In the early days of his administration, President Trump has made it clear that NATO allies—and Germany in particular—should take on a greater share of the alliance’s costs. And by many measures, Germany’s defense commitments are trending in the right direction: Germany recently put boots on the ground to lead a NATO task force in Lithuania, Merkel has pledged to move toward the 2% of GDP spending target, and the defense budget is up 8% this year from last, bringing a welcome windfall to Germany’s arms manufacturers.
As the Financial Times suggests, however, those indicators are a fig leaf hiding the glaring truth: Germany has neither the intention nor the ability to dramatically increase its security commitments in line with American expectations. More:
This year’s planned military spending is 8 per cent up on 2016. But the draft 2018 budget envisages a further increase of only 4 per cent. With the economy growing, defence’s share of GDP could drop, leaving Berlin short of the 2 per cent goal. And a Forsa agency poll this year showed a majority of Germans still oppose boosting defence budgets. […]
Political sensitivities are compounded by practical problems. Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, says a pared-down defence ministry is ill-equipped for expansion. With labour scarce, Germany is unable to recruit its full complement of 170,000 soldiers, let alone the extra 12,000 to be hired by 2024, he adds.
Ursula von der Leyen, defence minister, is already struggling with widespread shortcomings in weapons programmes. A 2014 parliamentary inquiry found that only 41 out of 190 helicopters, 42 of 109 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and 280 of 406 Marder armoured cars were operational.
A government economic adviser says bluntly: “Gabriel is right. There is no way to absorb a big defence budget increase.”
The FT gets at a crucial point: harping on an arbitrary and politically untenable 2% spending target will hardly fix the institutional dysfunction of Germany’s military complex. Certainly Berlin should be encouraged to spend more on defense; its failures to do so have been on embarrassing display in recent years. But the problems for both Germany and NATO go much deeper than a failure to spend adequately.
And as several scholars have noted, NATO-set guidelines are a poor rubric for determining actual contributions to the alliance. John Deni provides a classic example: Denmark has consistently lowballed the official targets, and only spent 1.14% of its GDP on defense last year. But the Danes have pulled above their weight elsewhere: sending over 750 troops to Afghanistan at the peak of the surge, for example, and providing seven aircrafts to the 2011 Libya mission. By contrast, Greece—a country twice as populous as Denmark, and one of the five NATO allies to meet the 2% goal—provided 160 troops in Afghanistan, and only five aircrafts in Libya. Under current guidelines, however, Greece is seen as a more responsible ally, even though nearly 70% of Greek defense spending goes to personnel costs like pensions: proof of bureaucratic bloat more than a meaningful commitment to NATO’s security.
None of this is to excuse the Germans, or anyone else, for their underspending. But the reductive debate about sheer defense outlays misses the nuances of individual cases, while encouraging allies to dissemble about their intent to reach an impossible target. A better way to address burden sharing might take risks and efficiency into account: acknowledging the outsized contributions of countries like Denmark in high-risk missions, while pushing to reform bureaucratic regulations (like Germany’s absurd military overtime rules) that impede NATO’s operational abilities.
Such an approach—more balanced, more realistic, and more strategic than merely demanding that allies cough up 2%—might truly help make NATO great again.