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Does Germany ruin Nato through saving? Der Spiegel

29.03.2019

70 years after its foundation, the Western alliance is in crisis. The allies accuse the Germans of ruining the alliance with their miserliness.

Sometimes they miss him, the old warrior. Jim Mattis was always good for the nerves. A paternal look from the former general and Pentagon chief, a calming gesture, a brief remark, and Gavin Williamson, the British Secretary of Defense, would have been calm. But Mattis was missing when Nato defence ministers met in Brussels in mid-February. He had resigned in a dispute with his president.

So no one is slowing down the young Brit who speaks at dinner at Alliance headquarters. Williamson demands that the partners should actually spend more than the promised two percent of national economic output on defence, and his tone becomes sharp. Two percent is the minimum. "How can it be that other countries simply sit back and relax," the minister asks.

At the tables in the second row, where the employees get a different meal than their bosses, people take hectic notes. Williamson's outbreak is not the tone that is usual in this round, it's a scandal. The British Defence Secretary accuses allies of making no effort. Everyone knows who he is talking about.

The choreography of the evening demands that the list of speakers be worked off stubbornly. So it takes time for the German Defence Minister's turn. Unlike many of her colleagues, Ursula von der Leyen doesn't read from speaker's notes. "We're not bailing," she rejects the British accusation, "we're working very hard to meet the targets, even if it's difficult at home." The others are silent, unlike anybody else who jumps aside, participants of the dinner will report later.

This evening in February Von der Leyen gets a taste of what her Foreign Minister colleague Heiko Maas will be getting to know in the coming week in Washington. Then the alliance celebrates its 70th birthday, but Berlin seems to want to deliberately ruin the party these days.

"The US political scientist Walter Russell Mead, known as the "Trump whisperer", asks "Does NATO die?" in the Wall Street Journal and immediately answers his question himself: "The idea seemed unthinkable, but after the German cabinet has decided to leave defence spending at a low 1.25 percent of gross domestic product for the next few years, it inevitably comes up. Mead may be exaggerating, but he is not entirely wrong.

For seven decades, the Western Alliance provided peace and security in Europe; in 1990, it emerged victorious from the Cold War system confrontation. Nato's expansion to the East has helped to stabilise the young democracies in Eastern Europe, the allies have fought together in the Balkans and the Hindu Kush, and yet the most successful military alliance in history is in an existential crisis 70 years after its foundation.

In the south-east, Turkey is gradually moving away from the alliance and towards Russia, in Italy the right-wing government is flirting with both Moscow and the great geostrategic rival of the West in Beijing, in the east Russia is seen as the real threat, and in the south migration and terrorism arise.

But the greatest danger for NATO these days comes from the west and from its middle. Since Donald Trump took office, the Alliance has had a massive American problem, even though the process of replacing the Western leadership began under his predecessor. Now the White House is ruled by a man who, at best, considers international organizations superfluous and whom his advisors seem to have difficulty keeping from fundamentally questioning the Alliance.

In the centre of Europe, it is the Germans who are recklessly jeopardising the future of the Alliance, which has guaranteed its freedom and security for 70 years. At three successive summits since 2014, the German government has promised its allies to increase defence spending in the direction of the promised two percent.

Only at the beginning of February did Berlin report to Brussels that Germany would spend at least 1.5 percent by 2024. After all, it was the signal that it could go in the right direction. But then, last week, the cabinet passed the key figures for the federal budget of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, which questions this goal again.

This dangerously links the American problem with the German problem. "Germany's refusal to fulfill its promise will have long-term consequences for NATO's capabilities and solidarity," warns Julianne Smith, former security advisor to Obama's Vice President Joe Biden, who now works for the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. "We shouldn't think it's impossible for the U.S. to leave NATO under Trump.

The defense minister also warns. "The promises made to NATO are about German credibility," says von der Leyen. She said that far more was at stake than just a few Bundeswehr armament projects. "We have a good reputation in NATO, which we must defend," says the minister, thereby giving up her reluctance to publicly criticise the austerity measures.

The appearance of the British Minister of Defence in Brussels shows that the European allies also lack any understanding. Why are the rich Germans not prepared to do more for Europe's security? If the worst comes to the worst, and the Americans withdraw from the alliance, the Europeans will hold Berlin liable.

It is an absurd situation: NATO was founded after the war as an alliance against German militarism. West Germany was not allowed to join the North Atlantic alliance until 1955. But in the meantime, it is no longer Germany's militarism that threatens Europe's security, but its military abstinence.

The Germans have learned the lesson of the Second World War so thoroughly that no party with a sufficient instinct for self-preservation dares to take the offensive for increasing military expenditure. "Not a single European partner is afraid if Germany spends more on defence," says a high-ranking NATO representative.

On the contrary: the partners no longer believe the eternal reference to their history from the Germans. They see it only as a pretext, as an excuse. Many believe that there is something else behind German restraint: stinginess.

Kersti Kaljulaid would never formulate it so openly. The Estonian President is too polite for that. On this sunny, ice-cold Tuesday, she receives in her official residence, a small neo-baroque palace in the capital Tallinn.

Anyone who wants to understand how the Estonians look at the alliance should know the history of the building.

During the war, the governor of the Nazis ruled here, followed by the presidency of the Supreme Soviet. The 1.3 million Estonians had bad experiences with occupying forces, it was not until 1991 that the small Baltic Soviet republic became independent, and in 1994 the last Russian troops withdrew.

Ten years later Estonia joined the EU and NATO and has been a frontline state ever since. In Narva, where the border with Russia runs along the river of the same name, more than 80 percent of the population has Russian roots. Most of them watch Russian television and use Russian online portals.

When the authorities banished a Soviet war memorial from Tallinn's centre to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the city in 2007, the Estonians were the first to experience what modern hybrid warfare can look like. Moscow used demonstrations by the Russian minority for a massive cyber attack that temporarily paralyzed half the country.

As a Western frontline state alongside a powerful neighbor, the Estonians followed the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 with a different sense of threat than the Germans, who since the end of the Cold War have only been surrounded by partners.

There is no understanding in Tallinn for the German two-percent debate. "Seriously?" asks the president when asked about the German government's budget decision. "To be honest, that seems unfair to me. Estonia, with its successful but very small economy, has long since spent more than two percent on its defence.

And the Estonians demonstrate their loyalty to the alliance not only with money. "We have sent our troops to Iraq and Afghanistan," says Kaljulaid.

“We were the first to respond to the French call for help and within 48 hours transferred military to the Central African Republic." What Kaljulaid expects from the Germans is only reciprocity. "Please, spend these two percent," she appeals to Berlin.

Of course, the President knows the reports about the ailing state of the Bundeswehr. The Germans have become a laughing stock. Her Finnish counterpart now jokes that in an emergency he could send more tanks and soldiers onto the streets than the Bundeswehr. The Germans should turn more to the East and assume responsibility," says Kaljulaid, "everything else only serves Russia's strategic interests.

But that was exactly what Berlin had promised the Eastern Europeans in 2014 after the Moscow invasion of the Crimea. At the NATO summit in Wales, which was completely under the impression of Russian aggression, the Eastern Europeans demanded the permanent stationing of NATO combat troops in their countries. The Chancellor stood crosswise.

A permanent stationing would have been a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. Vladimir Putin may break treaties, we don't, Angela Merkel argued. The Eastern Europeans were not convinced. They were not yet part of NATO when the agreement with Russia was negotiated. For them, the treaty is a deal at the expense of third parties because it effectively vetoes Putin when it comes to their security interests.

In the end Merkel reached a compromise with the Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, the spokesman for Eastern Europeans. The NATO-Russia Founding Act was not explicitly confirmed in the decisive summit document, but instead the Alliance abstractly affirmed that it would adhere to all international treaties.

In return, the Eastern Europeans were given the "absolute assurance" in the secret "Readiness Action Plan" that NATO would provide adequate armed forces for emergencies that could be deployed quickly. It was clear that this meant not only the Americans but above all the Germans because of their geographical location in the middle of Europe.

The two-percent target adopted for the first time in Wales at the level of the heads of state and government and confirmed at the summits in Warsaw and Brussels in 2016 and 2018 also stands in this context. It is intended to ensure that the NATO countries have the necessary high-quality troops to fulfil all their missions, including the commitments made to Eastern Europeans.

In 2017, the German government accepted NATO's requirements in full. They oblige the Bundeswehr to set up three fully equipped army divisions with almost 20000 soldiers each in two steps by 2031. This is a fraction of the German troop strength at the end of the Cold War (twelve divisions), but since then the Bundeswehr has also shrunk massively.

In 2031 the armed forces should have eight fully equipped brigades. At the moment, not a single one could be deployed without having to borrow material from others. Getting the full equipment will be expensive, but NATO has been promised bindingly. According to the army's calculations, a single brigade would cost five billion euros. If the budget planning of the federal government remains the same, the Germans will not be able to keep their promises to the alliance.

Although the Chancellor, the CDU Chairwoman, the Foreign Minister and even the Finance Minister affirm at every opportunity that the NATO targets will be met, in the end it is not they who set the tone, but Rolf Mützenich.

Rolf who?

The Social Democrat from Cologne is Vice-Chairman of the Bundestag faction and responsible for foreign and defence policy. Anyone who wants to know why the Germans are so reluctant to comply with their NATO obligations should visit him. He is the most important man in the SPD when it comes to external security issues. "A critical view of arms exports and defence spending has always been an issue for the SPD," he says.

Many Social Democrats believe that this attitude is a good way to campaign, especially in East Germany. An SPD that prevents the Union from fulfilling American demands and rearming in vain could be a blast.

The two-percent target is not a meaningful measure," Mützenich says, "security policy is more than military. This includes crisis prevention, development aid and arms control. The SPD has always attached great importance to NATO’s political function. "We expect NATO," says Mützenich, "not only to see itself as a military organisation.

He believes that an alliance that only legitimises itself through the Russian threat 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. "If NATO focuses solely on deterrence against Russia, it won't," he says.

And the criticism that the Germans are endangering NATO's future with their miserliness? For Mützenich nonsense. "The alliance is not being undermined by Germany, but above all by Trump's questioning NATO’s legitimacy and the US's security guarantees," he says. And by the way, von der Leyen has to fight politically and explain the German position to her NATO colleagues.

In former times a man like Mützenich would have been an upright but not particularly influential backbencher. But times have changed. Today, Mützenich's views can drive the entire party and faction leadership before him and the Social Democratic Foreign Minister at the same time.

This is due to the weak leadership of the SPD. Party and faction leader Andrea Nahles has trouble keeping her own shop under control, Maas is too weak to determine foreign policy guidelines, and Vice-Chancellor Scholz is trying to upgrade his precarious position in the SPD by chummying up the left. In a nutshell, this is the analysis of the coalition partner, the Union. It is not that wrong.

When the extension of the Iraq mandate in the Bundestag was due last year, Merkel personally invited the SPD member of parliament to the Chancellery to win him over to the mission. Apparently, she did not consider the head of the parliamentary group, but her vice-chairman, to be the key figure to secure the SPD's approval.

It was also Mützenich who ensured that the ban on arms exports to the states involved in the Yemen war was enshrined in the coalition agreement. His people worked diligently until the Foreign Minister, in the discussion about the end of the INF treaty, committed himself early against the stationing of US medium-range missiles on German soil.

"That was very much in our interest," says Mützenich. He knows that he has the parliamentary group on his side on these issues. "If someone in the SPD faction were to propose whether the government should rather spend money on armaments or on basic pensions, I think I know what the majority stands for," he says, and it sounds like a threat.

As long as Mützenich sets the tone in the coalition, the Germans will have a hard time with their allies. Before the foreign ministers' meeting next week in Washington, the Americans prepared the Germans in particular for the 70th anniversary ceremony of the alliance to be uncomfortable for them.

Last Monday, the US top diplomat Michael J. Murphy reassured the NATO partners' ambassadors during a briefing in Washington that the president would probably not appear at the ministerial meeting. So far, only a short meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is planned. So far the good news.

Then followed the bad. The USA would continue to monitor the two-percent debate closely. The topic would not disappear. At the latest until the big NATO summit in London in December, concrete commitments are expected. When the ambassadors asked what else would happen, Murphy replied with a single sentence: "Then we have a problem".

That's all he had to explain. The diplomats still remembered what the president's son Donald Jr. tweeted on March 19 after the German budget figures were known: "The Germans pretend to pay their promised share so that we continue to protect them from the Russians, to whom they pay billions for their gas, and then they want to break their promise while we still protect them from the Russians. Okay, understand? Does that make sense?

If you have friends like that, you don't need enemies anymore."