Don’t Be Surprised About Germany’s Shift on Defense | Opinion

Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war in Ukraine and ushered in Europe’s biggest security crisis in over 75 years, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a rousing speech in front of the Bundestag with a core message: Berlin will immediately reinvest in its own defense capabilities after decades of atrophy.

“It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country,” Scholz told the assembled lawmakers, unveiling a one-time €100 billion fund to rebuild the Bundeswehr and promising to finally meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military. It seemed, for a moment, that the Germans were not only busting out of their shell but perhaps eager to take on a growing leadership role in Europe.

Alas, those hopes seem to have been derailed. In the 10 months since Scholz delivered a speech that was warmly greeted on both sides of the Atlantic, Berlin has flailed at implementing its promised Zeitenwende. The Bundeswehr remains in a state of disrepair, with the force plagued by a shortage of ammunition, critical enablers and weapons systems—all of which are needed if a large-scale conventional conflict erupted. Multiple parliamentary commissioners tracking the state of the Bundeswehr describe a military in dire straits, with half of its equipment non-operational. Steffen Hebestreit, Scholz’s chief spokesperson, acknowledged it will take Germany years before the NATO defense spending target is reached.

For Americans, all of this is a cause for concern. Complaining about inadequate German defense spending has become second nature in Washington. Germany is the poster child for Europe’s general disinterest in squaring its rhetoric with concrete action. U.S. presidents as far back as Dwight D. Eisenhower have scolded Europe for outsourcing its security problems to America.

It’s easy for U.S. politicians and policymakers to place all of the blame on Europe for the vast asymmetry of power between Washington and the rest of the continent. But the truth is this would also be self-serving. U.S. policy is a big part of the problem.

For decades, Washington has pushed the Europeans to increase their defense budgets in order to ensure they can field fully funded, capable, and proficient militaries in the event Europe’s security is threatened. Former President Donald Trump was of course the most outspoken, if not abrasive, in pursuit of this aim, repeatedly reminding European leaders how unfair it was that Washington was expected to perpetually protect a region just as wealthy as the U.S. But he was hardly the only one; seven years earlier, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates faulted Washington’s European allies for “meager” defense budgets and cuts to force structure.

The U.S., however, has never really wanted Europe to take the lead on its own affairs. The mainstream assumption in U.S. foreign policy circles is that Washington, and Washington alone, should remain at the head of the pack. And if Europe does want to assert itself as a security partner instead of a security dependent, it should be within the confines of NATO, a security organization the U.S. has dominated since its establishment in 1949.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz talks to media in the Justus Lipsius Atrium, the EU Council headquarter, on Dec. 15, 2022, in Brussels, Belgium.
Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

In other words, while the U.S. wants greater European military capacity, it also wants European subservience. We know this because previous U.S. administrations have frequently frowned upon any attempts by Europe to transition into a more independent actor on defense. Months after then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac issued a joint declaration calling for “autonomous action” from the European Union, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered remarks essentially dissuading the formation of an independent European military force. A U.S.-led NATO, she insisted, must remain the primary structure for the continent’s security.

The Trump administration used the same argument, albeit in its own unique way. When the EU was exploring pan-European military projects, the White House issued a sternly-worded letter warning the bloc about undercutting or duplicating NATO in the process.

Add this history to the significant U.S. military presence in Europe, and it’s no wonder why Germany feels comfortable backtracking on earlier commitments. More than 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Germany at any given time, with a well-entrenched network of bases and training facilities spread out across the country. As a NATO ally, Berlin possesses a U.S. security guarantee, which means there isn’t much need for German politicians to worry about external defense. The status-quo has allowed Germany to focus most of its federal budget on domestic needs, such as powering its economy, which has more than doubled over the last 20 years.

As long as this arrangement continues, it’s difficult to imagine Scholz or any future German chancellor devoting the resources and long-term investments needed to build the Bundeswehr into a semi-respectable military force. The U.S. has done everything it possibly can to disincentivize that from happening.

If the U.S. truly wants to entice Germany and the rest of Europe to reverse course, then it must be willing to reverse course itself. That means reducing, not increasing, the U.S. troop presence on the continent and permitting instead of discouraging the very European strategic autonomy that French President Emmanuel Macron has talked about for years. While this may sound like a faulty recommendation given that a war continues to rage in Ukraine, the fact is that the balance of power is solidly in Europe’s favor—and if anything, has gotten more favorable as Russian military power is steadily weakened as a result of impressive Ukrainian resistance.

Even then, Germany’s policy elite may not demonstrate the political will needed to implement its Zeitenwende policy. But Germany will at least be forced to decide one way or another.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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Daniel R. DePetris