Oct 10, 2023

Berlin Needs to Show Washington It Can Do More on Defense

Germany can and should do more to lead by example and convince future US administrations to remain committed to European defense.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, flanked by German Lieutenant General and Chief of the German Army Alfons Mais, visits a training site of German army Bundeswehr in Hammelburg, Germany May 16, 2023.
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Russia’s renewed attack on Ukraine since February 2022 has once more brought to the fore the fact that European NATO allies—including Germany—heavily rely on the support of the United States in the military realm. While the German Zeitenwende (“seachange”) can be interpreted as a direct reaction to the completely altered security environment in Europe, the consequences of the overhaul in the country’s defense policies implicitly address Germany’s over-reliance on US support, too.  

A key change in Germany’s defense going forward was Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ commitment to finally increase defense spending to meet NATO's 2-percent target on a permanent basis, which allies had already agreed to in 2014. Well over a year into Germany’s alleged Zeitenwende, however, measures to that end are still lacking. While the €100 billion special fund (“Sondervermögen”) was formally set up to help Germany modernize its armed forces, the extra money is also being harnessed to help Germany achieve NATO's 2-percent target. According to calculations by the ifo Institute, however, even the additional funds drawn from the Sondervermögen would not be enough to enable Germany to consistently meet NATO’s spending target in the years to come. 

At the same time, the costs of security and defense for Germany and NATO’s Europe allies in general are still being borne in large parts by the United States. It is thus not surprising that debates about a fairer burden-sharing formula in NATO are intensifying (again) and that voices in the US (but also in some European states) are demanding that European allies, especially Germany, invest more in their defense efforts, thereby strengthening European security.  

Outsourcing Security

These demands are anything but new—debates, or rather quarrels at times, about how to ensure that allies on both sides of the Atlantic provide the necessary means to secure allied territory, have shaped much of NATO’s history. While the tone during the Trump administration certainly undermined previous diplomatic standards in how to deal with allies, in substance its calls for increases in European defense spending were not a novum at all and in fact valid as most European NATO member states had been outsourcing their security to Washington for years, if not decades.

As the wealthiest European country, Germany in particular came under fire, primarily because the country had failed to reach NATO’s defense spending goal before and during the Donald Trump presidency. Although the former Republican president threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO because of Washington “bear[ing] an undue share of the transatlantic security burden,” the US has continued to invest in European defense policy. For example, during Trump’s presidency, the US nearly doubled funding for the European Reassurance Initiative, which was introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in reaction to Russia’s initial aggression against Ukraine in 2014, when it invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula.  

Against that backdrop, Trump’s actual track record on European defense does not fare as badly as one would assume given the harsh rhetoric that he (and some members of his administration) directed at European allies, particularly the German government. That, however, should not belie the prospect that during a possible second term, Trump might be more unrestrained than during his first period in office, as some observers predict. Furthermore, Germany should not assume that a second Biden term or another Republican president would continue bearing the bulk of nearly 70 percent of NATO contributions after next year’s presidential elections in the US. Instead, Berlin should brace itself for the next US administration bringing much of the same expectations to Germany’s attention—regardless of who is occupying the White House from January 2025 onwards.

Essentially, it is plausible to assume that higher levels of defense spending as well as a more tangible provision of military capabilities to secure Europe will be demanded. Those expectations need not result in a complete US drawback from the continent, however. Numerous avenues present themselves to convince future US administrations to remain engaged with European security and defense—while Germany (and other European NATO allies for that matter) increases its own efforts.   

An Actionable Plan for Lithuania

One of the lowest hanging fruits—at least in theory—is for Germany to finally comply with NATO’s 2-percent spending target, which henceforth, according to the Vilnius summit communique, is to serve as a minimum requirement. As outlined above, current and medium-term budgetary plans do not offer much leeway to reach that goal sustainably—especially once the €100 billion special fund runs dry.  While Germany must continue working toward reaching the alliance’s spending goal, other measures are already more readily available and would fit the purpose of stepping up its defense commitments, too.   

First, Berlin must come up with an actionable plan to deploy a combat-ready brigade to Lithuania permanently as quickly as possible. While the announcement to do so by German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius was prudent, a timetable as well as concrete details about which brigade and in which precise installments must now follow. Naturally, these plans must be closely coordinated with the host nation, Lithuania. However, it comes as no surprise that Vilnius is eager to raise the necessary funds to put the needed infrastructure in place by 2026. Thus, Germany should put in motion the necessary steps and decisions to be ready when the framework conditions are met.

Given the financial, equipment, and personnel struggles the Bundeswehr is dealing with, it might be worth considering resorting to the German-Franco brigade being permanently deployed to Lithuania. Not only would such a move allow France to share the burden, it could also further support its recent rhetorical about-face vis-à-vis the countries on NATO’s eastern flank with practical measures.

Additionally, Germany and France could revive bilateral relations, which have been strained as of late, by putting to good use the joint brigade, parts of which (a light infantry battalion) were already part of the multinational enhanced forward presence (eFP) battlegroup in Lithuania under the command of Germany in 2018. It is fitting in this context to refer to the declaration that emerged as a result of the German-Franco council of ministers in January 2023. In it, both countries agreed to prepare exercises of the German-Franco brigade to be conducted in Lithuania, among other places along NATO’s eastern flank. This commitment could be a starting point for a more sustainable deployment of the joint brigade. 

Bolstering NATO’s Defense Posture 

Second, Germany should advocate within NATO’s framework for the United Kingdom, serving as an eFP framework nation in Estonia, to work toward upscaling its presence to a brigade-sized unit. Canada, leading the eFP forces in Latvia, has recently announced that it will do exactly that, underscoring that Germany can lead by example if it wants to as Boris Pistorius’ public declaration preceded Canada’s announcement. Having one combat-ready brigade persistently present in each of the three Baltic countries, in addition to the eFP forces, could significantly help bolster the deterrence posture and defense options of NATO’s northeastern flank.   

These measures could help signal to the US that Germany is serious about its Zeitenwende in the security and defense realm by taking on a greater share of the transatlantic burden, thereby lifting some of the responsibilities presently resting on US shoulders. Additionally, Berlin would be able to show Washington that it is ready to lead by example. That in turn could increase the chances of future US governments—regardless of their party affiliation—being more willing to remain engaged in European security and defense affairs.   

Elanur Alsaç is a student assistant in German Council on Foreign Relation’s (DGAP) Center for Security and Defense.

Aylin Matlé is research fellow in the German Council on Foreign Relation’s (DGAP) Center for Security and Defense.

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