By Alison Smale, New York Times, June 5, 2016
BERLIN — You know times have changed when the Germans announce they are expanding their army for the first time in 25 years — and no one objects.
Back when the Berlin Wall fell, Britain and France in particular feared the re-emergence of a German colossus in Europe. By contrast, Berlin’s pledge last month to add almost 7,000 soldiers to its military by 2023, and an earlier announcement to spend up to 130 billion euros, about $148 billion, on new equipment by 2030 were warmly welcomed by NATO allies.
It has taken decades since the horrors of World War II, but Berlin’s modern-day allies and, it seems, German leaders themselves are finally growing more comfortable with the notion that Germany’s role as the European Union’s de facto leader requires a military dimension.
Perhaps none too soon. The United States and others — including many of Germany’s own defense experts — want Germany to do even more for Continental security and to broaden deployments overseas.
President Obama expressed frustration in an interview this year that the United States’ European and Persian Gulf allies were acting too often as “free riders.” Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has been even more scathing in his remarks, threatening to pull out of NATO if he is elected.
As a July NATO summit meeting in Warsaw approaches, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is now key to how the alliance will face the twin perils that have transformed the strategic situation in Europe: a more menacing Russia and the Islamic State’s expansion beyond individual acts of terrorism like executions to seizing territory.
In Europe, where NATO’s easternmost members, particularly Poland and the Baltic States, have clamored for permanent deployment of Allied troops to deter Russian meddling, Germany looks set to take command of a brigade in Lithuania, joining Britain and the United States in leading the effort to marshal a robust presence on Russia’s borders.
Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany is also playing a part in NATO programs to pool resources of member states for greater collective security. Defense experts hold up increased German-Dutch cooperation as a model.
The path to even a semblance of collective European defense is littered with unmet promises of better cooperation — for example, the quarter-century-old Franco-German brigade, which remains mostly a paper tiger, and the scramble ahead of the Warsaw meeting to find a fourth country to command a unit in the new NATO deployment in Eastern Europe. Britain and France, both nuclear powers, continue to set their own priorities.
But whether on its own or with others, Germany is showing signs of growing more comfortable with embracing a bigger military role, a gradual but distinct shift away from an instinctive pacifism that took hold starting in 1945, and a post-Cold War tendency to shrink the nation’s military.
The shift started becoming publicly apparent in 2014, when Germany’s president and foreign and defense ministers all urged an increased global security role for the country at the annual Munich Security Conference. Weeks later, Russia’s leader, President Vladimir V. Putin, annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Since then, Germany has responded by helping to build a NATO rapid response force in Eastern Europe, leading the diplomacy efforts in Ukraine, and training and arming Kurdish pesh merga battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Now, a new government strategy document, the first such “White Book” in 10 years, is being prepared. It is likely both to bolster Germany’s role on the world stage — beyond its traditional sphere of activity in Europe — and to talk explicitly of military contributions.
How far this thinking has spread outside the political and military elite is open to question. Polling shows that “the general public is not very comfortable with the military dimension,” said Sylke Tempel, the editor of International Policy, the magazine of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
The policy-making elite, on other hand, know that “strategic thinking includes the notion that you have to build a force in order to be taken seriously, and that you have to spend on this dimension,” Ms. Tempel said.
Germany is not moving fast enough for defense experts like Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the military, or Karl-Heinz Kamp, the president of the government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy.
Germany should expand its military “as quickly as possible, as much as possible,” said Dr. Bartels, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party. Despite the announced expansion, he noted, military spending is in danger of sinking to 1.08 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product, which he said would be its lowest ever — and well below the 2 percent that NATO member states committed to spend at the alliance’s last summit meeting, in Wales in 2014.
Dr. Kamp was more upbeat about German and NATO efforts, particularly the plans for meeting any Russian challenge on the alliance’s eastern borders.
“We are almost at permanent presence, almost,” Dr. Kamp said. “More is being decided than Putin could ever have imagined.”
The major danger he sees for these plans is “the fact that we have these anti-establishment movements on both sides of the Atlantic — we have the Alternative for Germany, we have the National Front in France and in the U.S.A. we have Trump.”
Populists in such movements have little interest in knitting together trans-Atlantic interests and deploying Allied forces for common goals, he said.
“These anti-establishment movements stand in contrast to everything which is NATO, and that is the only point which really worries me,” Dr. Kamp said.
In German politics, the post of defense minister has traditionally proved difficult. The job is prestigious, but plagued by difficulties in securing finances and suitable, modern equipment.
Neither the defense minister nor the chancellor is commander in chief of the army — another legacy of post-Nazi efforts to constrain Germany. Control of the army belongs to the Parliament, and any military expense or deployment is subject to its approval.
Further, demographic decline and the lure of good civilian jobs in Germany’s robust economy have made it difficult to recruit an all-volunteer force.
Thomas Wiegold, an expert on defense affairs, noted that regular troop strength — around 166,000 in April — already lags the current target of 170,000 and asked whether the defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, could reach that level and then keep her pledge of more soldiers by 2023.
“The political message is that after decades of shrinking, we want to grow,” Mr. Wiegold said. “But how that translates practically, nobody yet knows.”
The defense minister has taken several steps to make the military a better employer. They include hiring a senior aide from the business consultant McKinsey to examine structures, and simply ensuring more contact between soldiers overseas and their families back home.
A new cyberwarfare unit is a priority. The Defense Ministry is trying to end equipment failures and malfunctions. Last year, a dispute erupted with the arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch over the standard issue G-36 machine gun, which the ministry said did not always fire straight.
Another major task is to convince skeptical Germans, particularly in the east, that NATO is keeping its 1997 bargain with Russia that alliance troops would not be stationed permanently at Russia’s edge.
And so, in another measure of how things have changed in Europe, listeners of a Berlin broadcaster, rbb Inforadio, heard an unusual early morning interview on May 19. On the line from the Polish port city of Szczecin was Lt. Gen. Manfred Hofmann, a 42-year veteran of the German Army, who commands a corps that began in 1999 as a German-Danish unit to help Poland integrate into NATO, which it joined that spring.
Dialogue with Moscow has not shut down, he said, and NATO is keeping its commitments not to permanently station combat units on former Soviet bloc territory.
But the general noted that the corps command is now a 400-person, 21-nation unit, overseeing rapid deployment of NATO units if necessary, and reflected that since the 2014 summit meeting in Wales, “an unbelievable amount has happened.”
Follow Alison Smale on Twitter @asmalenyt.
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