Germany has become one of the dominant European powers. From its immense economy to its iron grip over ECB policy to its deep reserves of soft power, it occupies a commanding position in European politics. This power is not just latent, and Germany has utilized it to great effect in its effort to guide the Eurozone’s response to the 2008 economic crisis. More recently Germany has attempted to use its influence to the lead the charge (along with Austria and Sweden) in resettling refugees fleeing the nightmare that is Syria. Unfortunately, few other European countries seem to be following Germany’s lead regarding refugees. One area where Germany is significantly behind, though, is its military.
The erosion of German military capabilities is quite shocking in part because Germany is so developed in other areas of national power. It possesses a booming economy and is one of the world’s leading arms exporters. Moreover, as one of the major powers within the EU, it has significant influence over European foreign policy, making it even more bizarre that it’s military – a major foreign policy instrument – is so underfunded. It’s also not as if Germany doesn’t have a history of impressive military power. During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) possessed one of best trained and equipped forces of any NATO member. So, what happened?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Germans cashed in on the “peace dividend,” slashing military spending and prioritizing domestic issues. Throughout the 90s, Germany was reluctant to engage in military interventions, famously not participating in the 1991 Gulf War (though they did fund a substantial portion of it). After 9/11 Germany honored its NATO Article V obligations and deployed to Afghanistan in solidarity with the U.S. However, even then Germany demanded that its forces be stationed in the relatively peaceful northern provinces and treated the war as more of a peacekeeping mission as opposed to the American prioritization of CT (counter-terrorism). Then, when George W. Bush announced he would invade Iraq, Germany was one of the major powers (along with France) that abstained from the invasion. Ultimately, the German public just does not support military intervention except in the most serious circumstances. Unlike the ostentatiously patriotic culture of America, most Germans are not particularly nationalistic and prefer diplomatic solutions to international problems. Thus, German military spending has been abnormally low for a country of its size.
What’s interesting, though, is that this pattern of low military spending is starting to reverse. Germany has begun to increase military spending and has started a massive program to increase military readiness. Why? I think there are three major explanations. First, it’s becoming clear that Russia will be an enduring military challenge for Eastern Europe. When the Ukraine Crisis first begun, Merkel counseled patience and urged restraint. This cautious response was in part because Germany had major trade deals with Russia and relied on Gazprom – Russia’s state oil company – for its natural gas. However, after the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight, even cautious Germany realized that substantial punitive measures had to be imposed on Russia. The second reason is that Germany is beginning to understand that diplomatic solutions are rarely sufficient to solve global crises. From the ineffective Minsk Agreements to the recent Munich Conference on Syria, Germany has been unable to effectively negotiate solutions to the pressing conflicts raging around the globe. Finally, I think Germany is embarrassed by its comically weak military forces. In the 2014 Noble Ledger NATO exercise, German armored personnel carriers were in such poor conditions that crews had to use painted broomsticks in place of missing equipment. Then, last February it was revealed that 100% of the German armored vehicles assigned to NATO’s Response Force were missing ammunition. These comical and concerning incidents were widely reported throughout German and English language media and have led to significant pressure on Germany to better maintain its forces.
Of course, the relatively minor increases in military spending (8.4% this year and an estimated 6.4% next year) will not be sufficient to turn die Bundeswehr into a force as powerful as the U.S. or British militaries, but it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully these reforms continue. Germany is a powerful an influential European power, and its allies need it to be just as strong militarily as it is economically and politically.