Jul 09, 2024

Op-Ed: NATO’s Washington Summit Should Send a Signal of Strength

The transatlantic alliance should make it clear that it is ready to face the ever-closer combination of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It’s essential that Germany becomes a reliable ally again.

A view of the U.S. flag alongside the NATO flag outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, July 8, 2024.
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At recent NATO summits, it has become clear that transatlantic security is not only threatened by Russia’s war of annihilation against Ukraine. Rather, NATO countries see themselves under hybrid attack from an alliance of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea (CRINK).

China’s ever-increasing military aggression and hybrid influence in the Western Pacific and Iran’s war against Israel, conducted via proxies, are tying up NATO states’ resources and those of the United States in particular. Russia has switched to a war economy while taking brutal action against the Ukrainian civilian population. It is supported in its aggression by Iranian and North Korean weapons deliveries and technology transfers; it is also receiving dual-use goods such as semiconductors from China. 

For NATO, it is clear that the outcome of Russia’s war has direct consequences for other crises, conflict regions, and the euro-Atlantic security architecture. For example, Russia’s war must not become a blueprint for a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. Therefore, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly called on the member states to support Ukraine more resolutely, to boost their respective arms industry, and to expand their defense efforts in the member.

Lost Trust

However, some NATO members have so far failed to keep their commitments to collective defense and deterrence. Germany has lost a lot of trust among its NATO partners when it stalled the decision to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons. 

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made concrete promises such as the permanent stationing of a brigade in Lithuania and the permanent provision of 30,000 Bundeswehr soldiers for NATO from 2025 onwards. But neither commitment has been backed up financially, undermining the German government’s standing. Germany will only meet the NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense this year by relying on budgetary tricks and questionable transfers. This will not help to build up confidence and credibility within NATO.

To fully equip the involved troops is not realistically feasible anyway. In fact, Germany’s chief of defense, General Carsten Breuer, and his deputy confirm that the Bundeswehr is still only “conditionally operational”and can only “fulfill its obligations to NATO to a limited extent.” This means, in effect, that Germany is currently not a reliable partner in NATO. It is also a far cry from NATO’s ambition to keep their armed forces in a state of being “ready for war.”

This is more concerning since the threat to NATO is not only increasing from Russia.

In addition, the United States no longer expects Europe—especially its economically strongest country, Germany—to share more of the defense burden, it wants to shift it. That is to say, Washington, under any future administration, will press the Europeans to take on more responsibility in and around Europe.

This means greater commitments—militarily, financially, politically—to Ukraine from the European NATO partners. It also means playing a far greater role in the Western Balkans, in the Caucasus, in the Baltic Sea, and the Mediterranean, but also in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.

In the face of China’s military build-up, Germany is still pursuing a Sonderweg—a special path. Having signed off on a China Strategy for the first time last year, the chancellery in particular sees not angering Beijing as its highest priority. Thus, Berlin remains a spoiler within NATO, rather than a forward-looking European leader.

Becoming a Leader

Germany’s self-proclaimed leadership role in Europe as part of the Zeitenwende therefore requires the credible fulfillment of its NATO commitments and building up modern armed forces that are capable of ensuring the protection of our country and the alliance. This means credible financing starting with the budget for 2025, not only in 2027. Increasing the regular defense budget by only €1.2 billion while allowing Defense Minister Boris Pistorius to continue limited extra spending on the basis of questionable Verpflichtungsermächtigungen (i.e. committing to expenditures that will only have to be paid from 2027 onwards), as proposed in early July, is simply not credible.

Instead, it needs measures to recruit personnel in order to meet its stated goal of over 270,000 up to even 400,000 soldiers. This will only be possible by creating defense budgets worth approximately 3 percent of GDP starting next year. 

Shifting the Burden to Europe

NATO’s anniversary summit in Washington should serve both to shift the burden and to send a signal of strength and determination to CRINK. Germany has a key role to play here.

A clear sign of deterrence would be a clear commitment to Ukraine’s accession to NATO as soon as security conditions allow. Germany should change its position and advocate for an invitation to Ukraine at the anniversary summit with a clear timetable for membership. It should provide leadership in persuading and coordinating this position across NATO.

Effective deterrence includes the permanent stationing of German units in Central and Eastern Europe, supporting additional NATO locations, and providing financial and material support for the stationing of the German brigade in Lithuania. Germany should also no longer feel bound by the restrictions of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which Russia has terminated.

The United States will continue its pivot to Asia regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections in November. A massive increase in military and civilian support for Ukraine must therefore be provided by the European NATO states. Germany, as one of the largest arms producers, has a particular responsibility here.

Yet it is Germany that refuses to send cruise missiles to Ukraine, even though the United Kingdom, France, and Italy are already supplying such longer-range weapons. What’s needed is the immediate placing of orders and planning of ammunition and weapons production; a procurement strategy for the German and European arms industries; and the development of corresponding capacities and production lines, as called for by the NATO secretary-general back in summer 2022. Furthermore, all artificial restrictions on the Ukrainian deployment of weapons systems must finally be abandoned and the German-made Taurus cruise missile must finally be delivered, with its further production commissioned.

This would be one way of Germany and Europe doing more for European security, taking pressure off the United States. Another step would be to increase the number of personnel in the KFOR mission in Kosovo. There is also the need to strengthen resilience against disinformation and hybrid warfare, as well as increaseGermany's contribution to the protection of maritime infrastructure, particularly in the Baltic Sea, and expandthe capabilities of the navy.

Closer cooperation between NATO and the European Union—for example, by merging the IRINI and Sea Guardian missions in the Mediterranean—should be worked toward. And as part of its Indo-Pacific deployment this year, Germany’s frigate should finally show its true colors and pass through the Taiwan Strait in normal operation. This would be the first step toward a clear commitment to adapt to the strategic orientation of the NATO states with regard to the threat posed by China. It would strongly contribute to the message that should emanate from NATO’s Washington summit: the end of naivety when it comes to dealing with autocracies.

Col (ret.) Roderich Kiesewetter is a member of the German Bundestag for the Christian Democrats (CDU). He has been representative (“Obmann”) on foreign affairs for the CDU/CSU caucus since 2014. Currently, he also serves as deputy chairperson in the parliamentary oversight panel supervising Germany’s intelligence services and is spokesperson for crisis prevention for his parliamentary group.

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