Germany Discusses Security and Defense Policy—Silly Season or Real Change?

Blog | August 15, 2018

A spectre is haunting Germany: the spectre of defense policy. Normally, Germany is the country whose public—and even substantial parts of the political establishment—reject anything remotely military-looking. Germany spends only 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense, far below the recommended two percent NATO goal. Many of its universities adhere to the “civil clause” a pledge which forbids military-relevant research at universities and bars members of the German military to even enter universities (such as in the context of information events or panel debates). It is a country in which only eight years ago a President had to resign over comments that the Bundeswehr might need to be deployed to defend Germany’s interest, including economic ones.

And yet, this summer, not one but two defence-relevant topics are front and center: the debate on whether conscription should be reintroduced, and the question of whether Germany needs a nuclear bomb. Is this the silly season or is something more fundamental happening?

Revival of the German military service?

Until 2011, Germany had a national military service of six-to-nine months length, which could either be done in the military or replaced by civilian service. Criticized as unnecessary, too expensive or unfair, the service was put in abeyance in July 2011. However, a recent poll suggests that a majority of Germans support the idea of some kind of national service (though there is no majority for reintroducing the old "Wehrdienst"). In Germany, this debate is in its early stages. But elsewhere in Europe, such as in Sweden and France, conscription has already been reintroduced in different forms.

A German bomb?

The debate on a German nuclear bomb was started by a front-page article in the Welt on July 29, written by German political science professor Christian Hacke. He argued that, as the U.S. under Donald Trump is becoming an increasingly unreliable partner, Germany needs to consider guaranteeing its own nuclear deterrence. He is not the first to argue this point; when Trump was elected in 2016, the editor of the biggest conservative newspaper in Germany had made a similar argument, and a Member of Parliament asked the parliamentary research service to look into options for Germany to share France’s or the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons.

Silly season or wind of change?

Whether the debate about reintroducing conscription will survive the summer remains to be seen, but both this and the debate about the German bomb need to be taken seriously.

To be clear, Germany will not get a nuclear weapon. It would mean leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which would place it alongside North Korea, the only country to have done so), it could even lead to a renegotiation of the 2+4 treaty that allowed for German reunification. Acquiring a nuclear weapon would also require a substantial financial investment, which the German public would not be willing to make. In fact, Germany is closing down all its nuclear power plants as Germans reject the technology, so it is inconceivable that Germany could acquire nuclear weapons.

In part, the two debates may have been fuelled by a way-too-hot German summer. But this goes beyond silly season. Germany finds itself in the worst security dilemma since it “rejoined” the west in the 1950s by becoming a member of NATO and the European Union (EU). Germany’s defence capabilities are insufficient, lapidated by decades of underinvestment and public disinterest. Today, owing to the Trump Administration’s policies, the British exit from the EU, a resurgent Russia, and the generally deteriorating global security situation, the German public are now quickly awakening to new realities that may require difficult decisions that will shape Germany’s security future. Unfortunately, the German public and political realm is out of practice when it comes to defense and security debates. They tend to adopt too emotive a response (as was the case with regard to the German drone debate) and are too often ill-informed.

Germany should use the summer break to refamiliarize itself with questions of security and defense policy. Not in order to design German strategies, but because Germany is needed in Europe in this context. The 2016 EU Global Strategy outlines a vision for a European Strategic Autonomy which would mean an EU able to act independently from the U.S. in at least some contexts. It is time for Germany to be part of this debate.

Ulrike Franke is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and part of ECFR’s New European Security Initiative. She works on German and European security and defense, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies, such as drones and artificial intelligence. She tweets @RikeFranke.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

Photo: "Flugshow der Bundeswehr" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Lutz Blohm