German Defense Spending Is Falling Even Shorter. The U.S. Isn’t Happy.

By Katrin Bennhold


The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, with German soldiers last October in Norway.CreditCreditJonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images



BERLIN — Germany, which had already announced that it will fall significantly short of NATO’s defense spending goals, annoying the United States, risks provoking Washington further by failing to reach even its own slimmed-down target.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government had a falling-out with the Trump administration last year when it said that, despite signing a commitment to work toward spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024, its target would instead be 1.5 percent.

Now, projected spending levels are expected to fall below even that lower path in a three-year budget plan due to be announced on Wednesday, portending another confrontation with Washington.

The timing could not be worse, with NATO preparing to celebrate its 70th anniversary in Washington in April.

Mr. Trump’s resentment toward European allies he perceives to be coasting on America’s security guarantee is well known, and recent reports that Washington is considering billing allies for hosting American troops has further shaken the alliance.

Even in Europe, some diplomats in neighboring countries privately complain that Germany’s failure to meet its commitments is putting not just its own relationship with Washington on the line, but that of the whole Continent.

Ms. Merkel insisted on Tuesday that her government could still hit the 1.5 percent target in budgets down the road. But few still believe her — least of all Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Berlin.

“NATO members clearly pledged to move toward, not away, from 2 percent by 2024,” Richard Grenell, the American ambassador to Germany, told reporters on Monday after budget numbers were first floated. “That the German government would even be considering reducing its already unacceptable commitments to military readiness is a worrisome signal to Germany’s 28 NATO allies.”

With Mr. Trump calling the European Union a “foe” and NATO “obsolete,” trans-Atlantic relations have been badly strained for some time.

But in recent months, the tone has become openly hostile, especially between the United States and Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

Mr. Grenell has demanded that Berlin scrap Nord Stream 2, a planned gas pipeline from Russia, or risk possible sanctions for the companies involved; stop German companies from doing business in Iran, or risk restrictions on doing business in the United States; and ban a Chinese company from building a new communications network, or risk losing access to some intelligence sharing.

The threats have not gone down well in Berlin, with one German politician this week even demanding Mr. Grenell’s immediate expulsion for interfering in Germany’s sovereign affairs, although that is unlikely to happen.

“Any U.S. diplomat who acts like a high commissioner of an occupying power must learn that our tolerance also knows its limits,” said Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the opposition Free Democrats.

The Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s center-left coalition partner, have put Mr. Trump’s scowling oversize face on a campaign poster ahead of European parliamentary elections with the caption: “Trump? Europe is the answer.”



Mr. Stoltenberg with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.CreditAndreas Gebert/Reuters


But even some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest critics say that Germany’s failure to live up to its NATO spending commitments has given a hollow ring to the country’s vocal defense of the international order.

“You can’t have it both ways,” said Julianne Smith, a former adviser to the Obama administration who is currently in Berlin as a senior fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.

“You can’t at every turn stress the importance of multilateralism and keep it as the foundation of German foreign policy,” Ms. Smith said, “and then renege on the commitments you’ve made to multilateral institutions like the NATO alliance.”

“I appreciate that Donald Trump has made it more difficult,” she added. “It’s become a liability to stand shoulder to shoulder with this guy.”

But she and others point out that Germany had committed to moving toward the 2 percent target long before Mr. Trump’s election — most memorably in 2014, shortly after Russia annexed part of Ukraine.

“Any German who frames this as bending to Trump’s wishes is missing the broader point,” Ms. Smith said of NATO’s 2 percent target.

German officials point out that in absolute terms, German military spending has increased for five straight years, up 36 percent, and that Germany is NATO’s second-biggest contributor of funds and troops. They say that a fair measurement of a country’s contribution to NATO should take account of wider factors, including foreign aid spending and the rate of economic growth.

Given the size of Germany’s economy and years of consistently high economic growth, 2 percent of G.D.P., some also argue, was a fast-moving target — and one hard to meet in a short period of time.

But many security experts have questioned that argument.

“We are just not credible anymore,” said Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “First we said 2 percent, but we didn’t really mean it. Then we said 1.5 percent, and it turns out we didn’t really mean that either.”

Defense spending is still on course to increase next year, rising from 1.35 percent of G.D.P. this year to 1.37 percent next year, finance ministry officials said. But by 2023, according to the latest budget figures, it is expected to be back at 1.25 percent.

The latest trans-Atlantic conflict is in part rooted in Germany’s domestic politics.

The finance minister, Olaf Scholz, who drafted the new budget plan, is a member of the Social Democrats, the center-left coalition partner of Ms. Merkel’s Conservatives. Ahead of a string of European and regional elections this year, the Social Democrats, whose poll ratings have plummeted in recent years, are eager to distinguish themselves by giving priority to social spending over defense.

Some political leaders like Michael Grosse-Brömer, the conservative caucus whip, said that Parliament was expected to approve a continuation of its current military missions in Afghanistan, Mali, South Sudan and the Mediterranean, and that Germany still intended to uphold its spending commitments to its NATO partners. But he, too, conceded that “the current plan looks somewhat different.”

One wild card is economic growth, which is set to slow in coming years, making it easier to increase defense spending as a percentage of G.D.P. The German Council of Economic Experts scaled down its growth forecast for the current and coming years to 0.8 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively, saying that “the boom years are over.”

But it is time for Germany to look beyond electoral horizons and consider defense spending in a longer-term, strategic framework, said Ms. Smith, the former Obama adviser.

“Imagine Trump left NATO tomorrow,” she said. “Imagine the investment Germany would have to make in its own and Europe’s security then.”

“This is the cheap version,” she said of the current NATO spending targets.


Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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