Speaking at a private event to honor NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Munich on Thursday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said that Europe’s ability to defend itself “starts with the defense budget.”
President Trump, like other U.S. leaders before him, has publicly assailed European nations such as Germany for their relatively low military spending.
Trump had singled out Germany, the largest economy in Europe, as a freeloader on the back of the U.S. military, telling Fox Business Network this summer that “Germany doesn’t pay what they’re supposed to pay” on NATO and that the country was “taking tremendous advantage.”
But Trump is unlikely to be celebrating just yet. Although the U.S. president may be happy with the German announcement, the timing will be a harder sell. Kramp-Karrenbauer set a target date of 2031 for Germany’s defense spending to reach the goal — 12 years from now.
A potentially huge increase in spending
Germany would miss a 2024 target that was agreed upon by NATO leaders at a summit five years ago. (Germany has instead said its defense spending would reach 1.5 percent of gross domestic product by that time.)
It is even further behind Trump’s own demands: The U.S. leader said last year that 2 percent was not enough and that NATO allies should increase their spending to 4 percent of GDP.
However, the German pledge is still a major development — and a potential huge increase in spending. Of the 29 members of NATO, only seven currently meet the 2 percent pledge: the United States, Greece, Estonia, Britain, Romania, Poland and Latvia.
Germany’s defense spending in 2019 is estimated to be only 1.36 percent of GDP, putting it roughly in the middle of the pack. (Spain spends only 0.92 percent of its economic output on defense, while Luxembourg spends 0.55.)
But analysts have long suggested that linking defense spending to the size of an economy is misleading. Germany is the fourth-largest economy in the world, with a GDP more than 10 times the size of Estonia’s. Increasing its military spending to 2 percent requires an increase of tens of billions of dollars in expenditures.
That could make Germany the third-largest defense spender in the world, behind only the United States and China.
Although Germany’s constitution stipulates that its military should play only a defensive role, and while the country has pointedly avoided major conflicts, European memories of German militarism in the first half of the 20th century are hard to shake.
With significant practical problems
The practical elements of an increase in German defense spending also are major issues. Although reports of German military underfunding are notorious — in 2014, German soldiers turned up for a NATO exercise with broomsticks rather than guns — absorbing tens of billions of dollars is as much a burden as a boost.
Raising defense spending in Germany is politically sensitive. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior party in the government coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has argued against increased military funding. Der Spiegel reported Thursday that the two parties are already at odds over the details of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal.
The sometimes fraught relationship between Germany and the United States is one factor in the political debate. One member of the SPD leadership said this summer that Germany needed to remain cautious about sending troops abroad in partnership with the United States as “a racist sits in the White House.”
While American complaints about European military spending predate him, Trump has been criticized for displaying an apparent lack of understanding about how the 2 percent pledge works, frequently suggesting it is something that NATO allies “owe” the United States.
His criticism of Germany’s spending on defense-related issues is not limited to the NATO contribution. It also covers things such as the cost-sharing of U.S. troops still housed in Germany.
But the defense minister’s ambitions for Germany’s military may extend beyond the whims of Trump. Kramp-Karrenbauer is currently leader of the CDU; she is widely seen as a possible successor to Merkel, who has said she will step down as German chancellor before 2021. If Kramp-Karrenbauer were to lead Germany as long as Merkel has, she could be in the chancellor’s office until 2033.
As she spoke in Munich on Thursday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said the increase in spending was needed “not because the American president — and not just the current one — demands that, but because it is in our own security interest.”