Germany’s Bigger Defense Budget Won’t Make Anyone Safer

Wolfgang Streeck
Loren Balhorn

German chancellor Olaf Scholz has just committed €100 billion to defense spending. The move is widely touted as a strong response to Russian aggression — but is more about showing Germany’s fealty to US global foreign policy objectives.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz looks on with glasses during the beginning of a meeting of the security cabinet on March 7, 2022, in Berlin, Germany. (Clemens Bilan - Pool / Getty Images).

Over the past week, the German press — which has been even more self-censorious than usual lately — was full of headlines celebrating German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of a one-off, €100 billion supplement to the country’s so-called “defense budget.” The additional funding, to be spread out across an undetermined number of years, allegedly marks a radical about-face from Angela Merkel’s policies, now discredited by the turn of events in Ukraine.

In truth, however, the budget increase constitutes a fitting continuation of her style: a momentary concession to domestic and international sentiment, political symbolism, “sending a signal” with the goal of “setting an example” — regardless of what that signal actually means, so long as it only has to mean something later on (and who knows when that will be). So, what’s all the fuss about?

2 Percent Pledge

In 2002, in the context of the admission of the Baltic states as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia (in the second of three waves of NATO eastward expansion), NATO’s member countries pledged to the United States that they would spend 2 percent of their GDP on arms. Exactly what kind of arms were to be purchased was left open. In practice, this mostly entailed high-tech weaponry with a global operating range — the kind that is so strategically dear to the United States’ heart.

In the years that followed, however, the NATO countries proved less enthusiastic about fulfilling their obligations. This was most of all the case for Germany, where, due to the sheer size of the country and its economy, the most value was to be extracted. Germany spent just 1.3 percent of its GDP on arms, or about €43.1 billion, in 2019. In 2014, it was only 1.1 percent, or €33.1 billion. The plan for 2021 was to leave it at 1.3 percent, with total spending reaching €46.9 billion; after that, according to the medium-term financial plan Scholz drafted while serving as finance minister in Merkel’s last cabinet, defense spending was to decline to 1.26 percent of GDP in 2023. Then defense minister Ursula von der Leyen promised NATO 1.5 percent for 2025; prior to that, a full 2 percent had been announced for 2024.

Now, the “about-face.” Had Germany spent 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2021, it would have amounted to €72.2 billion — €25.3 billion more. The €100 billion is meant to facilitate a rapid increase — by about half, as a share of GDP — along with additional increases resulting from economic growth, should there still be such a thing.

Moreover, in order to prevent a relapse into the country’s old sinful ways, the government crafted a kind of fiscal chastity belt, whereby the €100 billion is to be paid out this year all at once into a so-called “special fund,” financed by new debt. The measure is to be anchored in the constitution in order to, on the one hand (and similar to the special fund dedicated to fighting climate change and its consequences), navigate around the German constitution’s “debt brake,” but also to ensure that future governments spend the money on arms — and not on something else like, say, health care.

In Merkel-like style, the details of the plan remain obscured by the fog of war. After all, according to Scholz’s official proclamation, the special fund will help Germany to “invest more than 2 percent [my emphasis] of our gross domestic product in our defense” in the years to come — a remarkable case of budgetary overkill, the exact fiscal policy mechanics of which we can only guess at.

What Does “National Defense” Actually Mean?

Despite all the current enthusiasm for buying weapons, the Ukraine crisis may at some point trigger a discussion in Germany about not only the size of the defense budget but about what should be purchased with the money — i.e., what national defense could and should be today. More than anything, this would mean a debate about a realistic defense doctrine to replace the globalist-transatlantic approach that is in effect today and just failed in Ukraine (that is, unless the war has been accepted as the price to pay for achieving broader aims).

Such a discussion would be analogous to long-running debates in France and the UK about a defense doctrine that neglects to hitch the country’s fate to a declining hegemonic power — a would-be world government that grows ever-more unscrupulous and desperate in asserting its global monopoly on force. Against that backdrop, the following considerations could be useful.

First, even if Germany had spent 2 instead of 1.3 percent of its GDP on its military in recent years, this would not — all other things being equal — have prevented the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Had one really sought to prevent it, it would have been necessary to put the decision to admit Georgia and Ukraine into NATO — in other words, the third wave of eastward expansion — up for renegotiation, and to do so in a way that went beyond vague reassurances that implementation was not on the agenda for the time being.

Instead of formal membership, however, the United States had already long switched over to establishing an informal, de facto membership for Ukraine. By the early 2020s, the US was already deeply embedded in the Ukrainian economy and society, its state apparatus as well as its military. Vice President Joe Biden was well known as Barack Obama’s point man for Ukraine, nor should we forget how Victoria Nuland, responsible for Ukraine at the State Department at the time, decided who should become president in Ukraine like a kind of viceroy. (She herself was designated to become Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state.)
The Ukrainian military also profited from the Americans’ good advice, dispensed in the interests of establishing so-called “interoperability” with NATO — a harmonization of command structures in order to enable coordinated combat deployments around the world. And one may well remember Biden’s son Hunter who, until the start of the 2019 presidential primaries, spent five years as a “nonexecutive director” on the board of a Ukrainian energy company owned by an oligarch suspected of money laundering, where he allegedly earned $50,000 per month without ever once setting foot on Ukrainian soil. One may safely assume that he was no more than the tip of a big American iceberg.

Second, as far as the military aspect is concerned (i.e., the alleged object of Germany’s commitment to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense), the United States currently has around 90,000 armed troops stationed in Europe. Yet that didn’t prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, nor has the US entertained the notion of sending military assistance to the country, despite all the ties that already exist between them.

The longer the dying drags on in Ukraine, the more it appears that this will be the most important and perhaps most consequential lesson to be drawn from the ongoing events: those who allow themselves to be represented by the United States in life-and-death disputes with a potential enemy should not expect the US to protect them if things go awry, whether due to negligence or as a strategically accepted risk. In fact, the United States made it clear from the outset that it would not intervene militarily if war broke out. It had at least two good reasons for doing so: first, because Russia is known to dispose of nuclear weapons, and second, because American voters are no longer willing to finance military adventures abroad.

Despite that, the American side played hardball with the Russians, with conceivably high risks — albeit not for the Americans themselves. (Anyone who gets mixed up with a nuclear power shouldn’t be surprised if it starts to behave like one.) In the long term, this could and must be a lesson for all countries entertaining the notion of delegating their sovereignty to a US-dominated “defensive” alliance — the former president of Afghanistan, an ethnologist with a PhD from Columbia University, could provide expert testimony in this regard.

Vast Supplies

France and the UK also possess vast supplies of military hardware, yet they, too, are watching the conflict from the sidelines, and hardly because Germany only spent 1.3 instead of 2 percent on arms. Moreover, the German defense budget has long been nearly as high as the Russians’, which had stagnated for years and itself appeared to be set to decline, in principle like the Germans’ own.

For 2019, the relevant research institutes reported that Russian defense spending stood at $65.1 billion, or 3.8 percent of its GDP. Four years earlier, that share was 4.9 percent. In 2019, the plan was to reduce it even further in the years to come. German defense spending in the same year was $49.3 billion. Had Germany, as demanded, reached the 2 percent target, it would have spent $76 billion — 17 percent more than the Russians.

The balance of forces between Germany and Russia was described quite accurately in an ominous public appeal in October 2018 penned by philosopher Jürgen Habermas together with [the Christian Democrat] Friedrich Merz and other German politicians, for a “European peace army.” The appeal correctly stated that “the European NATO members currently outspend Russia on defence three to one.” That did not stop Russia from marching into Ukraine, even though its nuclear weapons, similar to France, likely cost so much that only little is left over for conventional weapons. This may explain why the Russian army has proven unable to bring the war in Ukraine to a swift conclusion. What matters, here, is that the comparatively small size of Russia’s armed forces has not prompted fellow nuclear powers France and Britain to come to Ukraine’s aid.

It follows that there is absolutely no connection between Germany’s below-2-percent defense budget, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the response of “the West,” regardless of how much European politicians and columnists claim otherwise. The refusal, in Germany, to even discuss this nonconnection is a decisive legacy of the Merkel era, with its vague promises to temporarily excited moods, for whom asking follow-up questions was nothing but a waste of time, if not treason against “our values.”

Another, also quite Merkel-like strategy to avoid discussing the €100 billion defense budget consists of not posing the question of what timeframe the 2-percent increase should or can be implemented in. (The same problem emerged with the COVID “reconstruction” funds, whose promised miraculous results have not been seen two years after they were passed — nor could they have been, because they cannot exist. Italy, for example, will only be able to spend the €81.8 billion allocated by the European Union — one-fifth less than the German military’s “special fund” — over a number of years and likely not even within the envisioned seven years. Will the German military bureaucracy in cooperation with the international arms industry be faster?)

Even if Germany began issuing procurement projects today — publicly, Europe-wide, and so on — assuming it knew what it actually wanted to procure, awarding contracts and bringing the purchased items online takes time. Before former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen relocated to Brussels, she came under intense criticism for the massive sums that she and her state secretary had paid to consulting firms — in vain — to whip the German Army’s procurement system into gear. The German rearmament program will undoubtedly be a bonanza for the domestic and international arms industry, promising windfall profits galore. Their share prices are already rising accordingly, and their lobbyists have probably already started making the rounds in Berlin.

Word that the German procurement system is more sluggish than normal has already gotten around — of course, in matters of life and death, due diligence must come before speed. Will it be four or seven years before the fresh cash will have trickled down in the form of new tanks and better ammunition? And what will the world that the new German army is supposed to deal with look like? Will Putin still be around? Unlikely. What bogeymen and war scenarios will a German army upgraded to 2 percent of GDP be prepared for? Perhaps Russia as a vassal and protector of China?

Regional Alliance?

That said, we may not have to deal with these questions at all. As was the case during Angela Merkel’s sixteen years, German “defense” policy continues to be crafted by NATO, i.e., by the United States. It should be noted here that NATO hasn’t been a regional defense alliance since the 1990s but a globally oriented intervention force under American command. In the foreseeable future, it will increasingly be geared toward defending American global power against China’s assertion of the same, and is designed and equipped accordingly.

It is conceivable, however, that the course of the war in Ukraine and the noble restraint of the nuclear powers supposedly allied with Ukraine could raise doubts as to whether the deployment and armament that NATO demands of its members in the spirit of interoperability with the United States is what is needed for effective national defense in Europe — or rather, to avoid the need for such a thing. Judging by the behavior of the NATO countries, which are not doing anything to save Ukraine from “Putin” (what ever happened to the “duty to protect”?), probably not.

According to Scholz, the purchases to be made with the €100 billion or the 2 percent will also include a fleet of — American — airplanes. As successors to the “obsolete” Tornado combat aircraft, these are said to be crucial for continued German “nuclear sharing” — i.e., the transport and dropping of American nuclear bombs by German-operated, American-made aircraft, with American permission or on American instructions, on unspecified enemies (Russia? China?) but in any case not on troops about to invade German territory. Also on the shopping list (if only for the sake of parity) besides the American F-35, which is to replace the Eurofighter, is the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Produced by Dassault Aviation and highly coveted by the French, this combination of fighter bombers, drones, and satellites can be used all over the world, in principle at any time. But also for national defense in Europe?

In the meantime, even former German Army and NATO commanders are asking (albeit in private) whether this kind of weaponry would be suitable to defend against an attack like Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. Of course not. As far as that is concerned, we can speak of expensive high-tech scrap metal that would at best be suitable for a globe-spanning, Star Wars–esque final showdown between good and evil, as envisioned by the American culture industry and its friends in the Pentagon.

Take, for example, the American Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber, the largest and most expensive fighter of all time, built in the 1980s for a “decapitation strike” against the imagined Soviet high command traveling through Siberia on railways. A stealth plane able to fly from America to anywhere and back, the only time it was used was in the bombing of Belgrade, and even then only once: it took off from the United States, dropped bombs on Belgrade, and landed back in the US. Militarily, it was about as useful as a hole in the head.

In any case, there has been no talk of a decapitation strike against Putin so far, especially since he probably doesn’t ride a train. Since the Vietnam War at the latest, however, we know that there are no limits to the imagination of the US military.

Redefining Defense

Even if, like the vast majority of Germany’s pacifist postwar generation, we have no desire to think deeply about military defense, we should perhaps reconsider our position in light of the events in Ukraine and the “about-face” supposedly triggered by them. Especially on the Left, it might in principle be worthwhile to think about forms of national defense that are territorial rather than global, i.e., rely less on expertly trained commandos and high-tech globally deployed systems and more on collective action by citizens willing to risk life and limb to defend their country and their “way of life” against an invading enemy. Incidentally, this is the only sort of strategy for which reinstating general conscription, as was briefly discussed in Germany recently, may make sense: as the German Army Command immediately made known, a high-flying, high-tech army has little use for armed citizens in uniform, no matter how brave they may be.

If we think this through more systematically, we would have to return to the distinction between offensive and defensive capabilities that was more prominent when military strategy was still discussed, in Germany, well into the 1970s. Militarily, renouncing a country’s offensive capability would make it clear that no other country had anything to fear from it. At the same time, well-developed defensive capabilities would threaten any attacker with severe losses. Symbolic of such an approach would be swapping out tanks for rocket launchers and other weapons that would be easy to operate by citizen militias with one year of training as the core of a territorial defense force.

It might be wise, for a change, to take the Swiss approach to national defense seriously, in contrast to American defense-by-attack, which has proved useless in Ukraine. (Granted, you don’t need territorial defense on an island the size of a continent). High-tech gear would only come into play to defend against cyberattacks, a thoroughly unheroic military activity, carried out by the best available specialists organized in rapidly deployable reserve units whose equipment is continuously upgraded.

Such an approach would put an end to the apathetic stance of politically immobilized citizens who have been taught that their security and that of their country depends on continually purchasing the amazing products of Northrop Grumman, Dassault, and the like. It would be more fitting to an active society in an active democracy than the transfer of national defense to NATO headquarters or even the Pentagon. Last but not least, having one’s own skin at stake in the event of disaster would promote strategic prudence. We could almost speak of replacing a consumeristic notion of defense with a communitarian one.

It would also ensure that nations drawn into a conflict could not be subordinated or sacrificed to the inevitably special interests of a bloc-dominating superpower: in this respect, it would reinforce the very national sovereignty that, in the case of Ukraine, the Left recently rediscovered as a valuable good — defended solely by the heroism of local citizens, but not by their NATO friends applauding on the sidelines.

To sum up: The €100 billion special fund is anything but an “about-face.” On the contrary, it continues the Merkel-era policy of symbolically appeasing discontent while at the same time obscuring problems and refusing to discuss them. Public admissions of guilt, like that of ex—defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Twitter (“I am so angry at us because we failed historically. We didn’t prepare anything after Georgia, Crimea and Donbass that would have really deterred Putin.”), are nothing but embarrassing as long as they are not combined with serious reflection on the goal and purpose of a future German defense policy in light of the current experience in Ukraine.

Such a defense policy must amount to more than more of the same if it is to be worth the money and foreseeable blood it will cost. In its present form, the €100 billion fund serves to pacify a public diffusely demanding protection and retribution for Ukraine, but above all to assure Germany’s “allies,” i.e., the United States, of its unwavering allegiance no matter what recent events have revealed about the implications of that allegiance.

The €100 billion fund and the 2-percent budget are being set up at a time when the United States has begun to rally its auxiliary forces for what it sees as an imminent showdown with China. The war in Ukraine serves as an important stopover. The German 2 percent, now finally on track if not yet finalized, helps to multilateralize the costs of that final battle — that and only that is its function. A real about-face in German defense policy would have to begin by taking seriously the emerging conflict between national defense in Europe, on the one hand, and strengthening “the West” in the Far East, on the other. Nothing of the sort is yet in evidence.