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Burden-Sharing within NATO: Facts from Germany for the Current Debate

By Rachel Epstein, Donald Abenheim, and Marc-André Walther for Denver Dialogues

Bundeswehr ceremony in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, January 2009. Photo by G. Czekalla, via Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Rachel Epstein’s interview with Professor Donald Abenheim of the Naval Postgraduate School and Lieutenant Colonel (General Staff) Marc-André Walther of the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Hamburg.

  1. The President of the United States had some tough words for America’s NATO’s allies at the recent summit in Brussels. Is this sort of brinkmanship normal in the history of the Alliance?

Burden sharing is often described by experts as the problem older than the alliance itself. The tasks of mutual aid and self-help for collective defense in Article III of the Washington Treaty lie entangled in the domestic politics among allies. In the present case, the 2% of GDP spending goal pivots on US and German internal policymaking. The last time alliance cohesion manifested itself with this vitriol was in the 2011 NATO air campaign in Libya, to say nothing of the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz “New Europe/Old Europe” episode in 2002-2003 prelude to the Iraq War, where  a divergence of policy and strategy tore open the wound in allied ministries and editorial pages left over from the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign.

The above notwithstanding, the apparent desire in the highest echelons of the Executive Branch to call into question the value of NATO in general and the validity of Article V, in particular, symbolizes something previously unseen in US security policy since about 1941 or 1919. Past fights over the sharing of the burdens of collective defense within NATO unfolded within a fundamental consensus about alliance cohesion and the trans-Atlantic security. Brinksmanship is a very normal part of burden sharing domestic politics, but the international system appears to be fundamentally damaged at the moment to the detriment of both the United States and Germany.

  1. President Trump is very focused on the fact that most NATO members do not devote the equivalent of 2% of their GDP to their own defense. Germany falls into the category of countries that pays too little. Does he have a point?

In view of the disintegrating security of Europe and beyond, Germany should surely spend more money on a Bundeswehr that has been worn down since the 1990s. But such a decision is made in Berlin and not in Washington, DC. German defense spending has begun to rise in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its rate of increase is fairly remarkable. Chancellor Merkel and Minister von der Leyen have strongly embraced higher defense spending, which collides with domestic political priorities, especially security issues connected with the Syrian refugee crisis as well as the endurance of the Rhenish social market model in the teeth of globalization.

Germany is committed to NATO’s agreement to spend 2% of its GDP on defense and security. Defense spending increased by 6.8% from 2016 to 2017 and was further increased in the 2018 budget. The government is aiming for a defense budget of approximately 42 billion euros in 2021 (up from 38.5 billion euros in 2018). To sum it up: Does Germany need to spend more money on its armed forces? Yes. Is Germany heading into the right direction? Yes. Would it be good to reach the goal faster? Yes, but one must take into consideration that defense spending is not decided only by facts and figures of the international security situation, but also by domestic politics. The problem is that security-related issues are domestically very unpopular and therefore it is difficult to make progress towards the NATO defense spending target. Moreover, Germany’s Armed Forces are suffering from 25 years of neglect, ill-conceived structural reforms and political leadership that lacks proper understanding of the military instrument of power and strategy. One cannot recover from these deficiencies in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, NATO was, is, and will be the cornerstone of Germany’s security strategy.

Besides the fact that Germany must improve the funding and equipment of its Armed Forces, it is a trustworthy ally who fulfills all obligations to the Alliance. National defense spending is only one side of the coin. Contributions to NATO are the other side. And this is where Germany steps up its game. Germany is the second largest force provider for NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. It contributes to NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups on a regular, rotational basis. Germany is a lead nation for one of the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Groups, which were established in Poland and the Baltic states to deter further Russian aggression. Together with the Netherlands and Norway, Germany trains and holds ready on short notice NATO’s first Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as part of NATO’s Response Forces. This trilateral approach became a role model for the further design and establishment of the VJTF.

Germany also continues to act as one of seven lead nations for NATO Response Forces. It provides forces and headquarters on a regular basis in accordance with NATO’s long term rotation plan. Germany contributes to NATO’s Air Policing every year and provides corps headquarters for NATO missions. Additionally, Germany fulfils its obligations to NATO by providing approximately 90% of the required staffing for NATO’s command structure. Compare this to other allies. To put it in a nutshell, while Germany has to improve its military capacity and capabilities, nearly all of its capabilities (exceptions are national capabilities which are tasked with national non-combatant evacuation missions) are available for or contributed to NATO. While other allies might spend more on defense, they contribute less to NATO. Consider France for example. Although they have one of Europe biggest navies, vessels are assigned to NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups mostly on a short-term and a more irregular basis. Moreover, France spends a lot of its budget on its Force de Frappe, a purely national asset that will never be included into NATO’s strategic assets.

  1. The president has also threatened to withdraw American troops from Germany. At the same time, NATO forces, including US troops, have been engaged in “enhanced forward presence” further East in response to Russian aggression. So how is one to read the US commitment to NATO? Is Trump weakening ties, or is the Alliance still robust?

The withdrawal of US troops from Germany is a story in itself, which few Americans alive today even remotely know in detail. Such a withdrawal unfolded steadily from the 1990-91 Gulf War until very recently, when, in the shadow of Crimea, the Obama administration reversed a policy of the Bush/Rumsfeld cabinet that had previously severely downgraded European security. The posture of US forces in Europe is a constant theme in grand strategy and domestic politics, including especially a dissatisfaction in the US Defense Department with the strength and configuration of these troops. In an effort to cement US alliance cohesion because of a distrust of western and central Europeans, the Polish government wants to provide host nation support to new US garrisons on the traditional German model of USAREUR, USAFE and NAVEUR (US Army Europe, US Air Forces in Europe, and US Naval Forces in Europe, respectively). The movement of a large fraction of US ground and air forces to Poland would entail a very significant expenditure for infrastructure, for which the offer of 2 billion dollars would likely be insufficient. The German government currently covers a significant fraction of the costs of basing in the FRG and has done so effectively for decades. An alternative is to withdraw US forces to base them in the continental United States. This goal is in fact a very old one, engaged in the past, only then to be reversed when the security situation in Europe has deteriorated and required reinforcement. The measures that comprise enhanced forward presence and very high reaction forces for such places as the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have not missed a beat with the new government in Washington DC.

  1. If the US did “pull out” of NATO, as the President threatened at the recent Brussels summit in response to low spending levels among Alliance members, what would the effects be on European politics and security?

The US cabinet that might make use of Article 13 of the Washington Treaty to renounce this corner stone of peace and security in the trans-Atlantic sphere would soon see a geopolitical upheaval that has dominated the headlines in the past few years explode in a manner reminiscent of the darker episodes of modern history. Napoleon remarked well enough that power is never ridiculous. And power in Europe would violently and quickly realign without the role of the US as a force of order. Europe would again swiftly become a cock pit of rivalry among great powers, whose play books have been cast open by the integral nationalist, populist political parties that have sprung into existence with blood and soil myths and legends and demographic scenarios of decline and fall. While theoreticians of a 21st century geopolitics fantasize about some other world order in which the US might retain its hegemonic position, one can speculate that a fundamental security crisis in Europe would swiftly entail a fundamental security crisis for the survival of the US itself.  It happened before. There is no reason today that it cannot occur again, and with even greater tragedy than before.

The views expressed here are those of the individuals themselves and do not reflect the positions of the US government, the German government, or any office therein.

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