NATO members are watching Germany. As the United States balks at the responsibility to ensure European security, the allies are convinced that Germany should step in to make up for the Americans’ partial withdrawal. But while the United Kingdom and France both have mission-ready armies and nearly fulfill their obligation to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic products to the alliance, Germany lags behind at just 1.2 percent. Amid this power vacuum, neither the E.U. nor other NATO members will continue to tolerate military abstinence from the largest and richest country on the continent.
And though Berlin has focused on rearmament since the 2014 annexation of the Crimea by Russia, Germans continue to blithely ignore reality. The majority of Germans reject more military expenditures, according to a new survey by the Forsa Institute, commissioned by Stern magazine and the Pew Research Center ahead of the Munich Security Conference. While 70 percent of Germans agree that their country should “assume international responsibility,” they consider that to mean building schools and wells in developing and war-torn countries, and not military intervention. Only 38 percent of respondents said they believe that the German military should engage in more combat missions against the extremist group Islamic State. Some 55 percent opposed a further military spending increase that Berlin promised NATO three years ago.
Germans’ peace-loving attitude has amounted to near shirking in recent decades.
And yet practically no other country requires the amount of government support for the military as Germany, where the Bundeswehr's missions are subject to parliamentary authorization. This is why it is so imperative that the political parties, above all Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and their junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic party, finally initiate a broad debate about the role of the German military in the NATO and E.U. alliances.
NATO battalions, up to now mostly from the U.S., are currently moving through Germany to NATO’s external borders in the Baltic countries and Poland to show Russia a deterring presence. The German army has taken command in Lithuania. But Germans are ignoring this in an almost demonstrative manner. We can no longer afford to indulge in this behavior. Sure, the years of constant disarmament were pleasant. And everyone would like to have a friendly relationship with Russia, an end to the wars in the Middle East and prosperous African countries where terrorists find no refuge. But unfortunately, this cannot be achieved without military strength.
It’s no longer just a joke that German military airplanes are far too often unable to fly, or that ships stay docked and soldiers go untrained. Except for atomic weapons, the German military must quickly match the military capabilities of the British and French.
Germans’ peace-loving attitude has amounted to near shirking in recent decades. Disarmament was only possible to such a degree because the U.S. was holding a protective military umbrella over Europe. Naturally, this doesn’t mean we have to get involved in every military adventure. During the Bush years, it was right not to participate in the Iraq war. But in other joint actions in places like Mali, Germans have served as quartermasters and paramedics while the French were out hunting terrorists in the desert. NATO partners’ wish for more German involvement is thoroughly justified, and our political parties must convince their voters more actively of this necessity.
Nevertheless, it's a good thing that the government failed to reduce the power of the parliament regarding foreign interventions when they “only” involve humanitarian aid. The German mission in Mali, for example, with its 1,000 soldiers, is not purely humanitarian. But regardless of how we define missions, the German military needs much more support from the citizenry, which is why it would be wrong to reduce parliamentary rights of authorization. More, not fewer debates about defense are need in the Bundestag, especially on fundamental issues. Germans must develop an unambiguous attitude concerning the nature of common defense, particularly with regard to intensive cooperation in Europe.
Donata Riegel is a correspondent in Berlin. To contact her: [email protected]