Why Germany Isn’t Picking Up More of NATO’s Tab

One of the great strains on NATO is the question of who’s paying how much for what. But that’s not a new problem. Almost as long as the alliance has been around – 69 years – there’s been arguing over the bills. Germany has been a particular target of late, with the United States calling on the economic powerhouse to pay up. Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers some needed perspective.



[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to war college. I’m Jason Fields and I’m Matthew Gault. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization otherwise known as Naito is nearly 70 years old. It was created after World War II during the Cold War it faced off against a Soviet led bloc called the Warsaw Pact. Now many of those Warsaw Pact nations are part of NATO. The United States is tugging at the threads of the alliance. President Trump is accusing allies of freeloading off the United States. So what’s the real state of NATO. Kathleen Hicks is here to help us get to the bottom of it. She’s the director of International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks for joining us. Happy to be here. If we can just start off with the most basic thing of all what is NATO’s central mission. Sure. Well first on NATO as you said was formed at the end of World War 2. So in its earliest origins it did have a strong focus on bringing Europe in a united way and to a more liberal or democratic period of time following the destruction of Europe during World War Two because of the evolution of the Soviet Union as a as an enemy. It quickly found itself focused on ensuring that no foreign outside power in Russia was the most obvious one it might threaten it could could come into Europe and disrupt that new era of growth and prosperity and democratic freedom. So today looking back 70 years. It maintains that focus on a Europe that is whole and free if you will.


[00:01:42] That is not able to be have its sovereignty impinge upon from the outside and it isn’t done in a transatlantic unity with the United States and Canada focused on the freedom and security of Europe. NATO has evolved to have a couple purposes beyond the security of Europe itself and that is to obviously have its self self-defence element. You hear a lot of talk about that which is both defense of Europe but defense of any member nation. So it came into play on 9/11 when the United States was attacked that is the one and only time that NATO has invoked the mutual self defense approach and it provided NATO countries are NATO itself provided capabilities to theU.S. And then as we saw in Afghanistan where NATO was engaged as part of theU.S. with a NATO led mission but a part of aU.S. Beguine mission. It has the ability and the mission to build a collective security outside the borders of Europe. That’s actually interesting if you’re talking about Afghanistan. You’re talking that Emel seems like carte blanche to work anywhere around the world now. So right. Well it has to be agreed upon. It’s a there’s 29 members of NATO. So it has to be a carte blanche that 29 countries believe it’s within that strategic concept of protection. And again the Afghanistan mission was an outgrowth of 9/11 it was attacked was a response to an attack on the United States.


[00:03:12] So it invoked Article 5 and then the mission that followed theU.S. led mission that became a NATO mission in Afghanistan really was a follow on to that sense that a member had been attacked and the source of the attack in that kind of case Osama bin Laden hadn’t had received safe haven from the government of Afghanistan and so that was sort of the wording of the Afghanistan mission. It’s generally speaking pretty hard to get NATO members to find a compelling reason like that. And Afghanistan is a pretty singular example. The other issue that people would point to that maybe is more questionable if you will is the Libya operation where NATO undertook an operation to protect civilians after there was unrest following Gadhafi ouster from power and that led ultimately not not by NATO’s hand but to the internal toppling if you will of Khadafi and then NATO didn’t follow that with with a plan for stabilizing the country and so many people would point to Libya as an example where NATO maybe did get a little further out of its mission space. But it did it under this view in its own view about protecting civilians and viewed that as part of its mission. That that raises one other question for me which is in the case of Libya not all NATO countries participated right there. The French and British were the primary actors a firm member correctly and so in the case of any NATO mission other than let’s say perhaps the invasion of Europe by Russia something super dramatic like that are NATO countries compelled to contribute to defense or missions like this. I think this is one of the hardest things to understand about how the treaty is set up and then how it’s executed the way the treaty is fallacy NATO is set up to be a member. You have signed up by virtue of being a member to contributing.


[00:05:21] So there is an expectation when you are accepted as a member that you are going to contribute. So you know it’s not a compelling in the way people think in terms of enforcement mechanism and I’ll come back to how Nito operationalize it. But it is it is the grounding principle upon which people the different countries become members is that they will contribute. And every in the realities every Nito nation contributes in some way and today’s terms we often talk about that in three ways cost and capability and contribution meaning contributions of military personnel. So for me going back to the Afghanistan example you’ll see many countries that maybe can’t spend as much as others or choose not to spend as much but they are contributing forces on the ground or you’ll see in the case of capabilities. Maybe they are needy a country or if the Libya example points out maybe they’re a country that has advanced aircraft or intelligence assets and so they can contribute those capabilities so that there are different ways in which to contribute. But there is absolutely grounding expectation in the treaty that all nations who are parties to the treaty are contributing to this. This idea that a country needs to push to contribute 2 percent of its GDP or spend 2 percent of its GDP on its military. It is not kind of a hard and fast rule of NATO than. No it’s not. What happened to get to what people hear these days is the 2 percent which is about spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is several years ago and in particular in the context of coming out of Afghanistan.


[00:07:16] There was this question it was about what was the purpose of NATO. Right. We had at that point we know there was a general view that Russia wasn’t much of a problem. We were coming out of this you know would seem to be a successful use of the NATO alliance to support one of its members the United States in a mission military mission in Afghanistan. But we were at that point drawing down significantly in Afghanistan. And this is roughly 2014 you see NATO try to start having an internal conversation about what it means to contribute because during Afghanistan what it meant to contribute was are you sending capabilities and people to Afghanistan. And are you when others are sending capabilities and people in Afghanistan maybe your country that’s providing security inside Europe while others are away. That’s that had been the contact so coming out of that the question came well you know we didn’t have Russia invading Ukraine at that point. What what is the purpose now on how do we think about it and the general view was well what we know we know is that the military know military capabilities will be important in the future. We know we believe in the alliance collectively as a force for common security. So how do we lay down a measure for what we all do and they came up with internally this idea of 2 percent of GDP as a way to keep member states engaged on defense issues and their own domestic contacts and thinking ahead to how to transform if you will capabilities for future missions.


[00:08:54] And the way it was said is a pledge that came out of the Wales summit in 2014 is NATO states shall have as a goal to reach 2 percent. And I believe the year 2022 of their GDP and it was one of several different so-called investment pledges made by member states. And then enter the 2016 presidential election cycle in the United States. And it builds upon frustration from the Obama cycle. The Obama team about burden sharing and kind of took off as a singular focus of energy around this discussion of burden sharing. So what’s going on right now with President Trump in most recent Nietos summit was very loud is not actually new. It’s not new. There had been as they said coming out of that Weils summit and in the ensuing years the Obama first Volp burden sharing has always been an issue. And it was very prominent in the 1980s coming from the Democrats actually in the United States after the end of the Cold War and the view of a desire for peace Devon and there was a heavy emphasis on making sure Europe the Europeans were bearing their fair share. And it’s never Lusca an issue. The 2 percent it became an issue during the Obama years because that’s when NATO adopted it as a measure or as a ball. And so there when Bob Gates left as secretary defense I believe that 2012 he gave a pretty searing speech on the need for a NATO country other than theU.S. to pick up more of the share of burden and then that theme was carried on even after he left inside the Obama administration. So it was it was. When it came around to the 2016 election cycle was hitting pretty fertile soil inside the United States as a starting point.


[00:10:59] What became unusual in the 2016 cycle was it became the talking point. And it it was neck it was no longer a part of the overall conversation about the mutual benefit of security. And then the need to have burden sharing it just became about burden sharing. So what would happen if the US decided to leave Nito does Neeta exist without the United States. It doesn’t. It was you know of aU.S. led effort. It’s very much about transatlantic crossing the Atlantic theU.S. and Canada with Europe without the United States. You have what already exists. You know and except Canada which is the EU and the EU has a security element but it has always been built in a way that is complementary to NATO and focused for instance on things like border security Teligent but not on military capabilities. And what you have seen in the last few years in particular has is there is a growth in interest within Europe if you will as a hedge to the United States potentially either pulling out of NATO or not being interested in NATO in using the EU mechanisms as a way to develop collective approaches. If you pull it down does the US actually foot the bill for the defense in Europe. Is that accurate to say or is that an overstatement. Definitely an overstatement. The United States does spend more on defense than than any other country in the world in in large part that is because we have a global economic and security footprint that we’re looking to advance.


[00:12:48] So that part’s true and it is true that part of that security investment that you know the largest in the world you can you can think about as focused in part on mutual security interests with Europe whether that be Europe itself or other other parts of the world where we’re looking to advance economic and security interests. That said the second largest spender in the world on security is Europe. If you take these small states and add them up they’re spending more collectively than Russia. And so you know it’s cutting off our nose to spite our face if you will too to try to alienate them when they in fact are making a significant collective investment. And together we are quite strong. So there’s no way to really break down theU.S. spending I know that the president has used some figures but you really can’t break down what is theU.S. spending in defense of Europe as opposed to what is theU.S. spending in it to advance its own interests globally. That’s nearly impossible to do. But what you can say is that the Europeans are themselves investing quite a bit as well and if we work together on our interests whether those are in Europe or elsewhere we have a lot more sway than if we’re divided what do you see as Germany’s role. In NATO or generally yes indeed in need specifically what is what is Germany’s role in NATO. Yes. So I think you know again it’s easy to lose sight of history that coming out of World War Two that the antagonist in the European context for World War 2 was not Soviet Union. It was Germany.


[00:14:32] And so part of the origin of Neeta was about what people say colloquially is keeping Germany down keeping Russia out and keeping theU.S. in Georgia and the keeping Germany down part was incredibly important to its neighbors and at the time the United States because Germany had shown a propensity to two world wars to use military power in an expansionist nationalistic expansionist way the very design of NATO and the way theU.S. led approach to West Germany developed it as an economy and as a nation really a very small investment footprint into its military for these reasons. An obvious parallel to that is the same thing we did with Japan. So both Germany and Japan grew through the Cold War in their economic side in their embrace of democracy. Moving away from nationalistic approaches but we essentially kept you down. In both cases their military power. So here we are 70 years later and there’s this now reversed dynamic I think going on where everyone looks at that or some are looking at that and are now quite frustrated with Germany for not picking up its fair share on defense. And they do understand they are not in good shape. Their forces are not ready. So they’re not meeting the 2 percent. When I say they’re underspending but I think it’s unfair to point to that without pointing to the incentive structure we created ourselves for them and for very good reasons historically grounded reasons. So the Germans know they have a problem in terms of their defense quality and capability. They are moving in the right direction. They’re increasing spending in some ways. They were hurt if you will by having their economy do better than projected.


[00:16:35] So that means that their per cent of GDP on defence is growing more slowly than it would if their economy were doing worse. So that’s a perverse incentive right there. So part. In other words part of the Germany problem is that they’re strong economically. And so they are kind of marching up a pathway to get to 2 percent which was which was the Wales summit agreement not to be it today but to be there in the 2020. And so now their focus I think has turned to how to build up real capability on the ground in the air and on the sea under the sea by giving themselves capability benchmarks to meet in the near term that will be very hard for them to achieve. But I think they have the right goals for themselves because this really does show how old the alliances that the role of Germany and how people view Germany has changed so dramatically. You know from keeping them down to wishing they would spend more on defense I guess is a very dramatic thing. But over the course of 70 years I guess it’s not that surprising. I think that’s right and I think what may be jolting for for all involved is how that shift in perspective has come relatively recently and it takes any country to put aside that it’s Germany. You know somebody who looks a lot of defense institution building and democracies you know you you you have to train an entire generation to that to kultury to that new mindset. So for instance if you to ask the Germans five six years ago why do you have military forces. What are they designed to do in the German domestic context.


[00:18:20] There is not an answer to that. They don’t say oh Russia is a threat. This is what we designed to. This is why we have military forces. That is counterproductive in their domestic context because they have been raised on a view that they have a Storck background that is regrettable to say the least and that military force may be a necessity for self-protection but that’s about all that they focus on. Now you’re trying to get them to think much more strategically about what are those capabilities we need in order to fulfill our portion of you know keeping the Russians for instance away from Eastern European nations from protecting for protecting our borders to the south from even contemplating being an overseas missions as part of a NATO or EU construct. That’s just a very different way to look at things that have to hit a domestic you know a constitutionally based in Mesic context that is completely unprepared for it. So I think they’ve actually been making admirable progress. I’m not important foundational shift culturally. And then the funding piece will will flow from that is happening later than it should have. But again I don’t necessarily think that’s Germany’s fault. I think the expectations on Germany have shifted relatively suddenly given where we were you know throughout the history of the Cold War. And again just to stress it’s not just 70 years ago. Go back to 1989 the fall the Berlin Wall and the concern that maybe listeners won’t remember this the extreme concern about reuniting Germany at that time and the fear that neighbors had that a reunited Germany would be a powerful Germany that could threaten its neighbors.


[00:20:11] So that was you know even less time ago which we were trying to make all concerned including the Russians understand that Germany would not be a threat to the security of Europe nor to than than the the members of the Soviet Union. That was nice and I knew why. I’m sorry. You know Germany is just in an odd historical point right now and I think the question is can the relationship endure through this period which I think it will so that we kind of come out on the other side. Germany on the on the right track next year. Well inside Europe that Poland free let’s cast our as some other countries if we can. Do you think NATO cares whether a country has a functioning democracy. I’m looking specifically at Poland and Turkey when I think about that question. I think Nito cares for sure. It is a history of less than democratic countries being inside NATO. Turkey obviously Portugal. So we have to stop with those examples. It is a big concern and I think the question is what can you what are the levers you have to do something about it. Here’s where I think understanding the role of the European Union the EU is important because a lot of those tools for norms establishment for a holding feet to the fire in democratic processes and the economic implications are are particularly strongly executed through the EU as opposed to through NATO.


[00:21:45] But NATO does have a role to play in terms of the institution building of the appropriate role of military in society and making sure that the military arm that the NATO that the Europe project stays in line with the other pieces of that project namely the democracy focus and the economic focus. So it’s a concern it’s not unprecedented to have countries that are struggling with democracy but it could become obviously could become problematic if there is a true you know right turn that for far left turn that creates much more totalitarian societies than is tolerable within Naito if we could stick with Turkey for just a second because it’s not just a matter of democracy. There’s also what appears at least. And you can tell us whether it is a conflict of interest in Syria where Turkey has very specific security concerns with the Kurds whereas the United States and other parties have actually been arming the Kurds and trying to get them to fight Islamic State and Assad. Do you think something like that is actually serious or it’s just a blip between allies. The way I would approach that is that if you look at Syria more broadly every sort of major trend we’re seeing in the world geopolitical environment has played out inside Syria. You’ve named one that’s important and I want sidestepped that. Do want to put it inside this context that you know there are many many fathers to disaster in Syria. The central player is of course Assad himself. But theU.S. Russia relationship obviously is playing out there the differences as you’re pointing out of allied interests. Then there’s the differences between those who are on the outside whether they’re NATO countries or Arab states and the views on the ground of the Syrian opposition elements. You know there are just many many things going on there.


[00:23:56] One aspect of that is that there is a difference of viewpoint on how you view the Kurdish group and their role inside Syria. But also in a at inside of rock because there are there are Kurd Kurdish national groups in Iraq and inside Syria. And then there is a separate group inside Turkey that is of concern to the Turks. And there is some difference of viewpoint in how the Turks won in the West might to conflate these groups on the Turkish side say how the United and others might be ignoring the ties between these groups who were separatists from the Turks point of view. So yeah that is definitely playing out is the stress on the relationship. But there are a lot of stresses in the relationship almost too numerous to count between Turkey and its particularly Western European andU.S. allies Russia Turkey connection. I think it’s another the way in which Turkey has absorbed Turkey has absorbed over a million refugees coming out of Syria. So it has taken borne did brunt of the refugee crisis of NATO countries. So that’s created its own blowback but you know there’s no doubt the divide a viewpoint over the future of the Kurds or how to how to deal with the Kurds as an actor inside Syria is one of those elements that creates strain in the relationship. Well then if we can bring this all home as we are as we’re looking at NATO as a whole do you think it still has room to grow. Or do you think it’s kind of at max capacity right now. Well you know there’s other countries on that border with Russia that would like to join. Is the point of contention.


[00:25:54] There’s no reason today to grow NATO. It is. There may be a point in future. I don’t think that NATO could never grow again. Right. Because of the strain being put on it right now to just to make sure that it has the capability to defend the eastern front that’s where the focus needs to be. You know that doesn’t mean other countries shouldn’t be on a path to eventual NATO membership. I think there is a value to that in the long term in terms of thinking about how to secure Europe more fully. But there’s no doubt that the Russians have forced upon the US in Europe a conversation about its future and how the country’s on its periphery play into the navigation of the EuropeanU.S. European and Russian futures. And so the focus for now I think is appropriately on those partner nations such as Ukraine making sure that they have support from NATO as for instance the United States has been providing begun providing some lethal assistance to help them defend themselves against Russian aggression. But for Naito the focus is really first and foremost on making sure it can succeed in defending its own territory. You know that actually brings up just one final question for me if you have the time yet. Final question I have is is NATO in good enough shape at this moment to carry out its mission in case something horrible happened and war broke out with Russia I see. I think so. Yeah absolutely.


[00:27:44] The you know the biggest question is the geographic advantage that Russia has if it wanted to do sort of you know was just might think of the blitzkrieg analogy sort of a fait accompli as what most people refer to it today a kind of a quick grab of some NATO territory because they are approaching quite proximate across the border and have very strong internal lines they can move forces across Russia much more quickly than multiple different countries on an on the western side of the border can move across multiple borders. So I think the question is the time and energy and effort it takes to dislodge that as opposed to being able to prevent that that’s really where the debate is there would I think NATO is quite capable. I don’t wish to sound outlandish but it is also a nuclear capable alliance and there is a deterrent value to nuclear weapons. So I think it’s quite shown itself quite capable to deter Russia from wanting to think that’s a good idea. But even if Russia were to do some kind of land snatch I’m quite confident that the United States and its NATO allies would be able to dislodge that over time and in a way that would be for Russia quite expensive in blood treasure and time. Kathleen Hicks thank you so much for joining us and taking us through all this. You’re most welcome. It was it was a challenging tour de force across Europe and I appreciate you I appreciate you giving me the time. Absolutely thank you again. Thanks. Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it please leave review even if it’s just a post it note on your mom’s fridge. Transcripts of recent shows are now available at War College podcast dot com.


[00:29:38] And we’re always happy to hear from you on Twitter Atwar underscore college or Facebook dot com slash war college podcast War Colleges is me Jason Fields and Matthew Gault. We will be back next week.


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