“The Germans are either at your feet or at your throat,” wrote the Roman historian Tacitus 2,000 years ago. Sadly, that axiom is not just ancient history. In the last century, Germany started two world wars, caused the death and suffering of tens of millions, and was responsible for the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. Now Germany refuses to build a military commensurate with its economic power and is even reluctant to use the military that it has. Its political leaders must address these serious shortcomings and, even more importantly, lead their country out of its pervasive pacifist culture.
NATO member countries agreed to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. In 2016, America spent 3.6 percent and the European Union 1.4 percent. Germany’s 1.2 percent spending fell below the already-low European average. In contrast, Russia spent 5 percent, France 1.8 percent, and Poland, the United Kingdom and Estonia 2 percent each. NATO is now confronted by a newly aggressive Russia. But Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, most populous country and its political leader, is relying on America to defend its homeland.
German underspending on defense has serious consequences. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen admitted in 2014 that equipment shortages were so serious that her country could not meet all of its NATO commitments. Lt. Gen. Bruno Kasdorf, inspector of the Army, warned in 2015 that the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are 30 percent underequipped. And according to a confidential report leaked in February 2015, Germany’s NATO task force would have faced serious problems if called to intervene abroad: It was short 40 percent of its P8 pistols, 30 percent of its MG 3 machine guns, and 76 percent of its night vision gear.
Equipment maintenance is also poor and it affects preparedness. Last year, the Bundeswehr had ready for action only half of its Leopard 2 battle tanks, a fifth of its NH90 transport helicopters, and a third of its Eurofighter jets.
Germany’s pacifist culture shapes not just military spending but also the use of the armed forces. Germany’s postwar constitution restricts the use of the Bundeswehr to the defense of the homeland, but later interpretations permit its use abroad as part of a multilateral force. Since 1992, Germany has been involved in 60 U.N. and NATO humanitarian or peacekeeping operations in Europe, Africa and Asia. But almost all of these missions involved just contributing equipment and a small number of troops.
The Bundeswehr’s only combat missions have been in Kosovo and Afghanistan. When Germany re-established its military in 1955 after the profound national trauma of World War II, it vowed that “never again” will it start wars. But faced with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Germany adjusted this doctrine to “never again Auschwitz,” meaning that it cannot remain uninvolved when atrocities are committed. In their first combat role since World War II, German troops fought in the 1990s as part of the NATO-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. They have also been fighting in Afghanistan after America invoked NATO’s Article 5 on collective defense following Sept. 11.
This is admirable, but not enough. The German people have accepted their collective guilt for the horrors of Nazi Germany, have made reparations, and have built a thoroughly democratic state. As a result, they are no longer feared by their neighbors. The feelings of those neighbors were perfectly expressed last year by former Polish Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz: “For centuries, our main worry in Poland was a very strong German army. Today, we’re seriously worried about German armed forces that are too weak.”
Seventy years after the end of World War II, Germany must not become a larger version of Switzerland. The Bundeswehr’s current involvement in Afghanistan, while helpful, involves too few troops, is limited to the quieter northern part of the country, and consists mostly of nation-building, police work and military training. And its current involvement in the fight against ISIS in Syria is restricted to providing weapons and training to the Kurds.
Germany’s political class needs to find the courage to increase military spending to at least 2 percent. Defense Minister von der Leyen, a rising start in the Christian Democratic Union, is in favor. So is CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel, albeit over time. But her chief electoral rival in this year’s elections, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, plans to abandon the 2 percent goal if elected. “I don’t think this spiraling arms buildup makes sense,” he said.
Germany’s politicians must also convince their fellow citizens that love of peace often means confronting evil with military force. Appeasement does not prevent wars, only postpones them, as proved by Neville Chamberlain’s shameful Munich agreement in 1938 and Barack Obama’s Syria red line disgrace in 2013.
From across time, Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” who unified Germany in the 1800s, offers wise advice. He warned his countrymen to expect “conflicts that we could not avoid, even though we do not seek them.” And he advocated a strong military to face them because “a conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.”
• Dan Negrea is a New York private equity investor.