented to prevent radicalization and discredit Islamist ideology.
  • Devote resources to combating Islamist terrorist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda. President Obama should reiterate the need for ongoing and greater assistance in the fight militarily against Islamist groups abroad, while emphasizing the importance of giving German police and intelligence agencies the necessary resources to disrupt terrorist plots domestically.
  • Adopt a more cautious refugee policy. President Obama should encourage Germany to adopt a more cautious approach to allowing refugees into the country and to act quickly to deport those whose applications have been rejected.
  • Offer U.S. support in preventing ISIS from exploiting refugee flows. The President should be willing to offer the expertise of the U.S. intelligence community to help prevent ISIS from smuggling fighters into Germany, particularly as the group responds to losing territory in Iraq and Syria. Simultaneously, Germany must focus on ISIS’s ability to recruit inside German refugee camps (both physically and digitally).


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.

[1] Press release, “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016),” NATO Public Diplomacy Division, July 4, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[2] Stefan Wagstyl, “German Military No Longer Standing at Ease as Security Fears Grow,” Financial Times, March 31, 2015, (accessed June 6, 2016).

[3] John Vandiver, “Germany’s Merkel Calls for Large Increase in Military Spending,” Stars and Stripes, October 18, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[4] News release, “UK and Germany Step up Defence Cooperation on Day of Unity,” United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, October 7, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[5] “Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, October 27, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[6] Luke Coffey and Nile Gardiner, “The United States Should Not Back a European Union Army,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4616, October 20, 2016,

[7] Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov, and Olga Sichkar, “Exclusive: How EU Firms Skirt Sanctions to Do Business in Crimea,” Reuters, September 21, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[8] Laurence Norman, “EU to Extend Crimea Sanctions by Year,” The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[9] Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “Extend European Sanctions to Keep Russia in Check,” Financial Times, October 13, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).

[10] “German Spy Agency Says IS Sending Fighters Disguised as Refugees,” Reuters, February 5, 2016, (accessed November 4, 2016).


Luke Coffey
Luke Coffey

Former Director, Allison Center for Foreign Policy

Daniel Kochis
Daniel Kochis

Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom