The German government will soon publish a new defense white paper, a strategy document setting out guidelines for German defense policy, the first since 2006.
This paper has already received some attention abroad, mainly in the UK in the context of the country’s referendum on EU membership on June 23, due to extensive press coverage of Germany’s alleged ambition to build an “EU army.” However, the improbable rhetorical aim of a European defense union obscures the more interesting aspects of Germany’s evolving defense policy and its growing significance for European defense.
Germany has long had difficult debates about its military role in European and global security, going back to the Social Democratic–Green government’s support for the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Germany’s military contributions since then have fluctuated from strong support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan during the 2000s to its abstention from the UN Security Council resolution preceding NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011.
In early 2014, the German foreign minister, defense minister, and president all said that Germany should take more responsibility for international security, implying that Berlin should contribute more militarily, as well as in other ways.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea really shook Germany, which has subsequently strongly supported NATO’s reassurance of its Eastern allies. Berlin will lead one of four new NATO battalions soon to be stationed in Eastern Europe. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany quickly decided to send a frigate and reconnaissance aircraft to support the anti–Islamic State coalition in Iraq and Syria (having already sent weapons to the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq and Patriot missiles to Turkey under NATO).
Although it spends far below the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP on defense (less than 1.2 percent), Germany is the third-largest spender in the European part of NATO. Moreover, Berlin will increase its defense budget from €34.3 billion ($39.0 billion) to €39.2 billion ($44.6 billion) by 2020, plans to invest some €130 billion ($148 billion) in defense infrastructure and equipment by 2030, and will grow its armed forces.
German media reports say that one of the main messages in the new white paper will be that Germany should boost its military role on the world stage. There is no doubt that NATO and the EU would benefit from a stronger German military contribution.
The leading European military powers, Britain and France, are quite stretched for a mix of operational, budgetary, and capability reasons, and none of the other countries can offer nearly the same level of military resources. After Britain and France, Germany is the only other European country that can adequately carry out conventional deterrence tasks while simultaneously contributing to the management of external crises.
Germany could also become a much more important player for European defense cooperation and hopes, with France, to revive military cooperation through the EU. Berlin has already pushed strongly for more pooling and sharing of (mostly European) capability efforts, having proposed the Framework Nations Concept for deeper capability development in NATO since 2013. Germany is putting its rhetoric into practice by integrating a Dutch mechanized brigade in the German 1st Armored Division and placing a German battalion under a Polish brigade.
And yet, there are a number of potential limits to the current impressive trajectory of Germany’s defense policy. Ursula von der Leyen, the defense minister, has previously promulgated the notion of German “leadership from the center.” This is a very attractive idea but can also be easily misunderstood.
German leadership in Europe, including on foreign policy, is no longer new. Whether one agrees with its policies or not, Berlin is the key capital for resolving the eurozone and refugee crises and has led diplomatic efforts on the Ukraine crisis (as well as participating in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program).
But Germany will act militarily only in coalition with others and is unlikely to initiate military operations. That is unlike France, which has often initiated operations at the EU and NATO levels—and has even intervened unilaterally in Mali and the Central African Republic in recent years.
In addition, even if Germany is doing more on defense than most German politicians may want to admit domestically, the well-known domestic political constraints remain considerable. In a Pew opinion poll published in March 2016, Germans were the least supportive of using force to defend NATO allies, with some 58 percent against. This might help explain why Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far said nothing about Germany’s defense ambitions, and she has an election to fight in 2017.
Even with its large defense budget, Germany also continues to lack adequate military capabilities. The German defense ombudsman said in January that Germany had a shortage of usable military aircraft, with, for example, only 38 operational Eurofighter jets out of a stock of 114.
In other words, European (or other) partners should not expect too much from German defense policy. Germany’s new military ambition should be welcomed. But a stronger German military contribution to European defense will remain constrained by domestic politics and should therefore not unduly raise the hopes or fears of allies.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.