Foreign policy issues will not play a major role in the decision of most Germans when they go to vote on September 24, yet the campaign which now has opened “the hot phase” has revealed that the future of German defense spending and Germany’s role in European security will be an issue.
On defense, the Social Democrats (SPD) have come out in opposition to Chancellor Merkel’s pledge to increase defense spending, which will be increased by 8 percent in the coming year with a long-term goal of reaching the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP. Martin Schulz has rejected these increases as giving in to President Trump’s demands and foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has called the forthcoming federal elections in September “a vote on whether Germany remains a peaceful power or joins Trump’s weapons madness.”
The SPD is playing not only on the German public’s overwhelmingly negative view of Trump, but also over the long-standing public aversion to the use of military force. For decades, polls have demonstrated this aversion to the use of force, including even the idea of a just war. These perceptions have begun to change. In a Pew poll conducted last year the public was split between the 37 percent who wanted to increase defense spending and the 47 percent who wanted to maintain current levels (17 percent wanted to cut defense spending). The same poll, however, showed that 58 percent would oppose using military force to defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia, while 38 percent would help in defending the ally.
In a Pew survey just published, the German public ranked the following as major threats to their security: ISIS (77%), cyber attacks (66%), and global climate change (63%). Importantly, concern about refugees is only listed by 28 percent. American influence was listed by 35 percent as a threat, with 33 percent listing Russian influence as a threat.
The election poses a clear choice between Merkel and her Christian Democrats and the SPD over this issue. The SPD has made the calculation that combining the strong public aversion to Trump with continuing ambivalence about defense spending will energize its base. However, the argument which links the need to spend more on defense to Trump’s threats is fallacious given the changing strategic environment in Europe and the need for Germany to reverse decades of neglect in the defense area. German defense planners are facing a number of strategic shocks, including a newly aggressive Russia, an increasingly disengaged United Kingdom, and an unreliable American ally. The argument that Germany’s neighbors don’t want a strong German military is clearly false. The French, Poles, and Baltic states agree with the U.S. position that it is more than time for Germany to step up to its responsibilities and enhance its hard power capabilities.
The new Merkel government is likely to include either the Free Democrats and/or the Greens. On defense issues, at least, the FDP supports the Merkel and von der Leyen positions while the Greens are closer to the SPD’s views. In any one of these possible coalitions, it is likely that the current defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, will remain in her post and she has been a strong advocate of a more robust German defense. If the new German government fails to do so, it will find itself being isolated both in NATO and in the EU.
Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.