Angela Merkel Is Not the ‘Leader of the Free World’

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany during a visit to Ghana on Wednesday. Credit Felipe Trueba/European Pressphoto Agency
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany during a visit to Ghana on Wednesday. Credit Felipe Trueba/European Pressphoto Agency

When Donald Trump was elected president, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany carefully drew a line between them. She offered cooperation, but with the caveat that it should be based on Western values like, in her words, “freedom, respect for the law, and the dignity of man independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.” Such moral clarity earned her legions of fans abroad; pundits took to calling her the new “leader of the free world.”

Most of those pundits were, notably, not German. In contrast, experts familiar with Germany’s strategic culture — or lack thereof — were skeptical about whether the German government could follow through on what it meant to actually lead the free world. Words and vision, after all, aren’t enough if they’re not followed up with coherent policies and the diplomatic, humanitarian and military resources to implement them.

Just over a year later, with Ms. Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats eking out a coalition deal after months of inaction, the skeptics have been proven right.

It’s not that Germany and Ms. Merkel don’t recognize the pressure being placed on the liberal world order. But Europe’s leading nation is still unwilling to pay for the military hardware to help secure that order. It talks the talk, but it hardly even tries to walk the walk.

Although Germany is nowhere near the 2 percent of gross domestic product that all NATO countries have agreed to spend on defense (for Germany, about $72 billion), and despite a decaying army at home, Berlin has decided to increase military spending by just $304 million, to about $47 billion a year. “That money will melt away in maintenance, upgrades, personnel costs and inflation,” said Jan Techau, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, tried to assure attendees that Germany was prepared to increase military spending further. But with the Social Democrats who campaigned against more money for the military set to take over the finance ministry in the new government, there is little hope that this will come to pass. What’s more, the coalition agreement also demands that every additional euro spent on defense be matched by foreign development assistance, which further narrows the wiggle room to beef up the military.

To be fair, in recent years Berlin has shown more readiness to deploy its army abroad, sending it into Mali, Iraq and the Baltics. But after two decades of spending cuts, the German military has reached a breaking point. Four years ago, it drew global derision when soldiers carried broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise because of a shortage of equipment.

The situation is no better today. The German Navy is running out of ships; all but one of its submarines are grounded for lack of replacement parts. A new internal report notes that of the army’s 244 main battle tanks — already a small number — only 105 are in working order. The air force is even worse — it can put only a fourth of its small fleet of Eurofighters and Tornado jets in the air..

Germans like to say the reluctance of Berlin to pull its military weight is a reaction to the horrors of World War II and the subsequent backlash against German militarism. But many Western partners increasingly see this as an easy excuse. In a speech in Berlin in 2011, the foreign minister of Poland, Radoslaw Sikorski, remarked, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

German politicians have since acknowledged that their country needs a more serious strategic culture. But they have done very little to engage in a public debate over what that means, and how to marshal the resources and capabilities to make it happen. The country still sees itself largely as a “soft power.” In too many cases German politicians prefer moral grandstanding to discussing hard security questions.

What’s truly worrisome is that none of this is happening in a vacuum. American leadership is in question, while Russia is a growing challenge. And yet all major parties seem to be, if anything, softening in their stance against Moscow, while hardening their anti-Americanism. Gerhard Schröder, a former chancellor and still a leading voice within the Social Democrats, has become the point man for Russian interests in Germany, and his party is set to again lead the foreign ministry.

Ms. Merkel still has the right instincts when it comes to dealing with strongmen like President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but her national standing has weakened, and the heads of regional states in eastern Germany, some of them members of her own party, have advocated abolishing sanctions against Moscow. Their concern? Economic relations with Russia. Germany’s default position still seems to be that of a mercantile republic that trades with everyone and lets strategic matters be handled mostly by others.

At the Munich conference, the French defense minister, Florence Parly, said that “the Germans are not going to become French” — a way of saying that France is a serious country with a robust and ambitious strategic culture — and Germany is not.

For Germans, that stings, because we know it’s true. We like to hear that our chancellor is the leader of the free world. But we’re happy to let other countries do the actual work. We’re not coming to the rescue.

Clemens Wergin is the Washington bureau chief for Die Welt.

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