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German defense minister slams Trump’s military-heavy approach to security

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the beginning of the 54th Munich Security Conference on Friday. Von der Leyen accused the United States of a dangerous overdependence on its military at the expense of diplomacy and soft power. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)

MUNICH — German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen denounced President Trump’s military-heavy approach to global affairs Friday, saying the United States is shortchanging diplomacy and soft power in favor of a dangerous overreliance on its military.

The tough criticism, made to an audience of the world’s security elite, including an unsmiling Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, was a European riposte to Trump’s ongoing push for Europe to spend more on defense. Even as von der Leyen acknowledged her nation’s need to boost defense spending, she said that Trump’s proposed deep spending cuts to diplomacy, development aid and the United Nations could threaten international security just as much as a failure to invest enough in weaponry.

Von der Leyen’s comments at the Munich Security Conference, which were echoed by French Defense Minister Florence Parly, came amid a deepening rift in the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe that helped underpin the post-World War II global order. At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels this week, Mattis criticized many allies for failing to create plans to meet their military spending commitments, and said he was worried that European Union efforts to bolster security cooperation could lead to wasteful duplication.

“It is a point of concern to us that some of our partners continue to roll back spending on diplomacy, international aid and the United Nations,” von der Leyen said, without mentioning Trump by name.

NATO allies boost defense spending in the wake of Trump criticism

It was one of the most forceful recent European rejoinders to Trump’s global spending priorities. In the 13 months since Trump took office, Europe has moved to boost defense spending, but also to improve its ability to fight alone without the support of the United States, if need be.

“Transatlantic burden-sharing cannot consist of a model where some are responsible for the sharp end of the stick and some of us are responsible for humanitarian issues and reconstruction,” von der Leyen said. “This must become a guiding principle on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Trump’s proposed 2019 budget, released Monday, would chop funding for the State Department by 26 percent, even as it proposes significant increases for the Pentagon.

German defense spending falls well below NATO goals, which push members to spend at least 2 percent of their economic output on defense every year. Despite Berlin’s manufacturing might, its military spending lags at 1.2 percent. The shortfall has made Europe’s biggest economy a frequent target of criticism for Trump and other U.S. officials. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats campaigned in September elections on a pledge to reach the NATO goal. But a coalition agreement the party reached this month to govern with the center-left Social Democrats made no specific mention of the goal and offered no timeline for hitting it.

The agreement — which must still be approved by the Social Democrats’ rank-and-file before Germany can form a government after a record-long delay — did earmark surplus government funds for defense and development.

Meanwhile, Germany’s military is in a derelict state. The country’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces said last month that the German military, the Bundeswehr, was effectively “not deployable for collective defense.” 

Germany’s Die Welt newspaper reported Thursday that the nation’s military has only nine operational Leopard 2 tanks, even though it has pledged to have 44 ready for a NATO rapid-reaction force it is slated to lead early next year. The report cited leaked Defense Ministry documents.

Von der Leyen said Friday that the country is fixing the deficiencies in its military, but that it will take time after 25 years of defense cuts that followed the end of the Cold War.

Germany’s army is so underequipped that it used broomsticks instead of machine guns

France’s defense minister echoed the push for Europe to stand on its own.

Europe must develop its security capabilities so that it can act autonomously in military conflicts “without having to call the United States to rush to our sick bed,” Parly said, even as she described the alliance with the United States as “indispensable.”

Europe’s efforts to better integrate its military operations received an endorsement from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said during a panel discussion at the conference that he had long opposed the idea as an unnecessary competitor to NATO, but had recently changed his mind. 

Defense cooperation, he said, “may be the antidote to this nationalist fever.” He argued that it was also a way to keep Britain in the European fold while deterring Russian aggression.

Given the opportunity to criticize Europe for not spending more on defense, Graham demurred.   

“I want you to get to 2 percent so Trump will be quiet,” he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking late Friday, took aim at both Trump’s White House and Russia, saying he worries that “phony populism” is driving the world back to the conflicts of the 20th century. He said he hoped an international commission could examine the way Russia is trying to influence Western political systems.

“I never thought I’d live to see this naked, naked nationalism be given legitimacy in so many parts of the world,” Biden said.

Facing Russian threat, NATO boosts operations for the first time since the Cold War

Afraid of a major conflict? The German military is currently unavailable.

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