The United States and Germany: Partnership under Stress?

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

“Could you really defend us?” was the question at the workshop, “Germany and the United States: Partnership under Stress?” This question, while targeted at the Bundeswehr, actually reached far beyond the scope of the armed forces: what is the state of transatlantic relations and NATO? Are the Bundeswehr and NATO prepared to face the challenges of the future? The workshop, co-sponsored by AGI, the Department of Politics at the Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr (FüAkBw), and the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, covered these questions in detail.

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Original German report by Dr. Victoria Eicker

Numerous experts from a variety of German, European, and American think tanks and authorities from the U.S. administration, the Bundeswehr, and the Bundestag met at the end of March at the Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr. Niels Annen, Johannes Kahrs, and Siemtje Möller from the German Bundestag, as well as Dr. Hans Christoph Atzepodien from Bundesverband der Deutschen Sicherheits und Verteidigungsindustrie, and Rachel Ellehuus from the Center for Strategic and International Studies were among the participants in the discussion. This was the second international workshop in a series focusing on Germany’s transatlantic relationship with the United States.

The Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik (BAKS), the American-German Institute, and the new think tank of FüAkBw, the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies (GIDS), together invited guests to the event that took place on the Elbe River. After welcoming remarks from General Major Oliver Kohl, the experts engaged in a discussion during four panels under Chatham House Rules. “We are excited that so many panelists and participants have come all this way to Blankenese to talk with us,” said Brigade General Boris Nannt, the Director of Strategy and Faculties.

German-American Partnership in the Current Context

Is there a German-American crisis? “At a minimum, there is room to politically improve the relationship,” commented Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp (BAKS) in his opening remarks. Despite the unsettling climate, the panelists came to a quick consensus that the German-American partnership needs to remain reliable and stable. All in all, the participants emphasized that the common interests of both countries far outweigh the differences, which in part is covered in the current discussion. In a world where the likelihood of invoking Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, the collective defense clause, has increased, the defense capabilities and readiness of the military needs to be re-evaluated.

The participants additionally noted the difficulties in dealing with the current U.S. administration, but that nevertheless Germany and the United States have a long history of partnership and friendship. Realistically, this is not the first administration to create tension in the relationship. The demands for 2 percent of GDP to be spent on defense is not something unique to the Trump administration, but had been requested many times prior.

This topic tended to reemerge throughout every panel of the workshop. While some participants insisted that reliability was the most important factor of the alliance, others argued against a fixed number. As one participant put it, “Two percent is two cents of a Euro. What is our security really worth?” Nevertheless, it was also noted that Germany has increased engagement with security policy significantly since the annexation of Crimea. Additionally, after years of cutting defense expenditures, Germany has actually already begun to increase them, although as one participant noted “it is still too little.” One participant argued that Germany has on the other hand provided a lot of aid for refugees and stabilization projects. “Maintaining the stability and resilience of democracies is also of critical importance,” said another one of the participants. Nevertheless, another participant reiterated that Germany has committed itself to 2 percent, and “promises need to be kept.”

Read report from June conference

Maybe Germany Would Rather Not Lead?

One thing became very clear—and in particular, the international guests made a strong case that “German is too reactive. We expect a lot more from Germany.”  This demand quickly turned into concrete requests: more investment in infrastructure, more investment in the armed forces and military equipment, and more leadership. Some important steps have already been taken, such as NATO’s new Multinational Joint Headquarters in Ulm, Germany. The discussion also turned to finances and the 2 percent commitment: “If I want to make plans and purchases for the Bundeswehr, I need reliability in terms of the budget.” After all, it’s about the defense capability of the alliance, which means it’s about whether “we can really defend ourselves.”

Germany must do more because “Germany is a benchmark for many smaller allies. When Germany invests more and demands more engagement, the others follow. Germany is a wealthy country.” Although everyone agreed that Germany has already achieved much, it is also important to be more proactive. “When Germany is finally so far to have closed all existing gaps and deficits and stands on one level with other nations in NATO, it is already too far behind in its development.

Vision and Strategy

Given the great challenges of the future like artificial intelligence and emerging powers such as China, Germany would be well-advised to develop a comprehensive national strategy—and a vision. The beginning could be more transparency and honesty in the public debate: clear words from the government on defense and security issues, more honesty, and simply more strategy. “It’s time that Germany begins a strategic debate about its role in the world,” was heard, and more than once. Among other things, this includes national security strategy.

The German-American relationship in a time of stress: the consensus was that everything is still “in the green.” “We may not speak with one voice right now, but we’re united where it matters,” said a participant. Germany and the USA share a broad foundation based on values and a long friendship that cannot be destroyed so quickly. Looking to the future and taking into consideration NATO, shows that there’s still much to be done! But the homework is being done. Most importantly, “we must dialogue more with each other, including about the challenges of the future and how we want to meet them.”

The next workshop will take place in June at the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung under the auspices of the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik. The fourth and final workshop will be held in Washington by AGI, as was the opening event of this series.

Translated from German by Emily Downs and Isabella Mekker.