This is Biden’s chance to press Scholz on Germany’s rearmament

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Biden at a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 7, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Biden at a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 7, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to the White House on Friday could be just another routine meeting between allies. Instead, President Biden should use the event to press for something riskier but more consequential: firm dates for Germany’s oft-announced rearmament plans.

Germany is Europe’s economic powerhouse, but it is a military weakling. In the post-Cold War era, it allowed its once-powerful forces to atrophy, with its forces shrinking from more than 500,000 in 1990 to less than 200,000 in 2021. Its defense spending also plummeted from 2.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 1989 to around 1.5 percent in 2021. Years of underinvestment in equipment has left the Bundeswehr severely unready to fight. The situation was so bad that the German military chief openly lamented the weakness of his forces when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Scholz, in a surprising speech shortly after the invasion, promised this would change. Describing the invasion was a “Zeitenwende” — a turning point — he pledged that Germany would spend 100 billion euros to rebuild its military. That figure would be supplemented by raising his country’s ongoing defense expenditures to 2 percent of GDP, the minimum agreed to among NATO members.

Western reaction was largely ecstatic. One of NATO’s biggest nations outside the United States was finally acknowledging its obligations to its neighbors and treaty allies. German power would help contain Russian ambitions, allowing the United States to pivot its focus toward Asia while ensuring NATO’s continued viability.

But a year later, virtually nothing has been done to fulfill these lofty ambitions. Not one penny of the vaunted 100 billion euros has been spent on the needed equipment upgrades and purchases. Germany’s defense minister intends to spend only 8.5 billion of that amount this year. Moreover, the government also has yet offer a firm date for reaching the 2 percent of GDP spending level, instead vaguely offering that it expects to do so by 2025 when its parliamentary mandate expires. So much for a revitalized NATO.

Biden needs to impress upon Scholz that this is unacceptable. The United States cannot afford to provide the bulk of conventional defense forces for Europe while also containing a burgeoning threat from China. Something has to give, and the Pacific is too important to U.S. strategic interests for Biden to prioritize Europe. Germany must step up — and quickly.

Diplomacy is characterized by words, but it is ultimately enabled by deeds. Biden has a panoply of carrots and sticks that he can employ to push Scholz to fulfill his commitments. He needs to firmly inform the chancellor that the United States is willing to use these tools to help or punish Germany, depending on its decision.

Biden can offer a huge carrot by pledging to revise the subsidies for electric vehicle production included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. The European Union is furious that the law punishes electric vehicles and batteries produced in Europe and exported to the United States by excluding them from the generous subsidies it offers EV buyers. Biden should link subsidies for European-produced EVs and components to firm dates by which Germany will fulfill its rearmament pledges.

Scholz will likely find this appealing, as Germany is Europe’s automotive manufacturing hub and the source of much of Europe’s exports to the United States. A recent survey of German corporate executives found that many are considering relocating production to the United States to take advantage of U.S. subsidies. Industrial workers remain a key base of support for Scholz’s Social Democratic Party. Keeping those jobs in Germany in exchange for higher defense spending would be a hard offer for him to turn down.

Biden should also imply that failure to commit to defense spending targets could lead to further measures that would impact German businesses. Biden has pledged that much of his increased domestic spending would comply with a “Buy American” agenda. Suppose Biden proposed requiring entities that receive federal dollars from Medicare and Medicaid to purchase pharmaceuticals and medical devices from U.S. sources. That could cripple Germany’s vibrant export market in these sectors. Moving U.S. troops based in Germany to Poland or Romania would also remove billions of dollars a year from its economy.

Hopefully, such actions would not be necessary. Biden is the best friend Europe and Germany can expect to have in the White House for the foreseeable future. Republicans increasingly feel disconnected from the European elite that disdains their values. Plus, many younger Democrats do not share Biden’s visceral, Cold War-era Atlanticism. Working with Biden now to deepen U.S.-German military and economic ties ensures his successor can’t easily change course.

America’s security is inextricably linked to a strong and vibrant NATO, but a strong Germany is necessary to make that viable. Biden needs to impress that fact upon Scholz and then act accordingly.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Thomas W. Smith distinguished scholar in residence at Arizona State University for the winter/spring 2023 semester.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *