The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Merkel and Trump agree the ailing German military needs a boost. Why isn’t it happening?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Trump at the Group of Seven summit in Canada on June 8. (Neil Hall/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

BERLIN — The German military has been, by nearly all accounts, in a woeful state. In recent years, its helicopters wouldn’t fly, its submarines couldn’t sail and its soldiers have wielded broomsticks in training exercises for lack of guns.

Amid an ocean of discord, one of the few issues that President Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel agree on is that needs to change.

To Trump, Europe’s most populous nation is an affluent free-rider that has “taken advantage” of the U.S. military’s protective embrace for far too long and needs to start paying more for its defense.

Merkel sees her nation beholden to an unreliable superpower and has sought to coax Germans — and Europeans as a whole — to “take our fate into our own hands.”

Yet after a year and a half of hectoring tweets from Trump and months of domestic political wrangling by Merkel, it’s now become clear: The cavalry isn’t coming anytime soon. Germany, which has long lagged well
below the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, will make only minimal progress in the coming years — and may even at times fall backward.

A litany of seemingly immovable German political obstacles explains why, including the country’s obsession with balanced budgets, its historically rooted aversion to military might and its desire to match hard power with soft.

Plus, there’s Trump himself.

“He is not helpful — not helpful at all,” said Reinhard Brandl, a member of Merkel’s center-right party who has used his perch on the Parliament’s defense and budget committees to push for higher military spending. “In fact, there’s a counter­reaction. When Trump says ‘2 percent,’ our people say, ‘We should not invest 2 percent because we’re not going to be blackmailed.’ ”

The acknowledgment by senior German officials that the country will remain far off the NATO target for the foreseeable future threatens to keep the issue atop a growing list of grievances between Washington and Berlin for the remainder of Trump’s presidency. 

When German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen met her American counterpart, Jim Mattis, at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Mattis said that Germany is “on the right track” with increases in defense spending.

But it’s unclear whether Mattis’s boss will agree. German officials are bracing for what could be a deeply uncomfortable NATO summit in Brussels next month, when they expect Trump to again call their nation out for the “billions” he insists it owes the alliance.

That’s not actually how NATO works. The 2 percent figure is a target, not a requirement, and the money isn’t paid into a common budget.

But Germans from Merkel on down acknowledge that even as defense spending rises, they are still falling short. The country has to do better, they say, if it wants true leverage in what has fast become an acrimonious transatlantic relationship.

The state of the German military, Merkel said in a recent speech, is “unsatisfactory” and more investment is needed to avoid “evil tidings every day.”

That was a reference to news reports revealing faulty weapons systems and ill-equipped units, leaving Germany vulnerable to threats — whether they be Russian troop movements or Trump­ian Twitter storms.

At a joint White House news conference in April, Trump said he and Merkel had discussed the need for European nations to “honor their commitment to spend 2 percent — and hopefully much more.” 

Germany in 2014 pledged to hit the target within the next decade, and officials long said that remained their goal.

But they have begun to push back against Trump’s narrative about paltry spending, noting that the country spent 2.4 percent of its GDP on defense prior to reunification, that the figure fell precipitously at the end of the Cold War (as did military spending in the United States), and it has begun to inch back up from a 1.1 percent low in recent years. Germans further insist that the percentage figure is deceptive, because their GDP has grown rapidly.

When Western leaders convene in Brussels next month, Germany will come bearing a far more modest ambition: 1.5 percent by 2024, up from 1.2 percent today.

Even that downsized objective lacks clear definition. Recent Finance Ministry projections show the military budget getting a considerable boost next year but rising only modestly in the following years. That means it could decline as a share of a growing economy.

Merkel has said she will fight for more money, but her coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, has resisted. German officials are under no illusion that their U.S. counterparts will be appeased. 

“We try to explain, but they don’t really see it,” said Peter Beyer, Merkel’s point person for transatlantic relations. “They say: ‘You made this pledge. When are you going to get there?’ ”

The United States devotes the equivalent of 3.6 percent of its total economic output to the military and accounts for nearly three-quarters of all spending by NATO members. The latest budget gives the Pentagon a $61 billion increase that, on its own, is more than the $46 billion Germany will spend on defense this year.

The disconnect is as much cultural as anything else. The United States takes pride in being the world’s preeminent military power and is willing to spend with abandon to stay that way. Germany associates military strength with the country’s darkest chapters. And it won’t take on new debt. Balanced budgets — affectionately known here as “the black zero” — are a fixture of German finances. 

“Due to historical reasons, we have a different relationship with the military. We are much more careful. We don’t want to send any aggressive signals to our neighbors,” Brandl said. “We are not an aggressive people.”

But these days the neighbors are concerned less by German strength than weakness, said Christian Mölling, a defense analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. 

As the Trump-led United States wavers in its commitment to Europe, continental governments have been trying to work more collaboratively and to make their forces interoperable. Without greater German spending, however, the country’s European allies could be disappointed.

“They’ve started deeply integrating their armed forces into our armed forces. They’ve started relying on Germany,” Mölling said. “But if the money doesn’t come, we won’t be able to meet our obligations. It’s as simple as that.” 

A lack of military might, Mölling said, also limits the scope of Germany’s response as it deals with an increasingly hostile United States in areas such as trade, Iran sanctions and other flash points.

“Intellectually and morally, we may be on the high ground,” he said. “But we are dependent on the U.S.” 

The Social Democrats, like Merkel, chafe at that dependence. But the party’s reaction has been to resist bowing to Trump’s pressure and to dismiss the 2 percent target. With the party in control of the powerful Finance Ministry, leaders insist that any increase in military spending be matched by an equal jump in development aid.

“Two percent is not realistic for Germany,” said Wolfgang Hellmich, the Social Democratic chair of Parliament’s defense committee. “Even if you had the finances for that, you still need the troops and the equipment. We just don’t have that kind of capacity.”

Like many Western nations, Germany had grown accustomed in the nearly 25 years after the Cold War’s end to slashing defense budgets and enjoying its “peace dividend.” For a generation, Germany reoriented its slimmed-down military away from European defense and toward expeditionary missions in places such as Afghanistan and Mali. 

That all changed dramatically in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and triggered conflict in southeastern Ukraine. Suddenly, war in Europe was a reality — and further Russian aggression was seen as a real possibility. 

Germany has been building its armed forces back ever since. But progress has been halting.

A military that was once more than half a million strong at the height of the Cold War is down to a mere 180,000 active-duty personnel. As the economy roars, few recruits want to join. And the independent commissioner who oversees Germany’s military, Hans-Peter Bartels, concluded in a February report that the quality of equipment in the armed forces was “dramatically bad.” 

At various points in recent years, all German submarines have been out of commission, as have half of the army’s Leopard 2 tanks. The military’s pilots, meanwhile, have had to borrow helicopters from a local automobile club because none of their own were in working order. 

Perhaps most embarrassing of all were 2015 reports that soldiers had attached broomsticks to their armored vehicles during NATO training exercises to compensate for a lack of machine guns.

Bartels said in an interview that recent spending increases had helped, but not enough. Entire areas of the military remained “hollow,” with difficulty in acquiring new equipment a key barrier to rapid improvement. At the current rate, he noted, the military won’t be fully equipped until 2032. 

“It’s slow,” he said. “We have to hurry up.” 

Luisa Beck in Berlin and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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