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Merkel on NATO: Reconciling Germany Contributions toward Two Percent and its Role as a Mediator

Merkel on NATO: Reconciling Germany Contributions toward Two Percent and its Role as a Mediator

Germany is the largest European economy, which means that is has the potential to be the largest military donor in Europe, as well; however, Germany’s past does not allow it to imagine being the biggest ‘military machine’ in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War and thus Germany’s unification, questions about its military force and expenditures have not been on the top of its agenda, to say the least. Recently, however, the question has been brought up not just in Germany but internationally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has held the chancellorship for over 15 years, has shown that she does not view Germany as a military machine nor that she would imagine it to be one. Furthermore, Merkel has recently announced that she will not run for office in the next general elections in Germany in 2021. Therefore, questions remain as to what would happen to Europe and the transatlantic relationship in general if Donald Trump followed through with his statements, and additionally, how Germany’s position might affect the future of transatlantic relations.

 

By Juris Jurans

 

At the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Allied Heads of State and Government concluded that member states should increase their military expenditures to 2% of their annual GDP. Recently, American President Donald Trump said that he would withdraw the United States from NATO if Allied countries fail to raise their military expenditures above this threshold.

Germany is the largest European economy, which means that is has the potential to be the largest military donor in Europe, as well; however, Germany’s past does not allow it to imagine being the biggest ‘military machine’ in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War and thus Germany’s unification, questions about its military force and expenditures have not been on the top of its agenda, to say the least. Recently, however, the question has been brought up not just in Germany but internationally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has held the chancellorship for over 15 years, has shown that she does not view Germany as a military machine nor that she would imagine it to be one. Furthermore, Merkel has recently announced that she will not run for office in the next general elections in Germany in 2021. Therefore, questions remain as to what would happen to Europe and the transatlantic relationship in general if Donald Trump followed through with his statements, and additionally, how Germany’s position might affect the future of transatlantic relations.

The aim of this research is to analyze notions of civilian power in the context of NATO’s burden sharing from the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It will analyze burden sharing and NATO’s duty to increase national military expenditures, notions of civilian power identity, and Angela Merkel’s position on burden sharing and its effect on the transatlantic relationship. I hypothesize that the notions of civilian power underlying Angela Merkel’s position are against Germany’s post-war duties and principles; therefore, the pressure on Germany to increase its military spending has a negative effect on the transatlantic relationship.

The research consists of two parts. The first part outlines the basic principles of NATO burden sharing, as well as an analysis of Germany’s role in it, and how it has affected transatlantic relations. The second part evaluates the German Chancellor’s position as well as a description of civilian power and how it affects this position.

Collective security and Germany’s role in it

Burden sharing, the debate about how the burden of military expenditures should be shared, has always been amongst the top issues inside NATO,[i] but in general, this debate had been overlooked or perceived as not important until recent years. The debate on burden sharing inside NATO was reignited after the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, when attention was drawn to the fact that Allied countries had decreased their military expenditures since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War, most Allied countries did not prioritize their military sector.[ii] As Todd Sandler points out, the small Allied countries had begun to take up free riding, i.e., since bigger countries spend a lot on their militaries, there is no need for smaller states to do the same.[iii] From all of the arguments mentioned, one can and should draw the conclusion that burden sharing is a more pressing issue for big military donors, as they have a lot more to lose in case Article 5 is triggered. Since the US has the largest military expenditures in the world, it has a particular interest in the topic of how much countries spend on strengthening their security and enhancing NATO overall.

As mentioned above, the Wales Summit in 2014 was a turning point in this debate, mostly because Allies came to the conclusion that there should be a minimum amount of what each country should spend on their military. After the Wales Summit, for the first time in almost 30 years, overall military expenditures in Europe started to rise.[iv] There are a lot of arguments to be made here about this sudden rise; however, this is outside the scope of this research. It is important to stress the fact that this decision has had a positive effect on the transatlantic relationship.[v] For example, many countries have increased their military expenditures, which signals that the rift over how much countries should be spending on their military between the US and Europe might be shrinking.[vi] This positive trend changed, however, after the 2016 presidential election in the US, when Donald Trump emerged on the international stage as the leader of the most powerful military force in the world.

Germany has perhaps faced the fiercest criticism of any European country since the Wales Summit for the fact that it is the largest European economy, but it still has not met the 2% threshold for its military expenditures. It is important to stress that there have been several polls in Germany about the necessity of military force in the country as well as the justification for warfare. According to the poll, which was conducted in 2013, only 27% of Germans said that war can be justified in cases where it is used as a means to promote law.[vii] This shows clearly how Germans view themselves and their role in the world, mostly due to their history and role in both world wars.[viii] This is why Germany operates as a peace promoting country, which was also clear right after the Crimean crisis begun: Angela Merkel kept calling Russia for dialogue even when many other NATO leaders criticised her for doing so.[ix] Germany has been trying to act as a mediator between Russia and Western countries as a result of its willingness to implement peaceful conflict resolution strategies.

Nonetheless, Germany has been under fire from President Trump, who has also openly accused Germany of not contributing as much to NATO as it could since it is the biggest European economy.[x] In Germany’s defence it should be noted that so far only nine out of the 29 NATO member states have reached the 2% threshold of military expenditures from their annual GDP. Furthermore, the countries that have reached this threshold are all ‘small’ European states, with the exception being the UK and, of course, the US. Thus, given the fact that few nations have been able to reach the threshold, the Alliance faces an important question: is the threshold set by NATO the answer to the burden sharing issues NATO has been facing for so long?

The actions of the Trump administration would, in fact, imply that it is not the answer. Washington’s recent decisions have shown two ways in which the attempts at burden sharing that were introduced in the Wales Summit in 2014 are failing, despite overall increased spending among Allies: “First, the White House announced it would cut more than $770 million worth of military construction efforts meant to restore combat capability in Europe […] second, the United States is hoping to cut a deal with Germany that on its face appears to increase German military spending and decrease the U.S. share of the military burden in Europe but, in reality, serves to weaken the German military while burdening the United States even further.”[xi] This latter point implies that although Germany is trying to strengthen its military despite a lack of proper funding, equipment, etc., the Trump administration’s pressure on Germany to do more might be only making things worse.[xii] In this sense, two conclusions can be drawn. First, by cutting NATO funding Trump is indirectly punishing European Allies for their failure to raise their military expenditures, therefore making them contribute more to NATO administration. Second, Trump does not take into account the fact that Germany’s budget priority is not military spending as it is for the US. Rather, Germany has contributed to NATO in different ways. Trying to force Germany to pay more would result in the lack of finance for Germany’s military force in the long run, meaning, that Germany might decrease its military expenditures instead of raising them. In this regard it is possible to say that Germany is not able to respect the decision made at the Wales Summit, but not because of a lack of want. On the contrary, Germany feels responsible for NATO and Europe in general, but this does not necessarily mean that it will increase its military spending.

Merkel’s position and its effect on transatlantic relations

As stated above, Germany has focused on peaceful conflict resolution, without using any military means if possible. Therefore, there is a connection between its position and the notion of civilian power. Being a civilian power, first and foremost, means exercising power through non-military means, instead using diplomatic and economic tools.[xiii] A country can and usually does identify itself as a civilian power when it tries to distance itself from the use of military force, as in Germany’s case. As Hanns Maull puts it, a country may be involved in peacekeeping missions, as well; however, this becomes questionable if the troops involved in those missions are armed and trained to kill. Maull states that civilian power is also exercised through cooperation with other states; thus, one country working hand in hand with other international actors would mean it is able to define itself as a civilian power.[xiv] Hence, if we look at Germany as a civilian power, we primarily should look at how its government forges its foreign policy and what means it uses in order to maintain peace and the relations it has had with other states. Foremost, for the case presented in this article, we should look at the relationship between Germany and the US in the context of NATO.

To fully assess Angela Merkel’s position in leading Germany and defining its role as a civilian power, one must analyse the speeches she has given over her tenure as chancellor. However, in the context of this work, we will examine only the most recent ones. At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Merkel officially stated that Germany will not reach the 2% goal by 2024 but would rather reach the 1.5% threshold by then. Merkel lamented, “For many this is not enough, but for us it is an essential leap.”[xv] She continues to discuss the different types of help Germany has given over the years to countries in need and emphasizes that it will continue to be a great contributor to humanitarian aid. In this sense, we again must look at Maull’s definition and ask the question of how Merkel positions Germany in the international arena. Surely, one can definitely say that Germany is a country that promotes peace—maybe even that it is a country that rejects the necessity of military force, as Merkel has stated in many of her speeches. But, what does it mean for its role in NATO, since NATO primarily is seen as a military alliance of countries that share the same ideals? While humanitarian aid can certainly help to strengthen Germany’s civilian power, the principles of Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty prioritize that “parties involved will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Certainly, there are limits to the help that humanitarian aide can provide in fulfilling Article 3 and deterring military aggression; therefore, Merkel’s justification for why Germany will not be able to reach the 2% threshold is somewhat skewed despite its intentions to position Germany as a “good” member of NATO. 

In her speech given earlier this year upon receiving the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, Chancellor Merkel stated, once again, how Germany has contributed to promoting peace and how important this task is both to NATO and Germany itself. She emphasised that although Germany’s interests may not always align with the Alliance, NATO is about trying to find common ground.[xvi] Hence, by eliciting this notion of working towards a common goal, Merkel exhibits the notion of civilian power and Germany’s willingness, and also importance, to work with Allies inside NATO itself. In accordance with being a civilian power, the Chancellor is trying to manage the rift between the US and European Allies in order to keep NATO as strong and united as possible.

Despite Merkel’s aims at boosting civilian power, most Allies only see the fact that Germany is not raising its military expenditures and will not reach the 2% threshold even by 2024. Merkel has received the most criticism from Trump, who has been among the top critics of not only Germany’s small contributions to NATO but also of the Alliance in general. During the “Trump Era”, NATO itself has been the object of criticism from not only Trump but other Allies as well. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron recently stated, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.”[xvii] Therefore, in looking more broadly outside the rift between Trump and Merkel, we should recognize that polarization is great within the Alliance. Transatlantic partners are literally sitting on the opposite sides of the ocean.

Showing her commitment to being a civilian power within the Alliance, the comments made by Macron have not been left without an answer from the German Chancellor. Merkel has declared that Macron’s statement does not correspond with hers, and Germany views NATO as a pillar of Germany’s security; she claims that the French president’s statement was somewhat exaggerated.[xviii] In this sense, one can conclude from Merkel’s speeches that she still believes in the cause of NATO. To say that NATO is not functioning as it should is merely a question about how to align the interests of Europe with the interests of the US.

If we take a broader look at this, Merkel tries to reconcile both sides of the ocean so that the Alliance stays on course. As stated before, Germany’s role in NATO is enormous, especially if we look at the role Germany has in protecting Europe and maintaining its security. Here, only one point should be made: Germany is an essential partner in NATO, and Merkel’s position and commitment to being a civilian power consistently and fully supports almost all NATO’s decisions. In light of this, Germany should be seen as a great partner that, instead of a military role, has taken up the position of the leading civilian power and wishes nothing more than to sustain peace and stability in the European continent.

Conclusion

Several points are to be concluded here on civilian power, burden sharing, and Chancellor Merkel. First, Germany is one of the most important NATO Allies in Europe. It promotes peace and stability through multilateral cooperation. As stated above, the rift between Germany and the US is at its deepest level since the Cold War. Therefore, it is among Germany’s top priorities, as it is in the interest of all other Allies as well, to strengthen its relationship with the US, which will lead to a stronger transatlantic bond in general.

In terms of the 2% threshold that should be met by 2024, Germany has clearly stated that it will not be able to do so, mainly because the military field is not among the top priorities of Germany. Rather, Germany focuses more on economic aid for countries in need. This does not mean that Germany is not involved in NATO military activities. It should be noted here that German troops are actively involved in many NATO missions. For example, Germany has been a long-standing ally in Afghanistan, which Trump has elected to miss. Furthermore, it should also be stated that Merkel has been actively promoting Germany as a peaceful country that invests a lot of money in maintaining peace and also assisting with humanitarian aid in many war-torn areas. Nonetheless, many ally countries only see the fact that Germany is failing to raise its military expenditures as it promised in the Wales Summit. Therefore, in the NATO Leaders Meeting in London, Germany might have to explain in a lot more detail why it has failed to do what it promised in 2014. Since many countries have openly expressed their dissatisfaction with Germany’s contribution, this might be amongst the top issues in the Summit.

From all of the mentioned arguments, one can conclude that even though the tension between NATO Allies is high and possibly still rising, Germany is trying its best to be a mediator in these relationships. Germany is foremost exercising its strengthens as a civilian power in trying to balance the rift between the US and Europe in order to work towards common goals. Therefore, at the London Leaders Meeting if a certain issue or topic arises about how the Allied countries should react, Germany is the country that, whilst standing for peace, will do its best to reconcile both sides of the ocean and find the best possible option that suits all nations, as it tried to do when reaching out to Russia to engage in dialogue with NATO.

Despite Trump’s best efforts to criticize Germany for its inability to keep Europe safe and to contribute in such a way to NATO that would please him, Germany will likely keep the course it has set in order to prevent the rift in the transatlantic relationship from deepening even more. It is highly important for Germany and other NATO Allies in Europe to keep this relationship strong and steady if we wish to keep the idea of collective security alive and breathing.

 

Juris Jurans is a second-year undergraduate student at Riga Stradins University, where he studies international relations and European studies.

 




[i] T. Sandler and K. Hartley, “Chapter 2: NATO burden sharing and related issues,” in The political economy of NATO (Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press, 1999), 23.

[ii] R.J. Deni, “Chapter 4: Defense spending and burden sharing,” in NATO and Article 5. The Transatlantic alliance and the 21st century challenges of collective defense (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 78.

[iii] Sandler and Hartley, “Chapter 2: NATO burden sharing,” 28.

[iv] Ibid., 84.

[v] A. Mesterhazy, “Burden Sharing: New Committments in a New Era,” Defence and security comitee report, 170 DSCTC 18 E rev 1 fin, 2018.

[vi] European Parliament, “NATO after the Wales Summit: Back to collective defence,” Directorate-General for External Policies, 2014, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2014/536430/EXPO_BRI%2....

[vii] S.F. Szabo, “Security and geo-economics,” in Germany, Russia and the rise of geo-economics (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2015), 85.

[viii] S. Hammelehle, “Examining the State of German Identity,” Spiegel, 29 August 2018, https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/who-are-we-examining-the-st....

[ix] A. Nietschmann, “The Political Response of Germany to the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation,” Regional Dialogue, 10 May 2014, http://regional-dialogue.com/en/anne-nietschmann-the-political-response-....

[x] S. Siebold and R. Emmott, “Pressed by Trump over defense, Germany says can pay more for NATO running costs,” Reuters, 11 October 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-nato-usa/pressed-by-trump-ove....

[xi] J. Townsed, “Trump’s Defense Cuts in Europe Will Backfire,” Foreign Policy, 17 September 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/17/trumps-defense-cuts-in-europe-will-....

[xii] R. Clark, “Germany’s military has become a complete joke,” Spectator, 31 August 2019, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/08/germanys-military-has-become-a-compl....

[xiii] E.K. Smith, “Beyond the civilian power EU debate,” Politique européenne 3, no. 17 (2005): 67, DOI : 10.3917/poeu.017.0063.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] The Federal Government of Germany, “Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel on 16 February 2019 at the 55th Munich Security Conference,” 16 February 2019, https://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/bkin-en/news/speech-by-federal-chancellor....

[xvi] The Federal Government of Germany, “Speech by Federal Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel on being awarded the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in Berlin on 28 January 2019,” 28 January 2019, from: https://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/bkin-en/news/speech-by-federal-chancellor....

[xvii] “France's Macron laments 'brain death of NATO',” DW, 7 November 2019, https://p.dw.com/p/3Sco3.

 

[xviii] “Angela Merkel condems Macron’s ‘drastic words’ on NATO,” DW, 7 November 2019, https://p.dw.com/p/3Sddv.

 

Monday, 2 December, 2019 - 18:15