Op-Ed

It’s Time for Germany to Start Pulling Its Weight in Europe

Ivo H. Daalder and Karla J. Nieting

The debate among Germans about whether their country should participate in a new NATO operation in Macedonia is the latest indication that Germany is still struggling to find its way in the new Europe.

While the internal debate reveals no small amount of political jockeying among German political parties gearing up for next year’s elections, the implications of the debate are far greater, including what Germany’s role will be in the Europe that is now emerging.

In advance of a vote in the Bundestag, 35 members of the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens have declared that they will not support German participation in a possible NATO mission to Macedonia to disarm Albanian rebels. The parliamentary opposition has likewise declared that it will vote against the mission.

The reasons for this opposition vary—an ill-defined mission, inadequate equipment and financing of the German Army, lack of a UN mandate and ingrained pacifism—but the outcome is the same. If a vote were taken today, the German government would be unable to muster a simple majority in support of German participation in a new NATO peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

This deep reluctance to support the NATO mission reveals great ambivalence about what role Germany should play in furthering a European foreign and security policy.

On the one hand, Germany wants to play a prominent role in Europe. In recent years, Berlin has been particularly active in the Balkans. During the Kosovo war, Germany made an important military contribution, its first combat operation since World War II. It initiated several diplomatic missions during the crisis, sent the largest number of troops to Kosovo and took the lead in creating the Stability Pact in southeastern Europe.

In Brussels, Germany has long been the predominant player in the European Union. Last May, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer contributed to the debate on the future of the European Union with a thoughtful speech on how integration must proceed. At the EU summit meeting in Nice in December, Germany insisted upon and was accorded greater weight in the Council of Ministers, giving it more votes than any other country. And Germany has repeatedly committed itself to robust involvement in developing the European rapid reaction force.

Yet Germany’s rhetorical commitment too often fails to be met by concerted action, especially when it comes to the area of defense. Compared with its NATO partners in Europe, Germany spends a paltry sum on defense: 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product, compared with 3.1 percent for the United States, 2.8 percent for France and 2.7 percent for Britain.

After much study, Germany announced a welcome restructuring of its army, but actual implementation is proceeding at a glacial pace. Germany is pulling soldiers already stationed in Macedonia into Kosovo just as a peace agreement seems possible and their presence more necessary.

Even Germany’s commitment to the European rapid reaction force is falling short, with funding being cut well below what is needed to buy the new transportation aircraft it has committed to buying.

Over the past decade, Germany has transformed its economic weight into political influence in Europe, but it has yet to match that influence in the foreign and security policy sphere. The new U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Dan Coats, may have shocked his hosts when he pointed out this incongruence, but he spoke the truth. In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Coats argued that the lack of resources devoted to defense and military affairs jeopardized Germany’s ability to play a central role in NATO and Europe.

Germany has declared time and again its commitment to NATO and the European Union. The domestic political constraints that once prohibited any participation by the German military beyond NATO’s borders have been breached. Germany is now a normal nation. Its actions—economically, politically, and militarily—need to reflect this as much as its words.

The United States has been imploring its European allies for decades to increase defense spending. The difference today is that Europe has a tremendous stake in building a credible and capable European security and defense policy, with a modern rapid reaction force at its core. Full German participation in this effort is not a luxury; it is a necessity for it to succeed.