Germany Needs a Global Role to Suit Its Size

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence declared in a speech marking NATO’s 70th anniversary that “too many” alliance members have failed to increase spending on their militaries, he singled out one by name. “Germany must do more,” he said, adding that “it is simply unacceptable for Europe’s largest economy to … neglect its own self-defense and our common defense at such a level.” 

The broadside was hardly unexpected: The Trump administration has made a habit of deriding America’s European allies as free riders. The complaints are overdone, but not entirely wrong. Rather than bristle, Germany’s leaders should take up the challenge — and assume global responsibilities commensurate with the country’s economic strength. This would be good for Europe, and for Germany.

Upgrading the country’s armed forces is the first step. Years of neglect have left the Bundeswehr in dismal condition. More than half of its tanks, helicopters and fighter planes have been judged unfit for deployment, and all six of its submarines are too hobbled to leave port. The standing army, which had some 500,000 troops at the end of the Cold War, now numbers only 180,000 — among the smallest in NATO, on a per capita basis.

The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who plans to retire in 2021, has tried to shake the country’s aversion to foreign military interventions. German troops are active in Afghanistan and Mali and lead a NATO battalion deployed to Lithuania to deter Russian aggression. Germany will spend 43 billion euros on defense this year, some 26 percent more than it did a decade ago.

That’s still just 1.3 percent of Germany’s GDP — far less than the 2 percent target all NATO members agreed to in 2014, a cudgel Trump has wielded repeatedly against Berlin. Merkel has pledged to spend 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024, but faces resistance from her coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party. Public opinion is no more favorable: Growing numbers say Germany should become more active in international crises, but just 32 percent of Germans support more spending on defense.

While pressing that case, Merkel and the defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, should aim to get more from what’s already being spent. They should reform the military’s inefficient procurement system, a cause of chronic delays and cost overruns. Closer coordination with other European armies could help to eliminate redundant weapons systems and reduce training costs. And much-needed investments in domestic infrastructure — such as improving Germany’s notoriously patchy broadband network — will yield benefits for the Bundeswehr and civilians alike.

Soft power matters too. Germany needs to bolster its diplomatic corps, which has nearly 1,000 fewer diplomats than in 1990. Among OECD countries, it’s the second largest donor of development aid in real dollars, but spends less as a proportion of its national income than the U.K., Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg and Sweden. Given its size and resources, Germany could take the lead in promoting development, good governance and private investment in Africa — which would counter Chinese influence on the continent and help to prevent future migration crises in Europe.

The biggest challenge facing Germany is to advance Europe’s cohesion and democratic identity. Berlin should champion proposals to tie EU funds to member governments’ adherence to the rule of law and create an EU fund for civil-society groups that defend liberal values. And it should resist Russian attempts to weaken European solidarity — which means, among other things, heeding allies’ objections to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry gas from Russia to Germany.   

During Merkel’s 13-year tenure, Germany has been a responsible and largely stabilizing force on the world stage — a role that’s all the more vital in the age of Trump. But Germany could and should do more. Merkel should bequeath her successors a more fitting and ambitious vision of what comes next.            

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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