A Precarious Alliance Patience Wears Thin with Germany's NATO Spending

As NATO prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the most successful military alliance in history finds itself in the throes of an existential crisis. The unfulfillled promises of some member countries -- in particular Germany -- to spend more on defense threaten to tear the block apart. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Leaders of NATO member countries watch a performance in front of a blue NATO flag.

Leaders of NATO member countries watch a performance in front of a blue NATO flag.

Foto: Benoit Doppagne/ Imago

Sometimes they miss him, the old warrior. Jim Mattis was always a calming presence. A paternal glance, soothing gesture or brief remark from the former general and Pentagon chief, and Gavin Williamson, the British defense minister, would cool his jets. But, having resigned after a dispute with his president, Mattis wasn't present when NATO  defense ministers met in Brussels in mid-February.

So there was no one to put the brakes on the young Briton as he spoke at a dinner at the alliance's headquarters. Williamson was demanding the partners actually spend more than the promised 2 percent of their gross domestic products (GDP) on defense. His tone was fierce. Two percent was the minimum, he said. "How can it be that other countries simply sit back and relax?" Williamson asked.

At the tables in the second row, where staffers are served a different meal than their bosses, pens frantically scratched across notepads. Williamson's tone was unusual for this circle; indeed, it was scandalous. The British defense minister was accusing allies of not making an effort. Everyone knew who he was referring to.

The official procedure of the evening demanded that the list of speakers be rigidly worked through. It took awhile for the German defense minister's turn to come. Unlike her colleagues, Ursula von der Leyen did not read from prepared remarks. "We're not sitting back and relaxing," she said. "We're working very hard to meet the targets, even though it's difficult politically." The others kept quiet. No one jumped to her defense like they usually would, people who attended the dinner would later report.

A Massive American Problem

That evening in February, von der Leyen got a small preview of what her counterpart at the German Foreign Ministry, Heiko Maas, could expect this week in Washington. The alliance will be celebrating its 70th anniversary, but at the moment, Berlin seems intent on spoiling the party.

"Is NATO dying?" Walter Russell Mead, a Wall Street Journal columnist recently wrote, before answering his own question: "The idea was once unthinkable, but after the German cabinet decided to keep defense spending as low as 1.25 percent of gross domestic product for the next five years, it has become unavoidable." Mead may be exaggerating, but he's got a point.

For seven decades, the Western alliance has provided peace and security in Europe. In 1990, it emerged victorious from the Cold War. Its eastward expansion later contributed to the stability of young democracies in Eastern Europe. Together, the allies have fought in the Balkans and Afghanistan -- and yet the most successful military alliance in history still finds itself in an existential crisis 70 years after its founding.

In the southeast, Turkey is gradually moving away from the alliance and toward Russia. In Italy, the right-wing government is flirting both with Moscow and the West's great geostrategic rival, Beijing. In the east, Russia is seen as the true threat; in the south, it's migration and terrorism.

But the biggest dangers for NATO are in the west -- and at its center. Since Donald Trump took office, the alliance has had a massive America problem, even if the process of dissolving the alliance began on his predecessor's watch. Now, the White House is ruled by a man who, at best, considers international organizations superfluous and whose advisers need to expend great effort to keep him from fundamentally questioning the alliance.

At the heart of Europe, the Germans are recklessly jeopardizing the future of the alliance that has guaranteed their freedom and security for 70 years. At three successive summits since 2014, the German government has promised its allies that it would increase defense spending to get it closer to the agreed upon 2 percent of GDP.

A Different Kind of German Threat

In early February, Berlin informed Brussels that it would spend at least 1.5 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. It was, at the very least, a signal that things could move in the right direction. But when the German cabinet passed the outline for the federal budget of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, that target was once again thrown into doubt.

Now, the German problem has been mixed with the American one. Julianne Smith, who once worked as a security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden and who is now at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, argues that Germany's refusal to fulfill its promise will have long-term consequences for NATO's capabilities and solidarity, and that it's not impossible that the U.S. might leave the alliance under Trump.

The German defense minister is also wary. "The assurances made to NATO have to do with German credibility," said von der Leyen. She added there was much more at stake than merely a few armaments projects. "We have a good reputation in NATO that we must defend." And with that, the defense minister seemed to abandon her reluctance not to publicly criticize the government's policy of cutbacks.

The British defense minister's performance in Brussels showed that even Germany's European allies have little understanding for it. Why are the rich Germans not prepared to do more for Europe's security? If the worst-case scenario happens and the U.S. does pull out of the alliance, the Europeans would blame Berlin.


It's an absurd situation: Following World War II, the NATO alliance was forged to counter German militarism. West Germany wasn't allowed to join until 1955. But now it's not German militarism threatening European security, but rather the country's military reluctance.

The Germans learned the lesson of World War II so well that no German political party -- at least none with an instinct for self-preservation -- dares advocate higher military expenditures. "Meanwhile, not a single European partner would be afraid if Germany were to spend more on defense," said one high-ranking NATO representative.

On the contrary: Those partners are no longer convinced by Germany's consistent nod to history. They only see it as a pretext, an excuse. Many believe there is something else behind Germany's restraint -- namely, stinginess.

The Frustrations of a Frontline State

Kersti Kaljulaid would never put it so bluntly. The Estonian president is far too polite. On a recent sunny and frigid Tuesday, she made herself available for an interview in her official residence, a small, neo-baroque palace in the capital, Tallinn. Anyone keen on understanding how the Estonians view NATO should know the history of this building.

During the war, Estonia was run by the Nazis, then the Soviets. The country's 1.3 million people have had bad experiences with occupiers. It wasn't until 1991 that the tiny Baltic nation gained its independence. The last Russian troops withdrew in 1994.

Ten years later, Estonia joined the EU and NATO and has been a frontline state ever since. In Narva, a city on the country's easternmost frontier, more than 80 percent of residents have Russian roots. Most of them watch Russian television and use Russian websites.

When Estonian authorities banished a Soviet war memorial from Tallinn's center to a military cemetery on the city's outskirts in 2007, the country became the first to experience hybrid warfare. Moscow used demonstrations by the Russian minority to carry out a massive cyberattack that temporarily paralyzed half the country.

As a Western frontline state edged on one side by a overwhelmingly superior neighbor, the Estonians experienced the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 with a different sense of foreboding than the Germans, who have been surrounded by allies geographically since the end of the Cold War.

In Tallinn, there is absolutely zero understanding for the German debate over spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. "Seriously?" Kaljulaid, the Estonian president, said when asked about the German government's budget decision. "That seems a little unfair, to be frank." With its small but strong economy, Estonia has long spent more than 2 percent on defense.

And the Estonians don't only demonstrate their loyalty to the alliance with money. The country, Kaljulaid said, sent its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We were the first who responded to a French call to go to Central African Republic. We responded in 48 hours." She said she didn't want anything from the Germans except reciprocity. "Please, spend 2 percent."

Keeping Some Promises, Breaking Others

Of course, Kaljulaid has seen the news reports about the miserable condition of the German army, the Bundeswehr. Indeed, the Germans have become a laughing stock. Kaljulaid's Finnish counterpart sometimes jokes that in an emergency, he could deploy more tanks and soldiers than the Bundeswehr. The Germans should look eastward, Kaljulaid said, adding that Germany "should be taking more responsibility" and that anything short of this only serves Russia's strategic interests.

Berlin had promised this to the Eastern Europeans back in 2014, after Moscow invaded Crimea. At a NATO summit in Wales, which took place under the shadow of Russian aggression, the Eastern Europeans demanded the permanent deployment of NATO combat troops in their countries. The German Chancellor opposed them.

A permanent deployment would be a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed by Russia and NATO member states. Vladimir Putin may violate treaties, Angela Merkel argued, but we don't. The Eastern Europeans were not convinced. They hadn't been NATO members when the agreement with Russia was negotiated. In their view, the treaty came at the expense of third-party countries, since it effectively gives Putin veto power when it comes to their security interests.

In the end, Merkel reached a compromise with the Polish president, Bronisaw Komorowski, the spokesman for the Eastern Europeans. The NATO-Russia Founding Act would not be explicitly mentioned in the summit's decisive communique. Instead, the alliance would remain ambiguous in its promise to adhere to all international treaties.

In return, the Eastern Europeans were given "absolute assurance" in the confidential Readiness Action Plan that NATO would keep adequate armed forces at the ready that could be deployed quickly in case of emergency. It was obvious that this referred to the Americans, but, above all else, to the Germans, due to their geographic location at the center of Europe.

Soldiers take part in a 2018 NATO maneuver in Norway.

Soldiers take part in a 2018 NATO maneuver in Norway.

Foto: Leon Neal/ Getty Images

This is also where the goal of spending 2 percent of a country's GDP on defense came from. It was first agreed upon by country leaders at the NATO summit in Wales and was later confirmed at the Warsaw and Brussels summits in 2016 and 2018. It was intended to ensure that NATO countries have the high-quality troops they need to fulfill missions, including the commitments they made to the Eastern Europeans.

The Man With All the Power

In 2017, the German government accepted NATO's requirements in full. These required the Bundeswehr to establish, in two steps, three fully equipped army divisions with nearly 20,000 soldiers each by 2031, among other obligations. This would represent a fraction of the German army's strength at the end of the Cold War, when it had 12 divisions. The Bundeswehr has shrunk massively since then.

The German army is supposed to have eight fully equipped brigades by 2031. At the moment, not a single brigade could be deployed without first having to scrape together materials from other units. Fully equipping them will be expensive, but Germany already promised NATO it would do so. According to the Bundeswehr's calculations, a single brigade could cost 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion). If Germany sticks to the budget it has laid out, it won't be able to keep its promises to the alliance.

The German chancellor, the chairwoman of Germany's ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and even the country's finance minister never miss an opportunity to reaffirm Berlin's intent to meet its NATO obligations. In the end, however, it's not them calling the shots, but a man named Rolf Mützenich.

Rolf who?

A member of parliament representing the city of Cologne on behalf of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Mützenich is the vice chairman of his party's parliamentary group and in charge of the foreign and defense portfolio. Anyone interested in learning why the Germans are so reluctant to fulfill their NATO commitments should speak with him. He is the most important person in his party when it comes to national security. "A critical view of arms exports and defense spending has always been an SPD issue," he said.

Many Social Democrats believe that such a stance is good politics, especially in eastern Germany. The SPD is trying to sell itself as the party preventing the Christian Democrats from being a lapdog of Donald Trump and keeping the CDU from fulfilling all of the Americans' demands, pointlessly boosting military spending. It could be a winning election issue.

"The 2-percent target is not a meaningful unit of measurement," Mützenich said, adding that security policy involves more than just having a strong military. Things like crisis prevention, development aid and arms control all play a role. The SPD has always emphasized NATO's political function. "We expect NATO to see itself as more than a military organization," he said.

He believes an alliance that only legitimizes itself through Russian aggression has no future. Only if NATO is prepared to contribute to a strong UN and a strong EU with a broad security policy will it retain its legitimacy. "But not if NATO focuses solely on deterrence against Russia," he said.

Influencing German Foreign Policy

What about the criticism that the tight-fisted Germans are endangering the future of NATO? As far as Mützenich is concerned, it's all talk. "The alliance is not being undermined by Germany, but by Trump casting doubt on NATO's legitimacy as well as whether the U.S. will follow through on its security guarantees," he said. And besides, he added, it's up to German Defense Minister von der Leyen to fight on a political level and explain the German position to her NATO colleagues.

In the past, a man like Mützenich would have been an upstanding, if not particularly influential, backbencher. But times have changed. Today, Mützenich can steer the entire party and parliamentary-group leadership with his views -- and by extension, Germany's Social Democratic foreign minister.

This is a product of the SPD's weak leadership. The party, and parliamentary group leader Andrea Nahles, has a tough time keeping party members in line. Foreign Minister Maas is too weak to determine foreign policy guidelines on his own. And German Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is trying to improve his precarious position in the SPD by cozying up to the left. That's the short version of how the Christian Democrats view their coalition partner. It's a pretty sound analysis.

Last year, when the Bundeswehr's Iraq mandate was due to be renewed in parliament, Merkel personally invited Mützenich to the Chancellery to persuade him to support the mission. She apparently considered him, not the chairwoman of the SPD's parliamentary group, to be the key element in securing the coalition partner's approval.

It was also Mützenich who ensured that a prohibition on arms exports to countries involved in the war in Yemen was enshrined in the current coalition agreement. His people needled Maas until the foreign minister caved and came out against the stationing of U.S. medium-range missiles on German soil during the debate surrounding the end of the INF Treaty.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2019 (March 30th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

"This was right up our alley," Mützenich said. He knows he has the parliamentary group behind him when it comes to issues like this. "If someone in the SPD parliamentary group were to ask whether the government should be spending money on arms or basic pensions, I think I know how the majority of us would respond," he said. It sounded almost like a threat.

A Sober Anniversary

As long as Mützenich is more or less calling the shots in the coalition, the Germans will have a hard time with their allies. In the run-up to this week's meeting of foreign ministers in Washington, the Americans made it clear -- particularly to the Germans -- that the celebrations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the alliance could get rather uncomfortable for them.

One of the U.S.' top diplomats, Michael Murphy, reassured the gathered NATO ambassadors last Monday by informing them that the president would probably not attend the ministerial meeting. So far, only a short meeting with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg was planned. That was the good news.

Then came the bad news. The U.S. would continue to monitor the debate over NATO partners spending less than 2 percent of GDP on defense very closely. The issue was not going to just go away. Concrete assurances were expected by the big NATO summit in December in London at the very latest. When the ambassadors asked what would happen if they missed the deadline, Murphy merely replied: "We are going to have a problem."

He needn't say more. The diplomats still remembered what the president's son, Donald Jr., had tweeted on March 19, the day after Germany made its latest budget figures public. "So the Germans pretend that they'll pay their agreed upon share so we protect them from the the Russians who they pay billions to in gas deals and then want to reneg while we still protect them from the Russians. Ok, got it, makes sense? With friends like these who needs enemies."

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