26 January 2019

Germany- Europe’s everlasting security problem. Or is it the other way around?

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

Germany’s postwar (non-military) condition was a defeat, but also an opportunity. Assuming increased responsibilities in European security field is still the outermost bridge. After 2014, the decrease of the German armed forces` personnel was stopped. “Europeanism with German characteristics” is partially transferred to France. Meanwhile, they are looking for (European) soldiers for Bundeswehr. 

Saying that Germany has dominated Central Europe in the last two hundred of years is a truism. When historical and power opportunities have existed, the colossus got extended to the East, or to the West, having recoils as well, some actually painful, however always being continent’s center of gravity. This strong semi-continental power position required, previously, a dominating conduit, which did not have a happy ending for it, but it is still outlining it today when, from inside and outside the country, it receives responsibilities that, sometimes, Berlin does not want to assume, all the more so to accomplish them. Particularly in the security field, where no one has the resources they once had, and the postwar historical circumstances offered Germany a modest position, which allows it to use its energies in other fields, wherein there are only few which can keep up with it. As this analysis tries to highlight some relevant aspects, yet particular from Germany’s political-military security strategies, as well as its military options, we will only talk about some recent and concrete evolutions / contexts / situations.

When did Germany’s security strategy issue returned to European agenda? Which were the circumstances?

Before Iron Curtain’s fall, in 1989, Germany had one of NATO’s most important armed forces, with around 500.000 soldiers. After the unification with East Germany, Berlin’s objectives were dominated by the necessity to integrate the East German space, an expensive and long-lasting operation, as well as by the growing responsibilities within European Union.

In these circumstances, after the fall of the communist bloc, the number of German militaries has decreased to 200.000, it gave up the compulsory military service and the budget for defence was hovering at around 1,2 % from the GDP, almost twice smaller than what NATO was asking, the well-known 2%. Things have carried on this way until 2014, when the crisis in Ukraine has emerged and when, suddenly, the NATO states, especially those from the Eastern flank, have discovered how ill prepared are, regarding military resources, against an enemy: the Russian Federation, politically decided and military capable to mark and protect its zone of influence .

Although 2014 is a landmark in how the German politicians have acted in defence field, there were certainly other elements and baselines which have been important in Germany’s new security strategy approach:

  • Although Germany’s huge economic potential allowed, even in the conditions of the the decreased 1,2 % budget for defence, a quite big budget for the armed forces, it proved to be insufficient for covering military’s important needs. The number of militaries has decreased, the equipment got old. In an anecdotical manner, this was revealed recently during chancellor Angela Merkel’s participation at the G20 Summit from Buenos Aires, as she had to go on a civilian plane because the military one had a technical issue;
  • Before the crisis in Ukraine, the terrorist group Islamic State had a huge ascension, taking over the control of a great part of Iraq and Syria’s territory, hence the terrorist threat became an urgent and direct reality for the European states. Particularly for those who were having important Muslim communities;
  • In German public-opinion’s perspective, but also within the political specter, there was a transformation of how they were looking at defence’s policy.  If previously there was a quasi-general rejection of everything related to the military domain, being promoted the civil aspect of the Germany society, the last years have revealed new pledging options, being more and more interested in the military[1] valences of the Germany security policy.  The emergence of new right parties within the German politics, with a more nationalist, militant message for Germany’s comeback to an offensive stance in the military field, rewarded with great results at the Parliamentary elections, have contributed also at the conversion of the security domain agenda.
  • A more important change has happened in the classic German political establishment. Germany’s first woman defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is also the one who did more than any other German dignitary in this period, since the beginning of her mandate in the political saddle of defence domain, in 2013, for Germany to assume increased responsibilities in foreign missions, her stances being often against a “reserved military presence”, a concept promoted by chancellor Angela Merkel, but also by the ex-Foreign Affairs Minister, Guido Westerwelle[2]. It is not nowise for Mrs. von der Leyen’s position to promote her candidacy to NATO’s HQ from Brussels, to follow, in 2020, the current NATO General Secretary, the Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, being a really serious option for this position[3].

Hence, we can say that although 2014, the year of the Ukrainian crisis and Crimea’s annexation by Russia, was the moment when Germany’s new options and needs in security field have been revealed, the context was more complex, which it is proved by its ulterior evolutions.

For Berlin, Moscow is the enemy which can also be a partner, meanwhile Washington is the partner that behaves as the enemy

For the German space in center of Europe, Germany, Austria, and somehow Switzerland too, Russia is not the threat that other NATO states see[4], particularly those from the Eastern flank. It is quite contradictory for a NATO state, Germany, and a non aligned one, Austria, to have such close stances and, sometimes, so different from the European traditional partners, against a country which is considered to be the main instability factor at Alliance’s and European Union’s Eastern border.

Generally, in Germany, as well as in Austria, the population and the political elite think that even if the security situation had a negative evolution on an international plan, it was not Russia’s fault. And the various types of threats, not only military ones, need some common, European answers.

Hence, in Berlin, there is this tendency to postpone, for a while, taking firm decisions in the defence area, hoping that US’s stance within NATO will change, which is Washington easing the pressure over its NATO allies to increase the military costs. The European Union will be able offer, in the meantime, more consensus counter arguments regarding the common European defence. The shortcoming percentage in the German budget of defence, comparing it with what other NATO states have assumed, firstly the US, is what actually led to a German economic growth, which generated competitiveness and upkeeps the high-level exports. Threats are diffuse, abstract: hybrid war, cyber-attacks, hardly to be directly identified for the electorate and difficult to assume, politically speaking.  Within the analytical groups it is suggested that, in order to be aware of the need to assume an extended profile in international security domain, it should be used territorial defence topics, especially a conventional war threat, but neither these seem to have many followers.

Certainly, the current moment is not the most proper time. A recent poll of the German public television shows that only 14% from the Germans appreciate US being a trustable partner, meanwhile twice as much Germans think that Russia could be a political partner. Although in 2017, 91% from the Germans wanted for the German army to deter attacks against their country, 49% were in favor of more soldiers in Bundeswehr, 72% were supporting foreign missions to help the NATO allies, 58% though were against a military action. The question for the latter was: “what should Germany do if a NATO ally would be attacked by Russia?”. Two years later and things have not changed too much. On the contrary.

After president Trump was elected, the US has become, for Germany, an unpredictable partner, the relation between the president and the chancellor evolved from great to modest. Washington has accused Germany for the small contribution at Alliance’s spending and Berlin responded showing that regarding the common spending contributions related to NATO programs, Germany (15% from the total costs for this field) has surpassed France (10,6%) and Great Britain (9,8%), and it is actually close to US’s contribution (22%)[5]. In Washington, Germany is accused for not being co-operative in security field and promoting its economic interests way too much.

Both parts` entrepreneurial approach led to the comeback, regarding the analytical level and the Germany media, of two topics, discussed in the past also, but considered to be a taboo topic in the political discourse:

  • Germany’s participation at a nuclear military program, together with France / Great Britain or autonomously, to ensure deterrence in this field. It is a subject which was approached a few months ago by Christian Hacke, a professor in political sciences, in the conservative publication Welt[6]. The discussion is much more theoretical, having the purpose to prepare and warn, but, after Germany gave up the nuclear power plant, it is quite hard to believe that Berlin will choose nuclear ostracism, like North Korea, to commit to  its own nuclear program;
  • Germany’s participation at UN’s Security Council. Starting with 1st of January 2019, Germany is part of the 10 nonpermanent members of the Council, which is an opportunity to reopen the discussion about extending the permanent representation in this group.

There is still a partnership between Berlin and Paris, but…

The discussion is, however, about permanent positions. The Big 5, the Council of Elders, who have, each of them, the silver bullet in the international relations. The Finances Minister, Olaf Scholz, made an allusion about transferring the place France has within Security’s Council permanent members, to European Union[7]. Germany always has been contained about France’s promotion, its everlasting rival, in this elite group. “Paris wants to travel in first class having second class tickets.”, it was being said in the postwar period. Of course, Paris rejected the proposal. After Brexit, France will remain the only EU member which has a high-level permanent and strategic presence across UN. This is not something you just offer. Neither Berlin wanted for the proposal to be implemented. It is, actually, impossible now. Starting this topic was just a verification of the French-German relations.

After the 90’ there were many moments when Germany and France had different political points of view:

  • The unilateral decision to give up the nuclear energy;
  • Imposing the internal budgetary regulation of the fiscal equilibrium across Europe, changing the 3% limit for deficit;
  • Solving the crisis in Greece following a German economic austerity model;
  • Recognizing, almost unilaterally, Croatia and Slovenia, the ex-Yugoslav republics, which, at that moment, the beginning of the 90’, raised some tensions between the French president, Francois Mitterrand and the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl. With the announcement of the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, about not running for this position in the future elections, the current good relations between the German chancellery and Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, could go back to the cold and cordial contacts from 20 years ago.

Interests are identified; however, the strategy is the one of the small steps

A security strategy, proposed by Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats[8], not long ago, assumed also by the majority of the German political specter, details Germany’s national interest in five uppermost fields:

  • Terrorism combat;
  • Nuclear proliferation;
  • Energy and transport infrastructure security;
  • Climatic changes;
  • Conflicts prevention.

Interests are not that different from those identified in similar documents from France or Great Britain. What is actually different is how the military solutions are individualized for their interests protection. There is also another difference in how the German society and the political elite see the security challenges. The security culture is not assumed by the society, and most part of the German citizens do not know much about the armed forces, about the participation at foreign operations, approved in 1994, by the Constitutional Federal Court (almost 70% from the interviewed at a recent poll do not know that the German army is participating at the peace mission in Mali[9]).

Given these circumstances, Germany continues to commit in foreign mission, only if these are demanded by UN, NATO or EU (meanwhile other states, even NATO partners, are avoiding these procedures, from time to time, when interests are asking for it), and has a dual position in EU’s security, promoting, especially through governance’s coalition partner, SDP, social democrats, the concept of a European defence, leaving it in France’s hands and not actually offering it a financial chance. Berlin is sometimes firm, other times conciliant with Turkey, a strong economic partner and wherewith relations are not only economical. As for Russia, the position is the same as when Gerhard Schroder, the president of Nord Stream AG’s administration council, was Germany’s chancellor.

The “ambitious” program presented by the Defence Minister, Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen, for the following 10 years[10], which aims to reach a new “capability profile”, has the goal to allocate, in 2014, a 1,5% from GDP for defence, quite close to NATO’s goal budget. The minister has proposed more, but the social democrats, who have the Ministry of Finances, did not agree. If they will not assume a radical option for costs’ increase dedicated to national defence, Berlin will not support a pure European option. “Europeanism with German characteristics” remains an interesting concept, left on France’s hands, which answered “non, merci” to the indirect proposal to offer Europe a veto in the Security Council.

Although, starting with 2014, there is a new European reality, yet, in Berlin this reality is embraced with cautious steps. A German saying says the following: Wer gute Nachbarn hat, bekommt einen guten Morgen / He who has good neighbors, has a great morning too. Surrounded by allied and partners states, Germany does not feel the stress of East Europe’s states, nor wants to assume, at this moment, the leading role in European security. It would be expensive, complicated, counterproductive, and, probably, too early.

In the meantime, there is a small issue with German army’s personnel

Until assuming European security responsibilities, which could have been blend into “Make Europe first” slogan, in Berlin, but also Bonn (the Ministry of Defence still has two headquarters, according to 1992 Law about German unification implementation) a small problem has emerged in ensuring the necessary[11] personnel in extremely important fields. Bundeswehr’s General Inspector / the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, general Eberhard Zorn, had various positions across the personnel and the human resources departments and knows that it is difficult to convince the young Germans to follow a career in the army.

Hence, the call goes to the potential candidates from the European Union states. They could become doctors or IT specialists in the German armed forces, according to general Zorn, who, in order to take down the internal debate, said that there will be no foreign citizens recruited for the fighting structures. On an external plan, the reaction was, though, different, as the possible states, especially from East and South-East of Europe, wherefrom Bundeswehr’s possible members could come, have considered this offer as a brains conscription.

Consequently, Berlin’s unofficial process to become the continental center of gravity in the security domain too, has issues not only in identifying concepts, taking more responsibilities in foreign mission, developing new security culture in the German political elites, but also on more dull aspects, like the young Germans who are not too interested in wearing the military uniform.

This is a direct consequence of a recent history / 70 years in a country’s existence, which still burdens the German present and will continue, for some time, to influence its future also.


[1] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/germany-discusses-security-and-defense-policy-silly-season-or-real-change

[2] https://www.dw.com/en/how-does-germany-contribute-to-nato/a-38033967

[3] https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/wird-von-der-leyen-die-naechste-nato-generalsekretaerin-15453878.html

[4] https://nationalinterest.org/feature/austria-germany-need-rethink-their-national-security-25925

[5] https://www.dw.com/en/how-does-germany-contribute-to-nato/a-38033967

[6] https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/plus180136274/Eine-Nuklearmacht-Deutschland-staerkt-die-Sicherheit-des-Westens.html?wtrid=onsite.onsitesearch

[7] https://rusi.org/commentary/france-germany-and-europe%E2%80%99s-strategic-footprint

[8] https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_germanys_national_security_strategy

[10] https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/09/05/germany-unveils-growth-plan-for-the-bundeswehr/

[11] https://www.dw.com/en/germany-may-increase-troop-numbers-to-203000-by-2025/a-46448111