Ingo Gerhartz, Inspector of the German Air Force, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht and Eberhard Zorn, Inspector General of the German Armed Forces Bundeswehr (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Is Germany riding to the defence of Europe?

Don’t expect the cavalry just yet

Artillery Row

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that it was a “Zeitenwende” (or “turning-point”), and that Germany would henceforth invest two per cent of GDP annually on defence and make an additional investment of $100 billion to upgrade the German military. In another epochal change, Finland and Sweden, which had remained capable neutrals since the Cold War, announced that they would apply to join NATO.

Last week the German government walked back expectations for defence spending, confirming that the two per cent goal may not be met until 2025, and that only a small portion of the one-time procurement would be invested whilst the regular defence budget will actually decrease slightly in 2023. It has already been acknowledged that plans to procure F-35 jets from the US will likely be unfulfilled until after 2026, and that the government has failed to purchase sufficient stocks of ammunition and replace needed military equipment.

Both sides perceive this asymmetry as mutually beneficial

Meanwhile, speaking to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin recently claimed that Europe’s defence capabilities were insufficient and that Europe was too reliant on the United States.

It may seem odd that Marin would emphasise the need for strategic autonomy whilst also leading Finland — which provided for its own defence for decades against both the Soviet Union and the much-diminished Russian Federation — into an alliance whose main function is to provide Europe with an American security guarantee. Even more ironically, the German backpedalling occurred the same day that an article by Scholz stated, “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be.” Whilst Scholz and Marin seem to be moving in opposite directions, together they demonstrate the contradictions at the heart of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

The US has long called for Europe to share more of the burden for its own defence. Yet leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have tended to perceive this persistent asymmetry as being mutually beneficial: the US gets to preserve its soft control on the continent, and European leaders get security on the cheap and can focus on their domestic agendas. The more the US does, the less the Europeans need to do.

As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, the risks of underwriting Europe’s security are much more significant to the US than the cost in dollars. Increasingly, the US’s overstretched position at opposite ends of the world undermines its ability to provide resilient regional deterrence against powers like Russia or China.

Europe’s need for an American commitment is unconvincing. In 2021, European members of NATO, combined with Sweden and Finland, spent seven times more than Russia on defence and had a 5:3 advantage in active-duty personnel. The EU and UK had a combined GDP more than 10 times that of Russia and a population over 3.5 times larger. Whilst Europe has a number of command, coordination and readiness issues that need to be addressed to become strategically autonomous, the Europeans can ultimately defend themselves — if they want to.

Competition with China puts the US at odds with the EU

Amidst the uncertainty unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidency, French President Emmanuel Macron began floating the idea of European “strategic autonomy”, declaring that NATO was experiencing “brain death”. Many proclaim that the war in Ukraine has now given NATO a renewed sense of purpose, but the Europeans know that the US cannot sustainably focus its strategic attention on both East Asia and Eastern Europe. There are signs of hedging on both sides of the Atlantic. At their meeting in Washington last week, Biden and Macron released a joint statement recognizing “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence”. 

Furthermore, the allies are not completely aligned when it comes to the more formidable challenge posed to the US by China. Macron’s visit to the White House demonstrated that technological competition with China has put the US increasingly at odds with the EU over industrial policy. Scholz’s recent visit with Xi Jinping underlined the fact that, despite farfetched rhetoric about NATO’s future role in the Indo-Pacific, the Europeans ultimately want independent trade and diplomatic ties with China and to stay out of a new Cold War.

Germany’s Zeitenwende and the accession to NATO by the Finns and Swedes were all driven by a change in perception regarding Russian intentions, not a sudden increase in Russia’s capabilities. Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine has shown its military to be far less effective than previously thought, and its capabilities are being further attrited every day it continues the war. Alongside tens of billions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, the US has also sent additional troops and arms to Europe to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.

It’s therefore no surprise that the Germans are content to delay their Zeitenwende for the time being. The Russians are weaker than expected, and the Americans are still leading the charge. As the largest economy in Europe, Germany has plenty of latent power potential. It can afford to kick the can down the road a little longer.

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