Foreign Policy Essay

Germany’s Strategic Repositioning

By Gunther Hellmann
Sunday, October 14, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: For many years, Germany and the United States cooperated to advance mutual foreign policy goals while Germany embedded itself in the European Union. This mutually beneficial arrangement is now in crisis as the Trump administration questions the German alliance and as Europe turns on itself. Gunther Hellmann of the University of Frankfurt gives us a picture of Germany at a crossroads and discusses the perils of each possible path.

Daniel Byman

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German foreign policy is currently undergoing its most dramatic strategic repositioning since the 1950s. The “idea of a balanced partnership,” which German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas laid out recently in a widely discussed newspaper article, is the most articulate expression of a fundamental reorientation vis-à-vis the United States. Never before has a German foreign minister advocated a role for Germany to serve as a soft balancer that would “form a counterweight when the U.S. crosses the line.” This reorientation coincides with an increasingly prominent role for Germany in European affairs with the European Union facing an increasingly assertive Russia and continuing internal divisions. For Germany (and Europe) this boils down to a dramatic realignment of the European balance of power. It also carries risks.

Adjustments in German foreign policy have been occurring since unification in 1990 due to the fundamental transformation in East-West relations and European politics. However, until early 2014, the central parameters of Germany’s strategic outlook remained essentially unaltered. The institutional framework of Germany’s embedded role in the West, the EU, and NATO continued to provide a reliable developmental trajectory to integrate Germany’s Eastern neighbors while expanding cooperative relations with Russia in the context of the NATO-Russia Council and the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA).

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and the escalating war in Eastern Ukraine have shattered German hopes of building a strategic “modernization partnership” with Russia, which was intended to essentially extend and expand what had begun in the early 1970s in the context of German “Ostpolitik.” More importantly, the other two essential pillars of Germany’s post-World War II integration in a dense Western network of multilateral cooperation, the EU, and NATO, were shattered in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. For Germans, Brexit was a shock because it undermined two foundational beliefs of the European integration project: that the EU could only move “forward” by “deepening” integration, and that it was inconceivable that a rational public would opt in a referendum to leave the Union.

The consequences of the election of Donald Trump turned out to be even more disturbing for Germans, not only because the U.S. president pursued a consistent line of singling out Germany as a peer competitor to (and a free-rider at the expense of) the United States, but even more so because of his derogatory remarks about the EU and NATO. When President Trump said in an interview in early 2017 that the European Union was “basically a vehicle for Germany,” that it was formed, at least in part, “to beat the United States on trade,” and that he, therefore, didn’t “really care whether it’s separate or together,” he essentially removed the equivalent of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” in NATO on the EU side—the U.S. strategic support for European integration on which Germany and its European allies had been able to rely since the 1950s.

President Trump’s unwillingness to reaffirm the United States’ Article 5 commitments in the context of his first visit to Brussels in May 2017 (despite earlier indications that he would) was a similarly devastating blow for Germans. It essentially removed the foundation of trust on which German (and European) reliance on the United States had been built in previous decades. Chancellor Merkel’s public statement afterwards that “the times in which we could rely fully on others are somewhat over” and that “we Europeans ought to take our fate into our own hands” was a stunning public acknowledgement of this realization. The battering of Germany by President Trump during the following year, most recently in the July 2018 NATO summit meeting in Brussels, only reinforced the impression in Berlin that Germany had to prepare for a different future. As Maas put it recently: “The US and Europe have been drifting apart for years. The overlapping of values and interests that shaped our relationship for two generations is decreasing. The binding force of the East-West conflict is history. These changes began well before Trump’s election—and will survive his presidency well into the future.”

In sum, Germany’s strategic situation has been turned upside down: The commander in chief of its hitherto most important ally now treats it as one of the United States’ key competitors, while Russia seeks to undermine the EU at its Eastern flank. In the EU, member states are preparing for Brexit while struggling with rising popular dissent at home and sustained division across the Union. Under these circumstances calls on Germany to lead no longer fall on deaf ears in Berlin. Even on defense issues, Germany has expressed its readiness “to accept responsibility and to assume leadership” in the government’s most important official document on German security, the 2016 “White Paper.”

However, Germany’s strategic repositioning also carries risks. Two such risks in the military field stand out. First, the Trump administration’s perspective that the European theater in general and the European Union in particular is just another “arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage” removes an essential reassurance for Europeans that the United States is fundamentally interested in fostering cooperative relations among EU members. This reassurance was already critical for both Germany and its neighbors before unification, and it has become an ever more critical factor as German power has grown in recent years. In this context, President Trump’s incessant push for Germany to increase defense spending even beyond the 2 percent commitment agreed upon at the Wales NATO Summit is particularly counterproductive because it would turn Germany into the most powerful military actor in Europe besides Russia at a time when binding ties are loosened. Recent calculations showed that Germany would not only have to increase defense spending by 129 percent in 2024 (from a defense budget of €37 billion in 2017 to a budget of €85 billion in 2024) to meet the 2 percent target from the Wales Summit, it would also have to outspend both Britain and France by €30 billion and €27 billion respectively to do so, prompting a classic security dilemma situation. It is not surprising that Chancellor Merkel herself warned about a potential backlash against German “militarization” from abroad at a recent conference of the German Bundeswehr as a result of a 2 percent increase.

A second risk is associated with the decline of multilateralism within the European Union that is loosening the ties that bind EU member states together. This decline may be slow and sometimes difficult to pin down, but incentives to enter new and genuinely multilateral arrangements within the Union have been declining gradually for years (as they have around the globe more broadly). This loosening multilateral collaboration further highlights German power, and what is more, Germany itself contributes to this trend in its strategic positioning in the White Paper 2016. To be sure, Germany still “embraces mutual interdependence” in principle. However, three new conceptual highlights in the White Paper might cause problems. First, the emphasis on Germany’s willingness to serve as lead nation in the context of the so-called “Framework Nations Concept” (FNC) is mostly welcome in NATO and the EU because few nations have the capacity (at least in principle) to serve in such a leadership role. However, Germany’s emphasis that it will be a “partner across the entire range of security instruments” while at the same time expecting its partners to specialize militarily creates asymmetries which may become problematic in the long term. These dependencies may become lopsided, producing distinct advantages for the German military at a time when the differential in military prowess between Germany and its allies is already increasing. Second, Germany expressed for the first time its readiness to not only contribute to “ad hoc coalitions,” but also to initiate them under its own leadership. Third, the more recent so-called “Conception of the Bundeswehr” (which details the tasks of the White Paper at the military level) specifies the necessity of building capabilities for “autarkic national missions.” Although Germany’s precise intent is unclear, the language of these strategic formulas serve as an indication that Germany is neither very confident that multilateral cooperation can be safely relied upon, nor that Germany itself should enhance the likelihood of it succeeding by offering symmetrical self-binding arrangements to its partners.

Currently, there is no reason to fear Germany’s military power. To the contrary, the Bundeswehr faces dire straits due to lagging investments in basic capacities over the past 20 years. However, the medium- to long-term outlook reveals a few risks for Germany and Europe if current trends continue and it continues to stake out a role as a rising power in Europe. Germany can counter such tendencies by reassuring its partners via self-binding arrangements in all fields of EU collaboration. The United States can also help by providing reassurance to its European allies and reemphasizing its support for a strong EU. But Germany’s strategic outlook reflects an unseen level of concern regarding the credibility of U.S. commitments and the continuity of U.S. policy. It will take time and effort to rebuild trust lost since early 2017.