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Will Reelected Chancellor Merkel Spend the Money Necessary to Defend Germany?

Even before becoming president Donald Trump railed against Europe’s refusal to spend more on its defense. Since entering the Oval Office he focused much of his ire on Germany, the continent’s wealthiest nation which had repeatedly demonstrated its prowess in war.

“Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO,” said the president earlier this year. America “must be paid for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen Trump Merkelresponded that the “modern concept of security” required more than spending on weapons, even as her nation relied on America’ prodigious spending on weapons.

Still, the Merkel government increased defense outlays in 2016 and raised the percentage of GDP devoted to the military from 1.18 percent then to 1.22 percent this year. At least Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that Germany’s anemic military spending was inadequate and pledged to meet the NATO standard of two percent of GDP by 2024.

However, at its present rate of increase Germany won’t hit that level until 2030, and the defense budget is expected to fall back to 1.17 percent of GDP in 2018, below last year’s level. In January the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces the “lack of urgency.”

The biggest problem is voter opposition to higher military outlays. In Sunday’s election Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz targeted the government’s proposed increase, which he tied to President Trump, who has a five percent approval rating in Germany.

Schulz and SPD parliamentary head Thomas Oppermann wrote: “We say a clear no to the ‘two-percent target’ of Trump” and Merkel’s party. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member of the coalition government, said the election offered a vote on whether Germany “remained a force for peace or followed Trump’s armament madness.”

After World War II Germany’s neighbors feared a Teutonic revival. But today they claim Berlin is spending too little.

Outlays and personnel levels are way down. This year’s parliamentary assessment of the Bundeswehr found a lack of such essentials as uniforms, guns, and ammunition. Soldiers used broomsticks instead of guns and vans instead of armored personnel carriers in training.

As spending fell across Europe, argued the University of Sydney’s Salvatore Babones, “NATO’s vaunted Article 5 commitment to collective defense has become, in effect, a unilateral U.S. security guarantee.” Yet the continent equals U.S. economic strength and possesses a greater population.

While the Merkel government claims to be going in the right direction, the Bundeswehr remains a shadow of its once formidable self. Thus, more money must come from a skeptical public.

Which suggests that even the reelected Chancellor Merkel will find it difficult if not impossible to dramatically hike military outlays. The German people just don’t perceive a serious threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a nasty character, but no one imagines a revived Red Army again marching on Berlin. And, truth be told, the Germans don’t care much about anyone else. A May Pew Research Center poll found just 40 percent Germans willing to support other member states against a Russian attack, the lowest percentage in eight nations polled.

At least the Trump administration has created some uncertainty. In May Chancellor Merkel told a political rally: “the times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over.” Now is the time for Europeans to “take their destiny into their own hands.”

U.S. officials have spent decades pressing for more burden-sharing. That proved to be frustrating as Europe mostly ignored Washington’s pleas. Instead, American officials should engage in burden-shedding, leaving other peoples with responsibility to protect themselves.

Washington should simply explain what America will and will not do. The U.S. shouldn’t subsidize the defense of even good friends if they are capable of protecting themselves.

In the case of Europe Washington should turn NATO’s leadership over to the Europeans, shift to an associate role, and bring home its troops. The two continents should cooperate and coordinate, but on issues of mutual interest where American assistance is necessary.

Donald Trump’s criticisms of Europe and NATO are well-founded. But instead of trying to force America’s defense dependents to act responsibly, Washington should stop providing the international equivalent of welfare. It is up to Germany’s incoming government—and other alliance members across the continent—to decide whether their nations are worth defending.

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