BERLIN — Ahead of a major security conference in Munich this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her defense minister both acknowledged the need for Germany to ramp up military spending as the Trump administration increases pressure on European allies to pull more of their weight.
Yet the comments by Merkel and her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, remained vague enough to suggest that Germany, even as it moves to reverse decades of defense cuts, may not move as fast as some hope. In addition, Europe’s largest economy is likely to funnel new spending through cooperative efforts with allies rather than rebuild military might on its own.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivered a blunt message in Brussels, warning that the United States may “moderate its commitment” to NATO if European nations do not increase their contributions. That message seemed aimed in no small part at Germany — the anchor of the European Union and a nation that after World War II developed a national aversion to military power.
In their comments, Merkel and von der Leyen appeared to reflect the driving factors behind any German military buildup: first, that Germany knows it should do more and is already moving in that direction and, second, that more spending should be tied to joint efforts with allies.
Speaking to a group of conservative female politicians on Wednesday, Merkel conceded that Germany is not contributing to NATO “to a sufficient extent yet.” She also, however, underscored the limitations of nations like Germany, adding that the effort to counter Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria and Libya could not take place “without the transatlantic alliance and the abilities of the United States of America.”
As the Trump administration takes a more independent approach toward diplomacy and defense, she also seemed to warn against unilateral steps.
“No country can solve problems alone,” Merkel said, according to Reuters.
In an opinion piece published in Thursday’s editions of Süddeutsche Zeitung, von der Leyen also called for increased military spending.
“Germans and most Europeans have for too long relied on the broad shoulder of our American allies,” she wrote.
Yet she added that Germany, which spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense, wanted to gradually work toward fulfilling its pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP by 2024. She gave no timeline, and increases in defense spending face major public opposition.
That said, Germany — a nation saddled with outdated and nonfunctioning military hardware — has already begun reversing years of defense cuts. By 2020, its military spending is projected to rise to 39.2 billion euros ($41.6 billion) — or more than 10 billion euros above the level in 2016.
Von der Leyen reiterated her belief that military growth should happen through partnerships. She cited a new declaration of intent between Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as another with Romania, to merge certain army divisions under German leadership.
Germany began deploying nearly 500 troops to Lithuania last month as part of a NATO mission. Germany and France are also creating a joint fleet of transport planes, part of an expanding military partnership that includes a recent Franco-German mission in Mali.
“The French have the infrastructure, we’re contributing personnel and planes,” von der Leyen wrote. Several similar deals, she noted, had been struck or were on the way with countries including the Netherlands and Norway.
Yet meeting the pledge of spending 2 percent of GPD would mean that Germany would end up spending far more on its military than, say, Britain spends on its own military, and analysts and even some German officials acknowledge that that is unlikely to happen fast.
That is at least partly because of the belief in Germany that despite Trump’s rhetoric, the United States is unlikely to step back from its role as the cornerstone of European defense.
“I think there is a very strong tendency to keep the perspective that the U.S. is the bedrock and remains the bedrock of collective defense in Europe, irrespective of the early moves by the Trump administration,” said Hilmar Linnenkamp, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.