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Germany hopes to boost military and deterrence

February 14, 2024

Donald Trump's recent remarks about NATO have amplified calls for Germany and the EU to massively strengthen its army and fortify its own deterrence — up to and including nuclear weapons.

Olaf Scholz walking past tanks as he visits a production line at the site of new Rheinmetall artilleries plant in Unterluess, Germany February 12, 2024
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has lashed out at Donald Trump over his recent NATO remarksImage: Fabian Bimmer/AFP/Getty Images

German politicians and some sections of the media have reacted to Donald Trump's latest remarks about NATO by demanding that Germany radically boost its defense spending and even consider breaking its taboo on nuclear weapons.

Speaking at a campaign rally in South Carolina on Saturday, the former US president claimed that he had told NATO allies during his presidency that the US would not defend any country being attacked by Russia that did not "pay its bills." "In fact, I would encourage (Russia) to do whatever the hell they want," the presidential candidate said.

The speech caused many appalled German politicians to put even more pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to boost defense spending, sooner rather than later — the €100 billion ($108 billion) special fund that the chancellor announced in February 2022 notwithstanding.

Roderich Kiesewetter, defense spokesperson for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has said that this special fund should be tripled, while Andreas Schwarz, budget policy spokesperson in Scholz's own party, the Social Democrats (SPD), told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "Exempting all defense costs from the debt brake would certainly have its charm."

Europe worries about nuclear deterrence without the US

Meeting NATO's demands

But this debate is hardly new: Most experts agree that the German military needs more money. Indeed, another Social Democrat, parliamentary defense commissioner Eva Högl, said in her official report last March that the Bundeswehr needed €300 billion to meet its needs, not least because Bundeswehr supplies have been depleted in order to help arm Ukraine.

"It's just that the attention-grabbing starkness of Trump at the weekend reminded people of the stakes involved," said Rafael Loss, defense strategy specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Rheinmetall launches construction of ammunition plant

Meanwhile, Germany can say that it currently is "paying its bills," as Trump demands. Though of course, Trump's terminology is misleading: though NATO does take some direct contributions, it is not a club that member states pay membership for. Nevertheless, in 2014, NATO defense ministers agreed to commit a minimum of 2% of their country's gross domestic product (GDP) to defense. Though Germany was once lagging behind this target, it reported this week that it has met this target for the first time in three decades. The German government submitted an amount for the current year that corresponds to a sum of $73.41 billion, a record figure for Germany in absolute terms that means a GDP ratio of 2.01 percent according to the current NATO forecast.

But that is largely due to the €100 billion commitment the chancellor made two years ago — it is due to be spent by 2028, and then, some estimates say, there could be a €56-billion shortfall in Germany's annual defense budget. The answer would be to loosen the debt brake that limits public borrowing, though the CDU recently successfully took Germany to the Constitutional Court to enforce the debt brake rules.

But the Bundeswehr's problem is not so much the size of the budget — it's how it spends the money, and when. "Some of the problems we're seeing now with the special fund is that it takes time to spend such a vast amount of money," said Loss. The chancellery has said that €70 billion of the special fund is now tied up in contracts for new military aircraft, especially F-35 fighter jets and Chinook transporter helicopters.

F-35 "require a lot of attention": DW's William Glucroft

The nuclear umbrella

Meanwhile, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said recently that NATO must prepare for the possibility that Russia could attack a NATO member state in the next five to eight years.

For that reason, and especially in light of the possibility of another Trump presidency in the US, some politicians are arguing that the European Union must have its own nuclear deterrent.

France is the only EU member that currently has nuclear weapons, while three of its members — Austria, Ireland, and Malta — signed the 2020 nuclear ban treaty, which calls for their total elimination from the Earth. There are a huge range of views on nuclear weapons among the 27 EU member states.

Speaking to the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Tuesday, Katarina Barley, former cabinet minister and the SPD's leading candidate for the European elections in June, said that, given Trump's recent remarks, the prospect of European nuclear weapons "could become an issue."

EU disunity begs the question: Who would push the button? "Should it be the president of the Commission? Should it be the president of the Council? Should the European Parliament be involved? Is it a unanimous decision of all heads of government? You see the problem," said defense strategy specialist Loss.

"I literally don't see any future in which the EU in its current form would be able to provide a credible nuclear deterrent, and when you talk about nuclear deterrence it's all about credibility," he concluded.

European security: Is Germany fit for combat?

Germany's nuclear taboo

Another problem is, who would provide the EU's nuclear weapons? The French government is not currently offering to enlarge its own nuclear deterrent to cover Europe. That means that, another EU country — such as Germany — would have to acquire nuclear weapons: And again, as things stand, that also seems very unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Historically, Germany's self-imposed prohibition on nuclear weapons is tied up with the post-World-War-II order and West Germany's role in NATO defense strategy. In order to limit proliferation, the US government granted West Germany security guarantees and some role in providing the planes for delivering of nuclear weapons.

In exchange, Germany made several commitments, including in the "Two-Plus-Four" treaty on its reunification in 1990, which ensured that it would not acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons. Breaking this agreement would of course create major diplomatic problems.

"In the current context, I see no reason why Germany should acquire nuclear weapons itself, and there are good reasons not to," said ECFR analyst Loss. "It would be enormously disruptive to the global nuclear order: It could trigger proliferation in other parts of the world, and it could also expose Germany to a severe international sanctions regime. That would leave Germany in a terrible position."

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

This article was first published on February 14 and edited one day later to reflect Germany's announcement of meeting the 2% of its GDP target on defense spending.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight