German Moralism Irritates Allies: Defense Spending and Export Controls

At a 2015 rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump considered the freedom of the press, assuring the crowd that while he hated some reporters, he wouldn’t kill them. Trump was responding to rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin had had some reporters killed. Trump was adamant that he finds such behavior despicable: “They said he’s killed reporters. And I don’t like that. I’m totally against that. And by the way, I hate some of these people. But I would never kill them. I would never kill them and anybody that does I think would be despicable.” Three years later, U.S. resident and Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by agents of the Saudi Arabian government in its consulate in Istanbul.

Following the murder, and perhaps following from the now well-established enmity between the Trump administration and the media, the United States announced that it would react with punitive sanctions against a specific set of seventeen Saudis, rather than the entire state. Like in the case of Putin, the Saudi regime was suspected of being complicit in the assassination, but the U.S. took no action against its ally. In the Senate, Rand Paul criticized the sanctions as too weak and instead suggested that the United States should stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is currently engaged in a war in Yemen. In early November 2018, the German government did just that.

The German sanctions were thorough: even exports of weapon components that would be used to manufacture arms for Saudi Arabia in third-party countries were stopped, disrupting supply chains and preventing French and British arms manufacturers from fulfilling contracts with the Saudi government.

On March 28, 2019, the German government extended the ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for another six months, despite objections from France and Britain. Even within Germany, the decision was divisive: Merkel’s CDU preferred relaxing export controls while the center-left SPD wanted to maintain them. Germany’s economy is dependent on its exports, and the country is the fourth-largest arms supplier in the world, after the United States, Russia, and France. Arms exports to the Middle East are a growing part of the world economy, and some 25 percent of U.S. weapons exports were sent to Saudi Arabia between 2014 and 2018. Thus, German politicians’ squeamishness toward armed conflict has been a source of contention among some of its closest allies.

German politicians’ squeamishness toward armed conflict has been a source of contention among some of its closest allies.

One of President Trump’s repeated talking points is criticizing other NATO members for not sharing enough of the burden of financing the alliance. Germany has been a particular target for these criticisms, especially recently. In late March 2019, Germany revealed that despite its previous commitment to increase its NATO contributions to 2 percent of its GDP (as Trump demanded), the projected contributions would amount to less than 1.5 percent. U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell—already unpopular in his host country—was especially scathing when he received the news, causing Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the FDP, to call for Grenell’s expulsion from the country. But American criticism was not limited to Trump and his supporters: former Obama administration advisor Julianne Smith said that reneging on commitments to allies while preaching multilateralism makes Germany seem hypocritical and unreliable. Unilaterally declaring an export ban that has damaged the ability of other countries to export—an effect that could be seen as Germany practically imposing its policy onto other sovereign nations—while begrudging the United States for perceived coercion might also be seen as hypocritical.

Britain and France, two other important allies for Germany, are also irritated, but by the export controls rather than by NATO spending. British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt visited his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in February seeking an exception for British arms manufacturers to use German parts in order to fulfill contracts with Saudi Arabia, but was firmly denied. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and ambassador to Berlin Anne-Marie Descôtes have disparaged the German ban, calling the move “pure demagoguery” and “particularly affected by current German domestic politics,” respectively. This latest conflict comes ironically just a few months after Germany and France signed the Treaty of Aachen in which the two countries pledged to “deepen their cooperation in  matters  of  foreign  policy,  defence, external  and  internal  security,” to “strive to complete the single market,” and to “develop Europe’s efficiency, coherence and credibility in the military domain.”

Together, the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany make an alliance of four of the top ten militaries in the world, but Germany has been disappointing its allies lately.  Germany has long been content to allow its allies to defend it, perhaps out of a certain pacifism born from the trauma of the Second World War, but those allies are becoming increasingly begrudging of what President Trump might call “freeloading.” Germany must reconsider its current timidity, especially as its traditional allies in the West retract and potentially hostile giants stir in the East. Although Germany feels that it is defending the moral high ground, but perhaps it is better described as selective moralism. Germany should focus on strengthening its military and building EU capacities and contributions instead of looking down from its own high ground.

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.

Emily Downs

Development Intern

Ms. Emily Downs was a Development Intern at AICGS for the Spring of 2019. As an intern, Ms. Downs assists with the Institute's fundraising initiatives, manages the outreach database, contributes to the AICGS website, provides research assistance, and supports event organization and coordination. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and German at Hope College, Holland, MI, and is scheduled to graduate in May 2019. Before coming to AICGS, she spent five months studying in Freiburg, Germany in 2018. Ms. Downs is interested in German-American relations, European Union politics, secularization, and European integration.