If you can’t rely on your friends, then who can you rely on? That’s turning into one of the central questions facing the German government as relations with the Trump White House grow testier.
But, amid campaigning for September 24 elections, it’s also opening up questions about diplomatic policy, German defence spending and the country’s obsession with budget controls.
The debate was best encapsulated by Chancellor Angela Merkel when she told an audience in a tent on May 28 that she saw the nature of the relationship between Germany – and by extension Europe – and the United States changing in light of Donald Trump’s presidency and Britain’s push towards Brexit.
“The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that’s what I’ve experienced in recent days,” she said days after a bitter G7 summit.
“For that reason, I can only say: We Europeans really have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Since then, Europe watchers have been trying to puzzle out what it could all mean for Germany’s international relations.
“Her statement was just common sense,” says Christian Moelling, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s the nature and manner of the way the chancellor says something. She doesn’t make a big fuss. She’s just stating the obvious.”
Moelling says the subtext is that Germany cannot focus just on its economic muscle and assume allies will provide defence.
But getting Germans to understand that more military spending is necessary will be tough.
To some Germans, the military is a source of embarrassment, not pride, due to scandals about faulty equipment and right-wing sympathisers among the forces.
On top of that, after Germany’s defeat in World War II, pacificism was baked into the German culture.
“You don’t change a strategic culture overnight. After World War II, the allies taught Germany how to behave properly in diplomatic relations: How not to be that loony from the Third Reich,” notes Claudia Major, an expert in international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Tomas Valasek, the director of Carnegie Europe and a former Nato representative for Slovakia, agrees.
“They are dealing with an historic burden which is not just an empty talking point.
Countries around Germany are still nervous,” he said.
“The idea that an economic giant should become a military one is too much to handle.”
Additionally, Germans might see any move to beef up German defence spending as giving in to Trump, and one that, if done improperly, would add relatively little defence value, argues Major.
Trump has made a point of berating the other members of the Nato alliance to meet an agreed-upon spending level equivalent to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). Only five countries have hit that target.
Germany is not one of them. Germany has unique problems hitting those figures, notes Major.
Because it has one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies, the 2% figure is ever growing.
And simply boosting spending levels would likely resolve in throwing money at projects for which Germany has no use, she notes.
But Major still notes a shift.
The world does seem more dangerous in ways and Trump’s America First policies do make Germany’s defences seem more precarious.
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