Apr 28, 2021

“This Is a Huge Break with the Past”

Germany playing a more active foreign and security policy role is a big transformation, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer tells INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
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Madame Defense Minister, Germany has been attempting to take on more responsibility in the world since at least 2014. But the country still has no coherent direction or strategy in foreign policy. Why this lack of development? Why does everything still seem so piecemeal?

For decades, one of Germany’s virtues was that it did not take center stage as a force in foreign and security policy. After the horrors of the Nazi era, that position was understandable, and it was also in part the basis for our country’s political and economic success. Above all, it was the strategy which enabled the reunification of our country. But it is now becoming clear that the situation has changed so much that our old foreign policy principles no longer work. Many of our partners and allies hope and expect—and rightly so—that Germany should do more, spend more money, and play a more active role. And that should be our own aspiration too, since our life in Germany, our free and economically stable life, is dependent on us doing that. A lot of people have difficulties with this new kind of thinking, and that’s completely natural. This is not an overnight process. Nonetheless, it is an important thing to do, and it is the right thing to do. We can all sense that the world is changing, and we continue to face new risks. We cannot go on leaving responsibility for our security in the hands of others. That’s a big transformation, and not an easy one.  

Until now this country has had a very comfortable position, surrounded by a basically non-hostile world. Germany’s armed forces have participated in several international missions, but there has been very little focus on traditional defense. This has changed in recent years, which has put new pressure on our established ways of thinking. Suddenly, there is a growing realization that Germany faces unavoidable regional and global challenges. And that new threats are emerging, new technologies and weapons systems, new kinds of hybrid attacks and information warfare. Suddenly it is not just about what Germany can contribute, it is about the country taking the lead, and playing an important role in how the world is organized. This is a huge break with the past, and it scares a lot of people.

We are currently finding our way into this new role. I’m sure we will succeed in doing so. And the Defense Ministry wants to be intensively involved in that.  

Certainly, political debate about this process is in full swing, from proposals to increase the defense budget, to new structures like a national security council and questions regarding of the country’s strategic culture. In terms of foreign policy, what do you think are Germany’s biggest deficiencies?

Without question, there is an imbalance between what is expected of us, as one of the world’s biggest and strongest economies, and what we actually do. In the context of NATO, the government has committed to the 2-percent target and to providing certain defense capabilities, but we are still falling well short of expectations on those commitments.  

The second point I want to make is about the structures of security provision. We now face a qualitatively different threat. Just to mention new technologies, we are already facing hybrid, networked threats: to address these, we need political approaches that are also networked. For me that means a new definition of security and an institutional structure which can coordinate these complex challenges. In my view, this role could be played by a national security council, which would create unified government policy from the various positions put forward by different departments. We can see that in the current moment: the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our existing structures are not adequate to deal with these kinds of complex situations.

Then there is a further problem: a lot of people in this country are reluctant to face up to the hard realities of security policy. Paradoxical though it may sound, nuclear deterrence has guaranteed security in Europe and Germany in recent years. But the nuclear balance in Europe is also now under severe pressure. As far as I’m concerned, there is no question: in future nuclear deterrence will continue to be absolutely fundamental to our security. And that includes German nuclear participation in NATO.

You said that Germany is still behind schedule with the target agreed with NATO, to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense annually. But the country has until 2024 to achieve this objective. If it is proving so difficult under the current coalition government, do you think things will improve after September’s general election?

For the coming budget year, the figures for the defense ministry are okay. We managed to negotiate an extra €2.5 billion, over and above what the finance ministry had planned. But if you look at medium-term financial planning, annual defense spending is set to fall to 1.2 percent of GDP by the end of the current planning period. This is unacceptable: it doesn’t cover our own security needs, nor does it let us develop the military capacities that we have promised our international partners.

For this reason, any new coalition negotiations will have to include a frank discussion about what we need to push ahead with in the coming years, and how much it is going to cost. We are going to have to talk about new ways to provide these necessary resources. For example, I am pushing for a new planning law that would offer long-term political guarantees for long-term security investments.  

What does the future hold for the current constitutional requirement that military deployments must have specific parliamentary approval? Back in 2018 you were already saying: “As part of achieving a new security strategy, there will have to be some rollback of parliamentary approval on overseas military deployments.” 

The requirement for parliamentary scrutiny fulfils a very important function. The fact that our armed forces have such a close partnership with parliament, and can thus really rely on its support, is an essential part of German political culture as it has developed historically. The German military remains a parliamentary military force. But at the same time, we need to ensure the country can actually take effective action in terms of security policy. That was why previous parliamentary commissions on the subject have proposed making parliamentary approval more flexible. For example, by passing a kind of anticipatory resolution, which could provide a framework for missions to have more flexibility and more speed in an emergency situation. Or parliament could be given the right to recall missions. In any case, so far every foreign deployment has been approved by a parliamentary majority.

Parliamentary scrutiny also plays a key role on the question of a European army. Three years ago, you were still speaking in favor of a European army. But last year, you said it was an open question whether a European army or an army of Europeans would be preferable. How do you feel about that question now?

There are 500 million people living in Europe.  This is about their security and their freedom. Defending those people is the armed forces’ mission and goal in every European state. At the moment we mostly do this on our own, through national armies and national forms of cooperation. We want to substantially expand this cooperation, so we can act together on both a political and a military level. The European Union’s Strategic Compass process, which was a German initiative, will help in this. Likewise, the EU’s PESCO projects and various common armaments initiatives, as well as the coordination of arms procurement, done via the European Defense Agency. That's a long list of projects. What is important is that each individual country’s actions with its national army should be regarded as a contribution to overall European security. If we are ultimately going to have a European army, that is the fundamental premise it will be based on.

One of these common projects is the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which is currently in a particularly intense phase. Money has to be made available this year if the first demonstrator aircraft can be ready by 2025. That will take an investment of billions of euros. Is the German parliament going to approve that money before this year’s election?

At the defense ministry, we would very much like it to be passed before the elecion. We are currently doing very intense work on this, on two different levels. First, the organization of the project itself. We are still waiting for our partners in industry to come to an agreement on this. Politically, we have an agreement with France and Spain: once the various companies have settled how the work is to be divided up, we will OK that arrangement as the basis for organizing the project. These are very active discussions right now, I hope they will soon come to a conclusion.

The second part of our work is bringing a €25 million funding bill before parliament ahead of the summer break. That will mean that things can finally get moving. But this will only be possible if we have long-term funding in place for the project. The whole federal government needs to lend its backing to FCAS: ultimately, we committed to this project in the 2019 Franco-German Treaty of Aachen. The defense ministry cannot manage projects of this scale on its own, neither in financial nor political terms. Incidentally, FCAS is a great example of how a new planning law would be useful: it could guarantee our capacity to act while also demonstrating our international reliability.

FCAS is not just about developing a new fighter jet. It is also about networking new aircraft with other weapons systems, including armed, semi-autonomous escort drones. Germany is now even taking the lead on drone development within the project. At the same time, the procurement of armed drones has been debated in parliament several times in the last decade, and there is still no majority in favor of going ahead with buying armed drones. So how would that work? Would Germany be a substantial developer of drones within FCAS for the next two decades, but then not be allowed to buy them?  

There is no question that the future role of drones will be even greater than it is now. We saw that, for example, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Drones are easy to obtain and comparatively cheap. This is why they are a weapons system of the future. To be honest, it has to be said that our debates on armed drones have been extremely comprehensive. In our current coalition agreement, we even established more discussion processes, going beyond the debates already agreed to. Germany has helped to develop operational principles for armed drones and we have clarified a number of relevant questions. This issue is long overdue for a decision. It is about time that the Social Democrats (SPD, the Christian Democrats’, or CDU/CSU’s, current coalition partners – Ed.) made their position clear. That also goes for the Greens, who are currently hiding behind the SPD to some extent. One thing I have learned during this legislative period: if the CDU/CSU are involved in post-election coalition negotiations, and if I have any say in things, I will put a lot of work into formulating the drone question in such a way that no coalition partner can back out on obligations during the term of the coalition.

In political terms, where is the parliamentary majority for a more active German foreign policy going to come from? Could it be in a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Green Party, for example?

The Green representatives on the parliamentary defense committee probably tend to be more amenable and open-minded than their party as a whole. It is not yet clear who in the Greens will ultimately have the upper hand. Either way, coalition talks with that party would involve tough negotiations across the board. Not just about armed drones.  

Any new direction in foreign policy will need parliamentary majorities, but also the support of the broader population. Why is it so hard for you to organize majorities for funding to provide adequate equipment for our armed forces, in the context of the 2-percent goal, and then explain all this to the German public? Is it a communications problem? Or it is just that Germans still don’t feel at all under threat, even now in a radically changed international situation?

Your final point is a very important one. I think in the end the only way to deal with these topics is to address them honestly and to encourage broad debate. We know that foreign and security policy, including overseas development, tend not to be at the top of the day-to-day political agenda. But we have also seen how international developments can have a powerful impact on domestic issues. Our job is to actively ensure that foreign and security issue are prominently included in the agenda, and keep it there as a prominent issue. Right now, there are very intensive and contentious discussions within the foreign policy community. I want to open up this debate, and make things more public. You have to take people with you, involve them, and not shy away from difficult conversations. My experience has been this: On security policy, the German people are mostly very realistic, extremely pragmatic. This idea that you can’t speak to the people about threats or deployments, or about defense and security policy in general—I think that’s an excuse. 

The problem is that your own ministry’s opinion polls suggest 48 percent of Germans feel badly informed about military operations abroad. You can’t have been happy to read that  figure.

Well, obviously not. But it didn’t surprise me either. Debates around foreign military missions are always very controversial, but they take place in parliament, both in committee and plenary sessions. So ultimately only a small group of politicians deal with these issues in any depth. In our own public information efforts, we try very hard to inform the public about foreign missions, and to inform members of the armed forces too. There are also regular media visits to the troops, both overseas and in Germany. Our social media channels have increased their reach in recent years. You can find all the information online. Within the armed forces, we have to make a frank assessment of each mission. What did we achieve with it? Why do we even undertake a particular foreign intervention in the first place? These are massively important questions right now, for example in debates about extending the mandate of the mission to the Sahel region of West Africa. We communicate in a very open way about foreign military assignments.

Let's talk about the equipment for Germany’s armed forces. For years now there have been reports about the Bundeswehr’s inadequate equipment. The deployment readiness of large-scale matérial is still at quite a low level. Procurement management within the armed forces has come in for a lot of criticism. But at the same time, there is more and more international pressure on Germany to take on more responsibility. Why is it so hard to make progress on this?

Procurement is a highly complex process: you always have to coordinate various technical, political, legal, and economic aspects. When it comes to major international projects, this greatly increases the difficulty of an already complicated mixture. Every stakeholder has their own legitimate interests to represent in the negotiations. Optimizing this process in the best interests of our servicemen and women is the major task we face in the coming years. We have already made initial progress with procurement. For example, I recently made an unannounced visit to our new logistics regiment, based near Magdeburg, where a large number and wide variety of brand-new vehicles have just been delivered to the army. And they have gone directly to the troops. We are now bringing in a lot of new equipment, which is gradually increasing our deployment preparedness. Examples include the Eurofighter and the Puma VJTF infantry fighting vehicle. Yes, there are some processes and decisions that have to move more quickly. We are on the right track, but we need to stick with it. This is a marathon, not a sprint.  

So, is that another legacy of the era of military cutbacks?  

For a long time, the armed forces were the go-to place whenever someone wanted to make federal budget cutbacks. It is a big challenge for an organization to then have to strengthen it from the ground up again. At the time there were many intentions, some of them justified. Unfortunately, the numbers did not fully add up. And now we are still paying that bill.  

At the end of last year, the government published its policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. Now Germany is sending the frigate Bayern to the South China Sea, although there are no plans to participate in the US-led “Freedom of Navigation” operations. Can you tell us about your goals in the region?

The Indo-Pacific guidelines are needed because the region is rapidly increasing in strategic  importance, both in general and specifically for us. We have partners over there who share our values and who have very similar concerns to ours. We also have economic interests in the region. As a country, we rely on world trade being free, fair, and rule-based. Stability in the region is essential for us, and so is freedom of shipping routes. Our local partners—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—expect us to send a signal, to show our colors, and bring our weight to bear. It's about how we work together with regional democracies and states governed by the rule of law. And about our involvement in regional security dialogues.

So, what can a single frigate achieve? Obviously the deployment is above all a symbolic one: it demonstrates our solidarity and our interests in the region. The frigate will make a long journey on its mission: it will also participate in the Atalanta anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, and the mission to monitor the arms embargo on North Korea. The Bayern’s deployment is also going to include a number of port visits and joint exercises with partners.

On Twitter, you recently wrote: “We are hearing a disturbingly martial tone from China, even calls for ‘combat readiness.’ I see it like this: We work together with China where we can, but we will oppose them where we have to.” In what sort of areas would you like to work together with this increasingly aggressive China?

China recently placed sanctions on some individual representatives of the European Union. This has made it very clear that, for Beijing, it is not simply a question of pursuing its economic interests. China clearly has aspirations to further its conception of the global system, one tailored to its own interests, and to increase its political and military influence. It does this single-mindedly, often disregarding the rules-based international order. We must be clear: It is not at all certain that the world will continue to be shaped by the Western system and our ideas of democracy, individualism, and human rights. If we care about these values, we have to stand up for them on a daily basis, working in close collaboration with like-minded partners. We are already doing this through a large number of alliances, as well as via international organizations. But we still have room for improvement. 

But there is another aspect to this reality: China is an important economic and trading partner, for ourselves and for other countries, and it will remain so. And we also need China in order to solve vital issues affecting all of humanity, like climate change. Solutions are unthinkable without the world's largest economy. The talks between China and the United States in Anchorage, Alaska, began confrontationally, but later you could see it was actually possible to have constructive talks on international issues.

The Biden administration is attempting to forge a very close alliance with Europe against China. Is that the right way to go? Should Germany and Europe stand clearly on the side of the United States?

As far as I’m concerned, it is out of the question that Germany would take a position of equal distance between China and the US. I stand for a strong Europe. And the fact remains that the United States, and American values, are closer to us than China or its values. But that doesn’t mean that US interests always align with Germany’s or Europe’s interests. The ASEAN nations have given us a very neat way of thinking about it: It's not about building an alliance in opposition to someone, it’s about making an alliance for something. For example, an alliance for a rules-based world, for the free movement of goods, or for the freedom of shipping routes. If China has other ideas about that, it will be necessary to show, with determination, that we will not give way to China on this.

For me, the question is not at all whether Europe will be crushed between the Americans and the Chinese. The far bigger challenge is whether Europe will have any role at all. If you look at who is setting standards in technology, for example, it’s China and the United States. We Europeans have to face the question of our own competitiveness. We cannot allow ourselves to fall behind. We must retain our ability to pursue our interests by taking different positions to Beijing, and if necessary to Washington too. This is the only way we’ll be able to say to our American friends: we have a strong common foundation, but on some questions our interests are not the same. This is quite legitimate, something that was always possible between transatlantic friends and partners.

You are starting to sound a bit like French President Emmanuel Macron...

Germany and France agree on this: Europe needs to significantly develop its own capacities in future. This is a big strategic approach that we share with France.

But there should be no playing off of transatlantic relations against European ones. Both relationships are pulling in the same direction. It is possible to have both: we can strengthen European security capabilities, while still keeping the United States on the side of Europe. Without the United States, European security is simply not possible, and that will be the case for a long time to come. We are working to boost Europe's capacity to take action. During Germany’s six-month EU Council presidency last year, we started down the road toward an overall European strategy, the Strategic Compass, a process that France will bring to a conclusion next year. That is also why we are pushing for joint armaments projects and cooperation on the PESCO projects. This is why our militaries are working together in the Sahel. One has to be aware of differences between the German and French positions. But it is the similarities that predominate here. Ultimately, what matters is that we both want the same thing: a free, safe, strong Europe with a powerful voice in world affairs.  

After 20 years in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Western troops is drawing near. At the same time, the deployment in Mali is proving to be one of the biggest challenges facing the German armed forces. The starting point of the Sahel mission is not all that different to Afghanistan. What lessons learned from Afghanistan can be applied to Mali?  

The Sahel situation is even more complex than Afghanistan. We are talking here about a massive geographic area with several fragile states, where terror is spreading and violent criminal groups are destroying people’s livelihoods. For this reason, it is not even possible to conduct a classic anti-terror campaign here. Operations here will not work unless we take a systematic, joined-up approach. Whatever we do in military terms is a means to an end, intended to create pacified areas and then sustain them by upgrading and training local armed forces. Above all, the main thing is to make ordinary civic life possible again in these places, so people can envision a future in their homeland. To allow people to feed their families without having to go and join a terrorist militia. So military action only forms a small part of a large, complex mosaic. 

Therefore, one very important thing in the Sahel is realistic expectation management. We have to take our leave of certain ideas of nation-building. But we must, at the very least, make sure that terror groups are stopped, and the security situation is stabilized, so people are not forced to leave their homeland. The Mali mission is limited in operational terms, certainly, but it will be a long and difficult one. This is not going to be over in a few months.  

The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, Fabio Reith, and Joachim Staron. This is a translation from the German. The original version is to be found here.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is Germany’s defense minister.