Germany’s Role in NATO: Leadership amidst complexity

Samuel LOH is an undergraduate reading History and Politics at the University of Oxford, UK.  He is interested in the history of late modern Germany and German intellectual thought, which form a central part of his academic work.

Singapore | June 27, 2020 | Student Essay

Difficult questions about Germany’s role in NATO have been asked since the beginning of the country’s participation in the transatlantic alliance.  West Germany joined NATO in 1955 amidst a sea of political uncertainty, not least because the prospect of a rearmed Germany so soon after the Second World War faced widespread unease and suspicion from European neighbours.  Throughout the Cold War NATO played a delicate double-act with West Germany, at once encouraging the buildup of its military strength as a bulwark against the Soviets, but also tempering German contributions with arms limitations and careful supervision.  Post-Cold War, post-reunification, Germany is increasingly taking on a leadership role within NATO.  However, difficult questions persist.

         If critics in the 1960s accused Germany of being too powerful for Europe’s safety, Germany today is accused of the opposite—the historical irony is obvious.  Germany has never managed to meet NATO’s defence spending target of 2% of GDP, hovering around 1.38% in 2019.  In comparison, the US spends nearly 3.5% of a GDP that is five times larger, a disparity that has often been the lightning rod of Donald Trump’s censure since becoming US President.  Equally contentious is whether German aspirations to NATO leadership can be matched by its sharing of the nuclear burden.  Doubts exist over Germany’s capability in the long term to carry forward-deployed US nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy.  There is no clear successor for the ageing Tornado fighter aircraft, which to date remains the only nuclear-capable platform in the Luftwaffe’s inventory.  Despite defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s interest in acquiring the American-made F-18, a final decision is years away, likely to face opposition from pacifists within the government, all the while as the Tornadoes inch toward obsolescence by the 2030s.  Beset by equipment and manpower shortages, questions are also raised about the German army’s ability to fight a 21st-century land war—a prospect NATO, following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, considers less remote than previously imagined.   

         However, Germany continues to fulfil essential roles in NATO.  The first derives from something immutable: geography.  Its central European location positions Germany as a strategic barrier against potential Russian aggression, which remains amongst NATO’s foremost considerations.  As early as 1947 the so-called ‘Fulda Gap’ on the Hesse-Thuringian border has been identified as the likely passageway for massed armoured formations attacking westwards.  Decades of NATO planning have centred around the simple facts of German geography.   Insofar as these areas retain their strategic significance, Germany’s role in shaping NATO defence policy cannot be understated.  Secondly, Germany is one of NATO’s top financiers.  Although domestic defence spending lags behind NATO’s expectations, German financial contributions remain substantial.  In 2018-9 Germany bankrolled 15% of NATO’s budget, second only to the US.  Thirdly and most importantly, Germany plays a critical leadership role in NATO, as it does more generally in Europe.  Drawing upon experience gained from coordinating multinational efforts in Afghanistan and the Balkans, Berlin played a key role in establishing the Baltic high readiness task force, formed in the aftermath of Crimea.  Under the Framework Nations concept, Germany facilitates deeper intergration of pan-European forces and provides its own command structure with a view to becoming NATO’s ‘anchor’ or ‘backbone’ army.  There are certainly points to be made about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in whom the collected methodology of the trained scientist has been transmuted into an emergent brand of political leadership praised globally for its calm, no-frills approach.

         Overwhelmingly, it is in this leadership role that Germany has gained outsized significance within NATO—largely because other members have not.  Public support for NATO’s joint nuclear deterrent in Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands—the three other European countries that contribute nuclear-capable aircraft—is even lower than in Germany.  Across the Atlantic, Trump’s mercurial attitude towards NATO, recurrent threats to cut US funding, and the president’s alleged ties to Russia have undermined NATO’s credibility, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to warn of the alliance’s impending ‘brain death’.  The historically conscious will recall France’s withdrawal from NATO amidst a similar souring of relations between Washington and Paris in 1966.  But in many senses these headwinds have created valuable opportunities for Germany to play a bigger leadership role in NATO.  In a political climate where public morale is low and faith in NATO waning—within and without—Germany’s greatest and most unique contribution lies not in what it can materially provide, but in its continued confidence in NATO’s founding ethos of multilateralism and collective decision-making.  Most crucial is Germany’s commitment to arbitrate between the two and increasingly divergent halves of NATO on either side of the pond, a role emblematized above all by Merkel’s moderating and dispassionate approach to international diplomacy.  The German element in NATO is best summed up by then-defence minister Ursula von der Leyen during a security conference in Munich: ‘decency and dependability’, not just ‘cash and contributions’.  With Germany pledging to meet NATO’s spending target by 2031, a potential Trump re-election looming, and an emboldened Putin (now constitutionally free to rule as president until at least 2036), there is space for Germany’s leadership in NATO to grow stronger.

          Yet, looking forward, Germany’s ability to capitalize on these opportunities remains tempered by domestic and international challenges.  Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation from CDU leadership this February is a proverbial but nevertheless very large spanner in the works of finding a successor to the chancellorship once Merkel steps down in 2021.  With worrying gains made by the Eurosceptic far-right, it is unclear if the next chancellor will see NATO as congenially as Merkel and her allies in the CDU and SPD have.  Externally, Germany’s reliance on Moscow for energy weakens its ability to fend off pressure from NATO’s bogeyman, at times incurring the wrath of the alliance’s chief sponsor, whose legislators have called the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline a ‘critical threat to America’s national security’.  But perhaps it is precisely because Germany has continued to provide direction and good sense in spite of difficult questions, that Germany’s leadership role in NATO endures.

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