Rising Ambitions and Growing Resources Mark New German Security Strategy

As leaders of the counter-ISIL coalition met in Washington last week, it was a reminder that the ability and willingness of key U.S. allies to contribute to shared security objectives is central to U.S. national security. The attempted coup in Turkey and the UK referendum on leaving the European Union highlight the rapidly changing international environment for two key U.S. partners—the United Kingdom has the second-highest defense budget in NATO, and Turkey has NATO’s largest armed forces after the United States. But the outlook and aspirations for another key U.S. ally—Germany—are also changing. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government recently released Berlin’s first new security strategy in a decade. This white paper on German security policy and the future of the Bundeswehr represents important but little recognized changes in Germany’s international security engagement over the past decade, including a growing military role outside of NATO’s borders. This national security strategy will shape the ambitions and policies not only of the final year of Merkel’s grand coalition government, but also of the future government that emerges after the 2017 Bundestag election. What does Germany’s new strategy offer, and what will its impact be on the United States and NATO?

American policymakers and their European counterparts long have encouraged a stronger German security role appropriate for its economic weight, industrial potential, and political influence. Germany’s allies have grown somewhat tired of Berlin’s reflexive invocation of its 70-year-old history, though it testifies to the deep, persistent trauma of World War II for Europe and the political imperative to demonstrate to the German public the total rejection of that example by all political forces. Channeling that impulse of responsibility into policies and actions that promote transatlantic and international security is a shared goal for Berlin and Washington. Those proponents of stronger German security engagement will welcome the tone and content of this white paper, which expands Germany’s vision, anchors it firmly in Euro-Atlantic institutions, and codifies commitments on defense resources.

The strategy is suffused by a sober view of a volatile and complex world in upheaval, with crises and conflicts that endanger European peace and security. Chancellor Merkel’s foreword stresses that Germany must redefine its priorities and act more strongly than it has before to advance peace, stability, and the rules-based order. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen develops this theme, pointing out that the demands on the Bundeswehr will rise in coming years and asserting that Germany is ready to lead in addressing security threats—traditional tasks such as territorial defense, as well as new challenges like hybrid warfare, cyber defense, counterterrorism, and pandemics.

Over the past decade of economic and financial crisis, amid the erosion in many places of public confidence in government authority, Germany has emerged within Europe as a central player on virtually every issue, and the 2016 white paper embraces this (refreshingly without the usual German caveat that it did not seek such a role). It defines Germany's security horizon as global, in a welcome direct statement for the sort of document that often is heavily qualified and watered down. On the downside, the strategy describes Germany as a “middle-sized” power, a frustratingly false modesty that is both questionable in view of Berlin’s might and influence and unnecessarily self-limiting. The white paper connects Germany’s role to its unique national imperative to act in conjunction with its partners rather than unilaterally and to be seen by its allies as a reliable partner—characterizations that will appeal to allies even as they reassure the German public there will be no renationalization of its foreign policy. To those in Germany who might wish to avoid more responsibility for the often messy business of international security and concentrate on economic and commercial priorities, the strategy stresses Germany’s extremely high dependence on international trade as a source of strength but also a vulnerability and argues that the country’s prosperity is inseparable from security not only in Europe but in the broader world. The message: you can’t be an economic power only.

Those within Germany who desire a middle way or to serve as a “bridge” between the West and Russia (or those allies who fear this tendency in Berlin) will find little in this national security strategy. Among the values and interests it identifies and prioritizes are the defense of Germany and its allies, the rules-based international order, deeper European integration, and strengthening the transatlantic partnership. Toward Russia there is only criticism: for endangering the postwar security order and rejecting partnership with the West in favor of strategic rivalry. Moscow will be a challenge to European security for the foreseeable future, and the 2016 white paper rules out creating a new security architecture in Europe; it identifies Germany’s goal as reestablishing respect for the existing one.

So, if the tone is right, what are the policies to back it up, and are they commensurate with the threats and challenges confronting Germany and its allies?

The security strategy ranks Germany’s membership in NATO as an irreplaceable element of German security and highlights solidarity with allies as a national priority, an important point in light of surveys that suggest lukewarm public support for Germany’s alliance obligations. It stresses the need for defense development in the European Union to complement NATO, sending a clear signal amid calls from some European leaders for a European army and for greater European “strategic autonomy.” For the first time in a national policy document, Berlin firmly states the NATO defense spending goal of 2 percent of GDP and the 20 percent NATO target for spending on equipment and research and development, as part of an acknowledgment that Europe must take on a greater share of the defense burden. Germany’s defense budget grew in 2015 and 2016 and is projected to rise at least through 2020, reversing many years of decline. Germany is the third-largest European spender on defense in NATO (well behind the United Kingdom and narrowly trailing France). The size of the Bundeswehr will grow by 7,000 to 185,000 (it is the second-largest armed force in the European Union after France). For a country that has led the charge inside the European Union for austerity and fiscal discipline, this commitment is significant. The efforts by Defense Minister von der Leyen to bring cost overruns and procurement problems under control in Germany’s Defense Ministry have played an important part in raising the public receptiveness to increased German defense spending. The security strategy, however, does not identify a date for reaching the 2 percent of GDP level (the NATO pledge sets a 2024 target), so the commitment of future governments to reaching that mark is uncertain.

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has emphasized that its military engagement outside NATO territory should be covered when possible by a UN Security Council mandate and take place in a NATO or EU framework. Proliferating crises and varying international geometry require change. Germany is participating, for example, in the U.S.-led counter-ISIL coalition alongside European allies and partners in the region, with approval of the Bundestag. The white paper accepts the principle of ad hoc coalitions as a legitimate form of German military engagement. This endorsement in Germany’s highest strategy document ensures that Germany will be able to consider participation in other coalitions in the future as a matter of efficacy, not as a precedent-breaking example. But for U.S. policymakers, the key to unlocking German contributions will remain multilateralism.

The national security strategy notably endorses nuclear deterrence and NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. This reflects growingconcern within NATO about Russia’s nuclear saber rattling. While it is silent on the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on German soil, the white paper represents a change in tone from 2009, when the coalition agreement between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats under then–Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany.

With the recent terrorist events in southern Germany, an important change in Germany’s approach stems from the recognition that it is increasingly difficult to separate the internal and external dimensions of security. Germany will emphasize “statewide security” and national resilience in the face of challenges such as hybrid warfare and cyber attacks or terrorist violence. As a result, the Bundeswehr will prepare to support domestic law enforcement and other civilian agencies in the event of a crisis (which EU partners such as France and Belgium have done following recent terrorist attacks). This outcome stretches the previous constitutional understanding of the domestic role of the military, but it stops short of earlier proposals—which were strongly opposed by the Social Democrats—to consider a constitutional amendment granting military forces such a role.

This heightened attention to public security is reflected in the white paper’s decision that the German Federal Security Council should take on a greater role in addressing strategic issues. This body, which in the past has focused mainly on approval of German arms exports, is chaired by the chancellor and includes the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, interior, justice, economy, and development. A growing role for the Federal Security Council could give greater authority to the chancellor and her staff in formulating Germany’s foreign policy, though as a practical matter the implementation may be impeded by individual ministries (in particular those controlled by Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partners, but also for bureaucratic prerogatives).

This acute focus on foreign policy comes as Germany faces an election in autumn 2017. In one sense, the test of this national security strategy will be its effect on the policy of the next government rather than any short-term changes. The white paper argues on the basis of German national interests for stronger security engagement (embedded in NATO and the European Union) and outlines the need for more and better-coordinated resources to carry it out. Although the evolution of Germany toward more military engagement and greater international security responsibility seems never to proceed as quickly as the United States and its NATO allies would like, this strategy gives a clear direction toward an ever more central German role, which in the uncertain times facing U.S. security relationships is a bright spot from an American perspective. An important task for the next U.S. administration will be to deepen its bilateral and multilateral security engagement with Germany to facilitate Berlin’s growth into this enhanced role.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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