Like all states, the Federal Republic of Germany’s strategic posture is determined by its politico-strategic culture, which, in turn, is shaped by the country’s history, geographic position and economic status. In the German case, however, the outcome is particularly peculiar—because all factors involved are rather unique. Take, for instance, Germany’s history of Nazism and the incomparable civilizational crime of the Holocaust, the aftereffects of which can be observed in German society and public discourse even today, and very likely will be forever. Consider also Germany’s central position on the European continent and its tradition of wealth, mostly based on plenty of arable land and university-powered engineering ingenuity. All of these factors have contributed to the so-called German Question: What is the proper strategic outlook for a state that, in terms of population size and industrial capacity, overshadows all other European nations, yet is too weak to rule the continent, as two world wars have disastrously proved?
As we see today, there is no ultimate answer to this question. It requires constant renegotiation and recalibration. Certainly the division of Germany into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) after World War II, with each under the control of what became the respective sides of the Cold War, was then seen as an effective hedge against German dominance. But this model was unsustainable and ultimately undermined by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes. The subsequent drive toward German reunification in 1990 and full German sovereignty in 1991 created a novel situation that strategists continue to wrestle with. While there is hardly any reason to fear a resurgence of German aggression and bellicosity, a simple continuation of West Germany’s role—that of a business nation, safely tucked away under the wings of U.S. authority—is no viable alternative either. At the same time, Germany’s economic strength and political stability make it both somewhat of an outsider and a natural leader in today’s Europe, where many states are ailing from the global financial crisis, burgeoning national debt and ossified political and societal structures.
“German leadership,” however, remains a contested concept. Is it about Germany picking up the bill for other European states? Is it about Germany forcing other European nations into a supposedly “German” model of austerity and reform? And in terms of international security, does German “leadership” require an increase in German defense spending and sending the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, into more and more missions abroad? The majority of the German people are not comfortable with this last idea, and it is hard to fathom Germany’s neighbors being comfortable with it either, even though their governments keep nudging Germany in that direction.
This review will explore these questions and the contradictory dynamics underlying the current debate about the country’s appropriate approach to international security affairs.
Foreign and Security Policy
In many respects, today’s German foreign and security policy is a continuation of the principles established by the Federal Republic’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, in office 1949-1963. Chief among these principles is the notion of dual “Westbindung” (alignment with the West), meaning close alliance with the United States and deep commitment to European integration, especially to a cordial partnership with France. Those relationships are enshrined in the institutions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, respectively, which provide the framework for Germany’s foreign and security policy. In a more universal sense—which critics would call more abstract—so does the United Nations. Germany’s reliance on international institutions is especially relevant with regard to the use of armed force, which, according to Germany’s constitution, the Grundgesetz, Germany must never employ unilaterally.
Another enduring principle of German foreign policy since Adenauer is the country’s special relationship with Israel. Just as certainly as the ongoing German process of coming to terms with its past—called the “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung”—has not been without setbacks and flaws, it is exemplary and commendable. Germany’s deeply felt shame for the crimes of Nazism translates into a very tangible sense of responsibility for a better future—and a lively alliance with Israel as the state of the Jewish people. To be sure, the policies of the Israeli government are not beyond criticism in Germany. In fact, Germans sometimes seem to feel entitled to engage in particularly harsh criticism of Israel, precisely because they pride themselves on their profound examination of Germany’s past and the lessons learned. At the top levels of government, however, Germany remains a staunch ally of Israel. Chancellor Angela Merkel, in office since 2005, has repeatedly declared the secure existence of Israel a “part of the German reason of state.” In 2014, both states even agreed to have Germany represent Israel’s diplomatic and consular relations in countries where Israel has no embassy, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The third enduring principle of Germany’s approach to the world is the primacy of trade. Ever since the “economic miracle” of the 1950s, when Germany—with the considerable assistance of the Marshall Plan—was not just rebuilt but refashioned as a modern industrial and consumer state, the Federal Republic has remained one of the leading economies in the world. Germany has the fourth-largest GDP in the world, behind the U.S., China and Japan, according to the U.N.’s 2012 figures. As a country with a comparatively small domestic market and very few natural resources besides coal, Germany is dependent on trade for much of that prosperity. Germany’s relations with other states, especially beyond the EU, are thus shaped by economic interests rather than by military-strategic considerations, ideology or traditions of empire. Economic interests also explain an innate preference in Germany for the status quo and stability over revolutionary change or experiments of any kind, as business and trade benefit from continuity and predictability.
A fourth enduring principle of German foreign policy emerged under Chancellor Willy Brandt, who led the country in 1969-1974. Because Adenauer was so successful in anchoring Germany firmly in the Western community, Brandt could dare to reach out to the communist East. His policy toward the East, known as Ostpolitik, was designed to normalize relations with the GDR and thus amounted to a German version of detente. His key phrase was “Wandel durch Annaherung,” meaning change through rapprochement rather than confrontation. Sometimes substituted with “Wandel durch Handel,” or change through trade, this approach remains a cornerstone of German foreign policy, especially under Social Democratic administrations. It embodies the German preference for diplomacy and trade over confrontation and pressure, even when dealing with adversarial regimes.
These four principles—Westbindung, the special relationship with Israel, the primacy of trade and Ostpolitik—illustrate that German foreign policy, even under Allied supervision, was substantive. It created traditions that German governments since reunification have picked up and continued. In fact, all four principles are accepted virtually unanimously today, despite some of them having been heatedly debated when they were developed, such as rearmament as a precondition for NATO membership in 1955 or Ostpolitik in the early 1970s.
Difficulty arises, however, in applying these principles to the policy of a sovereign Germany in a changing global landscape. Over the past 20 years, Germany has been pushed more and more to play a leadership role in international diplomatic and security affairs that is commensurate with its economic strength, population size, geographic centrality and political power in institutions such as the EU or the U.N. Security Council, where Germany has been elected a nonpermanent member three times since 1995. But as these four principles demonstrate, the Federal Republic has no tradition of a truly strategic global outlook. Because of Germany’s past lack of sovereignty and because of domestic and foreign suspicion about Germany’s global ambitions, the country’s society and political elite have developed a far more narrow strategic horizon than, say, France or the United Kingdom. (This problem can be felt in the current Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, too.)
This strategic handicap is particularly evident when it comes to the use of force. None of the four traditional principles of German foreign policy offer much guidance when it comes to the proper role of force in 21st-century global politics. To the contrary, most of the four principles play to an almost pacifist, thoroughly re-educated streak in German political culture. At the same time, Germany’s new position, and recent developments in international security affairs—from international terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to failing states and ethnic conflict—have led Germany’s allies to call for a more engaged German role. Sometimes, these calls resonate in Germany as well: Realists justify such engagement with a clear-eyed assessment of national interests, such as a favorable balance of power, secure trade routes and strong alliances; while liberals and Green Party activists advocate German participation in humanitarian interventions on the grounds of morality and historical responsibility, with the commonly heard expression, “Auschwitz—never again!” But among the German public, skepticism about the wisdom of more ambitious international designs usually prevails.
As a result of this tension, there are two competing “grand narratives” about recent German security policy. The first could be called “look how far we’ve come” and goes like this: Since reunification restored the state to full sovereignty, a thriving Germany has accepted its increasing share of responsibility in international security affairs. It has done so gradually—mindful of its historic baggage—but efficiently. Since the 1994 breakthrough decision by the Federal Constitutional Court to allow out-of-area deployment of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr has participated in many NATO and EU missions, including the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan and the fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia. Currently, Germany deploys about 5,000 troops in missions abroad; it is the third-largest contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the lead nation in the NATO-led Kosovo Force. Thus, contemporary Germany has—finally—established itself as a “normal nation” that contributes to international stability. It does so, if need be, by military means, and certainly in a manner that is commensurate with its size and economic strength.
The competing narrative about recent German security policy could be called “too little, too late,” and its adherents scoff at these supposed achievements. From this perspective, German security policy during the past 25 years has always oscillated between two conflicting conclusions drawn from German history. One is the desire to never again stand opposed to the United States and Germany’s major European neighbors. The other is the desire to never again experience war. Hence, although Germany has made military contributions to international missions, it has never done so by its own initiative. It had to be dragged into its commitments by its NATO allies—mostly the U.S.—and its partners in the European Union. As a consequence, German leaders of various political persuasions have always tried to commit as few troops with as many caveats as possible—such as very restricted rules of military engagement—without losing face among allies and friends. One can debate whether this is a prudent strategy and whether it has worked well or not, but few would argue that it is a policy befitting the most prosperous, populous and politically influential state in the European Union.
These competing narratives are at the heart of current strategic debate in Germany. The key question is whether Germany needs to do more in terms of diplomatic engagement in general and military engagement in particular. Or is Germany doing enough, sensibly avoiding overstretch and backlash by pursuing a policy of measured restraint that other countries, most notably the U.S., finally seem to be coming around to as well? The uncertainty about the right course is reflected in the unresolved “culture wars” of the previous Merkel administration: Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was a vocal proponent of what he termed Germany’s “culture of military restraint,” whereas Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere stood for a “culture of responsibility.”
Since Merkel’s re-election at the end of 2013, the “culture of responsibility” camp seems to have gained the upper hand. President Joachim Gauck, a respected figure in a largely ceremonial office, gave a much-discussed speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2014 demanding that Germany engage in a broader strategic debate as well as assume more responsibility for its own security. Both Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen articulated similar sentiments at the conference.
And yet, political action still has to catch up with rhetoric, especially because the German track record since committing to ISAF is not impressive. On Libya, Germany abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote and refused to take part in NATO’s mandated mission Unified Protector. On Syria, Germany took a position of nonintervention even while France, the U.K. and the U.S. were still heading in a different direction. Finally, in EU operations in Mali and the Central African Republic, Germany has only belatedly and minimally supported French leadership. Apparently, the road to “responsibility” is a long one.
The key driver of this debate about a greater role for Germany in international security policy is the changing global structure. Broadly speaking, U.S. power built and maintained the liberal international system after World War II. Confidence in the political will and ability of the U.S. to guarantee the stability of that system in the future has been eroding for at least a decade. At the same time, Germany has benefited enormously from that system while contributing relatively little to its maintenance. Thus, Germany is now called upon by voices foreign and domestic to step in and shoulder at least some of the U.S. burden. It is reluctant to do so, however, because of its historical baggage, meaning not just the horrors of Nazism, but also the political culture of strategic passivity that has developed over the past 60 years. Add to that the less-than-satisfying results of the most visible examples of Western security policy in the past 15 years—Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—and you have a nation paralyzed by a deep strategic dilemma.
Despite these unresolved and conflicting impulses, German strategists agree that the state needs to remain prepared for current and new challenges and that military action must remain a serious option. In the European context, many states have reacted to financial, economic and debt crises by disarming themselves; Germany is not much of an exception to this trend. Germany can no longer take military preparation for granted. Therefore, all analysis of its strategic posture must include a thorough look at its military capabilities.
Defense Capabilities and Doctrine
Since 1990, the Bundeswehr has been undergoing constant reform. The main drivers of these reforms were the incorporation of the East German army, the need to adapt to new tasks in a changed security landscape after the Cold War and the constraints of a limited defense budget. Tellingly, the latest wave of Bundeswehr reform did not originate with a political and security decision by the defense minister but with a budget decision by the finance minister.
In response to the 2008 global financial and economic crisis, and the ensuing European debt crisis, Merkel’s government adopted a constitutional amendment limiting new federal debt to 3.5 percent of GDP. In order to comply with this debt brake, in 2010 Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble prescribed every ministry an exact amount of money to be saved over the following four years. In relation to its overall budget, defense had to cut the most: 8.3 billion euros by 2014. (For comparison’s sake, in March 2014, 1 euro was equivalent to about $1.40.) Considering that the annual budget of German defense is only about 30 billion euros, the prescribed reduction was substantial.
This daunting requirement propelled then-Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to initiate the most far-reaching reform of the Bundeswehr since its founding in 1955. In a first step, he killed one of his conservative party’s sacred cows: conscription. The practicality—and feasibility—of maintaining a conscripted army in a post-Cold War security environment requiring leaner and more professional forces had been contested for years. With the measure being sold as a cost-saving exercise in tumultuous financial times by Germany’s most popular minister, protests against the change were suddenly muted. As it turned out, however, ending conscription did not save money; instead, it created extra costs for recruiting and maintaining salary levels competitive with the private sector—at least in the short and medium term.
Thus, other elements of zu Guttenberg’s reform package—downsizing the armed forces, reducing the procurement of new weapons systems and platforms, trimming resources for research and development for future systems and increasing cooperation with EU partners on military matters—became even more relevant. The guiding principles behind those general ideas, however, remained nebulous. When zu Guttenberg had to resign in March 2011 over allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation, it fell to his successor, Thomas de Maiziere, to develop a strategy that satisfied both the treasurers and the generals. Such a strategy, de Maiziere decided, should consider Germany’s negative demographic trend, should be derived from an analysis of Germany’s political and security situation and should be financially sustainable. After the 2013 election, de Maiziere became minister of the interior; his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to continue de Maiziere’s “new orientation.”
Surprisingly, de Maiziere—who is one of Angela Merkel’s closest advisers and was, in her first term, the chief of her chancellery—was able to work under easier conditions than expected: The prescribed cuts of 8.3 billion euros were taken off the table. To the contrary, the administration and parliament even agreed to a slight increase in defense spending and to project more modest reductions over the next two years, as the following table illustrates.
From 1991 until 1997, German defense spending continually declined, from about 28 billion to 23 billion euros. With the Kosovo war, the era of the “peace dividend” was over. Since 2001, German defense spending has risen slowly but steadily, with minor cuts in 2003 and 2010 as the exceptions. The financial and economic crisis starting in 2008 did not have a discernible effect on this trend. And, indeed, the projected cuts for 2014-2015 might yet be reversed—after all, the administration’s original projected defense budget for 2013 was 31.4 billion euros, well below the 33.3 billion euros actually allocated.
At the same time, German increases in defense spending have remained modest and have not even offset the effects of inflation over the past 20 years. In real terms, German defense spending has been decreasing. Moreover, with defense spending at around 1.25 percent of GDP, defense is obviously not a budget priority. (The budget of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare is more than four times the size of that of the Ministry of Defense.) Needless to say, Germany does not fulfill the pledge made by the allies at the 2002 Prague NATO Summit to each spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.
The defense budget increase of about 5 percent in 2013 seems striking, but it is due to a significant rise in the personnel cost of federal employees and an expected rent hike for some buildings used by the armed forces. The higher spending does not translate to a substantive gain for military planners. Quite the contrary, the budget share allocated to investment in actual defense-related capabilities—including military procurement, but also research and development—has declined in both absolute and relative terms. In 2012, R&D and procurement constituted approximately 23.1 percent (7.4 billion euros) of the total defense budget, but was reduced to 21.4 percent (7.1 billion euros) for 2013. The figures for military procurements alone also reflect the overall decline in investment, with a reduction from 17.2 percent to 15.4 percent (or 5.5 billion euros to 5.1 billion euros in absolute figures).
In an effort to ease the budgetary squeeze, de Maiziere proceeded to trim ministry structures and to downsize the armed forces. Upon completion of the reform in 2017, the Bundeswehr is expected to consist of no more than 185,000 soldiers and 55,000 civilian employees, down from 250,000 and 75,000 in 2010, with 10,000 soldiers deployable simultaneously in two areas of operation, up from 7,000. In the new personnel structure, the army will consist of approximately 62,000 soldiers, the air force of around 32,000 and the navy of approximately 16,000, while the Joint Support Service, which unifies the armed forces’ logistical services at home and abroad, and the medical service will comprise roughly 46,000 and 19,000 service members respectively. The remaining service members will be distributed among equipment, infrastructure, human resources and other services.
This downsizing of the armed forces will be accompanied by reductions in military materiel through cuts in prospective procurement and the decommissioning of active systems. Although the German navy will remain more or less the same, albeit with fewer personnel, these materiel reductions will strongly affect Germany’s army and air force. Table 2 shows some of the prospective changes.
According to de Maiziere, the cuts described above are not primarily dictated by budget constraints but reflect politico-security considerations. Using Germany’s 2006 White Book as a starting point, the minister outlined the strategic thinking that would guide the “new orientation” in a series of documents and speeches. The most important of these are the Defense Policy Guidance (DPG) and the principles paper, both published in May 2011. They provide a rationale for the German military in the early 21st century by explaining Germany’s vested interest in a stable liberal international order and by analyzing current and likely future threats to this order. The ministry emphasizes that neither retrenchment nor a sole focus on traditional concepts of territorial defense are promising strategies for dealing with these challenges. Hence, Germany is called upon to take on a greater share of the burden in upholding global order, including military contributions to U.N., EU and NATO missions.
As a consequence, the new orientation seeks to develop a sleeker force that is highly deployable and effective in crisis management and crisis resolution missions. “The ability to fight . . . is thus a benchmark for operational readiness,” states the DPG. Because of Germany’s size and geostrategic position, this ability to fight cannot be limited to a few specialized and highly qualified capabilities but must encompass a full-spectrum force, the DPG argues. Hence, a key slogan for the “new orientation’s” force structure is “Breite vor Tiefe” (breadth rather than depth), meaning a preference for “a little bit of everything” over further military specialization. This strategy will entail costs in terms of sustainability and effectiveness in operations but is said to give Germany a key political role in cooperating with European partners of small and medium size. By offering broad basic capabilities, Germany allows other partners to develop highly specialized forces that can then be pooled and shared in common operations—presumably, at times, under German leadership and with financial benefits for all.
On assessment of this strategy and its translation into military reform, several problems stand out. For instance, with the end of conscription, it is still unclear whether the envisioned troop strength will be sustainable—and at what cost. To maintain a force of 185,000 troops, about 12,500 new career and longer-term service members need to be recruited each year. Given the rule of thumb that the Bundeswehr needs four applicants to fill one job satisfactorily, this is more of a challenge than it might seem at first glance. Early data on recruitment under the new system is still inconclusive.
Even if the ranks can be filled, the restructuring of the Bundeswehr into a rapidly deployable fighting force still stops halfway. Of 185,000 personnel, the government is only aiming to be able to deploy a maximum of 10,000. That is a low level of ambition, even if one takes into account that to deploy 10,000, an additional 20,000 will be either in preparation and training to deploy or resting from a previous deployment. The political decision to limit each tour to just four months, instead of the more common six to eight months, puts further pressure on personnel planning. And, finally, it should be noted that having a capability to deploy 10,000 personnel is the Defense Ministry’s stated goal; it remains unclear whether it will be achieved.
The idea of a deployable force geared toward operations abroad is not fully realized in terms of military hardware either. The Bundeswehr still lacks essential capabilities, for instance in tactical and strategic airlift. The proposed further reductions in helicopters and planned procurement of the A400M transport aircraft do not mesh with the strategic analysis set out by the ministry but are a consequence of limited budgets and rising prices for new equipment.
In sum, this assessment of German defense capabilities and doctrine yields three insights. First, Germany is part of an EU-wide trend of steadily shrinking defense budgets and decreasing military capabilities. Second, Germany’s defense documents demonstrate a clear understanding of the changing strategic landscape. They also very clearly express a German ambition to face up to the challenges and threats of the early 21st century. Third, serious political will to bridge this divide between ability and ambition is not as clearly in evidence.
Three Strategic Challenges
Given the many unresolved dilemmas and debates surrounding today’s German security policy, three major challenges for German strategists and policymakers can be identified.
The first is Germany’s unwanted leadership position in Europe. Germany’s current political elites have never sought a position of sole leadership within the European Union, but for all practical purposes, they have it now and will keep it for the foreseeable future. They will have to get used to that role, including the fact that inaction can bring greater calamity than action—and that German policymakers will be criticized either way. It would be prudent for Germany to continue its tradition of integrative diplomacy: finding compromise with the “big shots” France and U.K., but also listening intently to the concerns and ideas of smaller nations, especially those of Central and Eastern Europe. But at the end of the day, Germany will more frequently have to push for a decision, and not just on issues of economic integration. In order to do so, German policymakers need a domestic base that is more willing to consider and embrace strategic imperatives. Leaders thus need to better explain the changing international role of Germany to their public and cultivate a strategic discourse that is not limited to small circles of experts.
A second key challenge for German strategists is the ailing frameworks of German security policy—NATO and, to an even greater degree, the EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP)—which must be improved. After the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan this year, NATO will need a new narrative that will provide the alliance with cohesion and direction. It is particularly important to keep the U.S. engaged in NATO and convinced of the usefulness of the institution, despite European outrage over the National Security Agency spying scandal. In order to keep the U.S. engaged, Germany should stress the relevance of military and political preparedness for future crises that are sure to challenge the alliance. Europeans must meanwhile make a greater effort to increase their military effectiveness and their readiness to discuss global strategic issues in NATO. In both respects, Germany is in a position to make significant contributions.
The CSDP is another forum for tackling the same problem. Understood as a driver of capabilities and political consensus, it can be a relevant factor for the improvement of NATO’s effectiveness. Moreover, in the era of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” and U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of retrenchment, it is an instrument with which Europeans can assume greater responsibility for their own security. This, however, requires a push for a more serious and practical CSDP. The avenues for bringing this about are well-known: Getting real about pooling and sharing, deploying battle groups, harmonizing procurement through a strengthening of the European Defense Agency, reforming the allocation of operation costs and so on. What is lacking is the political will of EU member states to make good ideas a reality. Germany can and should lead the way to a better CSDP.
The third major challenge for German policymakers is instability in the European periphery. German strategists often bemoan a false sense of security, even insularity, among the German public. There is indeed little awareness of how dependent German prosperity is on a stable international order—and of how brittle that order has become practically all around the EU’s borders. Violence and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa are likely to continue for at least another decade; in countries such as Syria, the worst may be yet to come, with armed conflict potentially spilling across the region. The domestic and geostrategic situation of Germany’s NATO ally Turkey is precarious. Current tensions in Ukraine are a reminder of the many festering disputes between Russia and its pro-Western neighbors. And in the High North, climate change is opening new trade routes and resources to international competition.
In all these crises, the EU and its member states have an interest and a responsibility to act. They also have a number of instruments—besides toothless declarations or military escalation—that have not yet been put to proper use. Again, it is Germany as the strongest state in Europe that should lead the way to a more creative, more insistent and more effective EU foreign policy.
Editor’s Note: The arguments in the section on German Defense Capabilities and Doctrine have been developed previously in Patrick Keller’s “German Hard Power: Is There a There There?” National Security Outlook No. 4, October 2013, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.
Dr. Patrick Keller is the coordinator of foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, Germany. He is the author or editor of five books, and his essays and commentary on international security and U.S. foreign policy have been published in the Wall Street Journal, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Survival and Internationale Politik, among others. He writes here in a strictly personal capacity.