In a surprise move that is sure to bring smiles to the faces of many Atlanticists across Europe and the United States, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked the lower house of the country’s parliament to make “an appropriate” addition to the country’s defense budget for the next year. While Merkel did not name a specific number, she is said to have made reference to bridging the gap between what Germany is supposed to spend as a member of NATO and what it in fact does. Handelsblatt reports:
In 2014, the United States spent around 4 percent of GDP, or €560 billion, in defense for NATO, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Germany, by comparison, contributed about 1 percent of spending to defense, or €35 billion.
Both countries are members of NATO.
“We must make a reasonable, significant contribution so that others — on the other side of the Atlantic — can be ready to engage,” Ms. Merkel told the committee, according to Bild, the popular German tabloid newspaper.
Germany has consistently devoted about half of what NATO has asked of its members. To meet NATO spending levels, Germany would have to commit another €25 billion to defense, experts say.
It remains to be seen whether the German Bundestag will vote to raise spending by anything close to that amount. Nevertheless, Merkel has little domestic incentive to bring up such a dramatic increase unless she really means it; framing the conversation in these terms seems to suggest a genuine conviction that the amount German spends on defense needs to increase dramatically, rather than by the 3.6 percent that had been projected for this year. If Germany were to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense (it currently spends around one percent), in accord with the NATO target, that would mean a 70 percent increase in the absolute amount the country spends in one year.
As Christian Moelling, senior resident transatlantic fellow for security at The Marshall Fund in Berlin, told Handlesblatt, hitting the NATO target in one year “would be completely unrealistic.” “But in general,” he continued, “it is realistic for Germany to invest more; we have enough money. We can pay for it. Plus the current constellation in government with the Social Democrats and Conservatives in power looks like they are willing to do it.” Presumably, this is precisely the conversation Frau Merkel is trying to frame.
If so, kudos to the Obama Administration, for according to German sources, Merkel specifically referenced “pressure from our American partners,” as well as economic growth, as the reason for her request. But it’s also not hard to see the role of the refugee crisis, and President Vladmir Putin’s increased adventurism, in this request.
In 2014-5, history came roaring back with a vengeance, and Germany in particular was exposed as unready. Germany has the third largest economy in the world, is technologically advanced, and is surrounded by wealthy allies. And yet it’s struggling, due both to the collapse of a poor, distant country (Syria) and the moves of a second-rate collapsing power (Russia). In both cases, the common problem is a lack of German hard power and the will to use it—neither of which Germany anticipated needing. One thing the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from the Middle East (and its comparative neglect of European affairs) may have done is to teach mainland Europe the hard way why it needs to take defense seriously.
But it will be a long, tough road to get back to readiness. As we’ve noted before, European members of NATO treated defense spending as a piggy bank they could raid at will during the financial crisis, collectively shedding the equivalent in manpower of the entire German army in the years that followed 2008. Measured from the end of the Cold War, the drop-off is even more dramatic. While Merkel may not get all of what she asks for, this request does point to the scale of the challenge involved—for Germany and the rest of Europe.