What Can Allies Expect of Germany? 

“Those Allies who expect Germany to pull its weight in the security and defence of Europe will be disappointed”.

December 14th, 2021.  Decisions taken by the new German government will have profound implications for Europe’s security and defence and the wider transatlantic relationship.  Last week, The Alphen Group, which I have the honour to chair, discussed what Allies can expect of Germany.  The note of that meeting is below. 

It is too early to tell what Allies can expect of Germany with formation of the new government, although it is clear that whilst the tone and emphasis of German foreign and security policy might shift marginally, the essential tenets will remain by and large the same. The election produced no mandate for major reform of the core tenets of German foreign, security and defence policy, but some important reforms are at least intended, such as to the defence procurement system. While a National Security Strategy is foreseen, no Defence White Paper is planned. 

For the Government to endure the SPD needs the support of its junior partners. Therefore, much of the coming debate will be about whether the Coalition Compact sets the direction of travel of German policy or the SPD. These tensions will persist as the coalition will be transactional with little ‘love between the three parties’ with a constant “tug of war between idealists and realists”.  Equally, the coalition compact is more forward leaning on foreign and security policy than some expected with an “emphatic Atlanticism”.  However, whilst the compact reflects the Greens and FDP influence it is likely the SPD that will try to dictate policy, with foreign policy made in the Bundeskanzleramt. 

The language on Russia and China is tougher than that of the Merkel administration, but the new administration will also seek to de-escalate tensions in and over Ukraine and the passage on US-German relations is less “cheerful” than four years ago. There is as yet no decision over the future of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline in spite of “huge pressure” to scrap it. There are also profound contradictions in German energy policy and energy security as Berlin grapples with meeting carbon commitments whilst maintaining energy supplies without becoming overly reliant on Putin’s Russia.  It could well be that “Germany will not cope without Russian gas”. 

There is a strong commitment to what the compact calls European “strategic sovereignty”, although it is markedly not referred to in the chapter on defence. To the new foreign minister “European sovereignty” is “not primarily a military question, but rather an economic and technological one”. There is also no mention of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the Maritime Airborne Weapons System (MAWS), or the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) programmes, which might point to the ongoing problems in Franco-German defence co-operation. Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) are only mentioned in passing under arms control. President Macron will devote the French presidency of the EU to work for a “fully sovereign Europe free to shape its external choices and destiny”, which might at first instance appear in line with German policy. However, the nature and cost of Macron’s ambitions will likely lead to clashes with Berlin, especially if en Marche! loses its majority in the Assemblée Nationale next May. German efforts to promote both a national/German and a European legislation to limit arms exports could be a source of particular contention with France and Berlin shows little appetite to support Paris in the Sahel. In fact, the first directive the new Defence Minister issued was to prepare an “exit plan” for Mali.

In the coalition compact there is strong support for NATO, a commitment to fulfil Alliance planning goals and meet spending targets (2% by the back door?), replace the Tornado dual-capable aircraft (DCA), equip the Bundeswehr with armed drones, and modernise procurement practices. However, Germany’s continued commitment to nuclear-sharing came at the expense of being observer at the conference of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has already gone public to de-emphasise and question the nuclear-sharing commitment.   There is little evidence that resolving the chronic lack of readiness from which the Bundeswehr suffers will be a priority.  This is partly because “Germany still dreams of being a big Switzerland” and there remains a profound lack of understanding amongst Germans about the role of military power in international relations.  It will be interesting to see how the government will link the tough language on Russia, China and defending international order and the rule of law with the use of military power, both in Europe and its neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific.  

Looking to the future, and even if voting patterns suggest younger Germans tend to  be more Realist than their forebears, Germany still needs to overcome its tendency to look inwards.  Germans do not feel threatened militarily which undermines solidarity with other Europeans who do. That begs a big question for the Allies: how best to bring Germany forward on defence.  Do Allies push Germany or simply leave it to Germans to decide for themselves. Clearly, it will take more time and both push and pull.  

Julian Lindley-French