Many Europeans attending the Munich Security Conference this weekend would probably have been happy to leave right after Vice President Mike Pence’s opening words.
“Today on behalf of President Trump I bring you this assurance. The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this trans-Atlantic alliance,” the U.S. vice president told the annual gathering of the world’s foreign policy elite in southern Germany on Saturday.
So far, so good. After Mr. Trump had sown doubt about his commitment to Europe’s defense during the election campaign and in media interviews shortly before his inauguration, it was a welcome broadcast from the number 2 official in his administration.
That was where the good news ended. Mr. Pence went on to warn that Europe’s failure to pay its fair share when it comes to military spending “erodes the very foundation of our alliance.” It was a message that no doubt made many top European officials squirm in their seats.
And Germany, among the countries Mr. Pence was no doubt targeting with his call for more military spending, struggled to stay on message.
I’m not sure where we are supposed to get the money from. Sigmar Gabriel, German Foreign Minister
German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered the reassuring words Mr. Pence was no doubt expecting to hear. She promised that Europe’s largest economy intends to reach the target NATO members committed themselves to back in 2014 – to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense annually within 10 years.
“I don’t want to go around this issue…We will do everything we can, we consider ourselves committed to reaching this goal,” Ms. Merkel said, speaking shortly before the U.S. vice president.
While Ms. Merkel has made no bones about her disagreements with Mr. Trump in the past, the need for Europe to hold up its end of the bargain on NATO is an area where they seem to agree. Her comments have been backed up in the past few weeks by her Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who hails from the same Christian Democratic party as the chancellor and has promised to step up military spending in the coming years.
But it’s not necessarily a popular position in Germany where, given the country’s history, many still treat the need for a stronger, richer military with skepticism. And with Germany facing federal elections in September, it’s a position that Ms. Merkel’s center-left partners in government aren’t necessarily on board with.
“I’m not sure where we are supposed to get the money from,” said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s outspoken foreign minister and a member of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel center-right Christian Democrats.
Mr. Gabriel said military spending should not be for military spending’s sake. While he, too, said he recognizes that Germany made a commitment back in 2014, he suggested the goal might be revised to include other spending that is equally important for security - things like humanitarian projects and development aid for poverty-stricken nations where the attraction of terrorism is greatest.
Germany and the United States don’t exactly agree on what it takes to maintain security these days.
Mr. Gabriel’s calculation is simple. Germany only spends about 1.2 percent of its GDP currently on defense. To meet its NATO commitments, Germany needs to spend about €25 billion more annually. By contrast, he noted the country is already spending between €30 billion and €40 billion annually just to deal with an influx of more than 1 million refugees fleeing war in the Middle East since 2015. That money is also contributing to stabilizing the world and “this too belongs to a self-confident debate,” Mr. Gabriel said.
Mr. Gabriel may have a point – critics say the German military is already struggling to spend the extra money it's been promised – yet it's probably not a message Mike Pence will want to deliver to his boss. Germany and the United States don’t exactly agree on what it takes to maintain security these days.
Aside from calling NATO “obsolete,” President Trump has derided the German government’s decision to accept refugees as a catastrophic mistake and has been fighting the U.S. courts to impose a travel ban and halt to refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.
That Germany could be playing with fire by challenging the Trump administration on NATO was made clear by another speaker at the annual security conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed NATO as an institution of the Cold War and suggested it may be time for a “post-western world order.”
If the United States and Germany struggle to speak with one voice, Mr. Lavrov may yet get his wish.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Torsten Riecke of Handelsblatt contirbuted to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]