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Mutual defense in troubled times

Bettina Marx / gro
June 23, 2015

In his youth, American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter learned German in the Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Today in Berlin, however, he spoke English and found precise words to address Moscow.

Deutschland US-Verteidigungsminister Ashton Carter in Münster
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

Pariser Platz, the square in front of Berlin's Brandenburg gates was closed off for the most part. Curious passers-by and tourists crowded around the police barriers to catch a glimpse of the man who was the reason for the commotion: It was the new American Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who had arrived in Berlin for his first official visit. First, he visited the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of the German capital and later on, he introduced himself in a keynote speech to members and guests of the Atlantikbrücke (German for Atlantic Bridge), a non-profit organization promoting German-American relations. The sixty-year old, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, has only been in office since the middle of February this year.

The transatlantic partnership faces new challenges in the South and the East, said Carter in Berlin. In the South, terrorism and failed states have pushed instability up to northern Africa and the Middle East. This change has triggered massive waves of migration, which are now putting pressure on security services and domestic authorities all over Europe. Thousands of radical Islamists have moved to Iraq and Syria to join the terror group Islamic state. Those who return home from war now pose a security threat to their home countries. The USA, along with a broad coalition of countries, to which Germany also belongs, is fighting and driving back the IS. "I am confident that we will succeed," said Carter.

BdT Deutschland Ashton Carter Holocaust Mahnmal
Carter visits Berlin's holocaust memorialImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

"We want neither a cold war nor a hot war"

The Pentagon chief expressed less optimism about the new threat scenarios in the East. There, Russia has used its political, military and economic superiority to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighboring countries. Moscow has ignored international norms and has destabilized Europe's security order by annexing Crimea. "While Russia aggressively modernizes its military organizations and martial skills, it actively attempts to undermine NATO and break down the security and economic relations that keep us together," criticized Carter and subsequently accused Russia of nuclear sabre rattling.

One must wonder if the Kremlin still feels committed to the cautious nuclear armament policies that politicians have been advocating for decades. Carter announced that the USA is considering moving heavy military equipment to Eastern Europe to support the training of NATO forces and their allies on the periphery. "We do not seek a cold war, and certainly not a hot war with Russia," emphasized the Secretary of Defense. "We do not want to make an enemy of Russia, but make no mistake: We will defend our allies."

Praise for German leadership

The United States is pleased to hear that Germany is willing to assume a leadership role. Carter commended Berlin's strong show in addressing the Ukraine crisis and Chancellor Angela Merkel's demonstration of her extraordinary leadership skills in her diplomatic dealings with Moscow and Kyiv. He noted that Germany is an important partner in Afghanistan and as well as in nuclear talks with Iran.

The US Secretary of Defense called for the strengthening NATO and declared the methods used in the Cold War to now be obsolete. He urged the Western defense alliance to brave new challenges with new answers: No member country can evade this responsibility.

NATO Manöver in Polen
NATO military exercises in PolandImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

More money required for defense

At the moment, Washington bears 70 percent of the alliance's military spending but in the long run, the USA will not be able to shoulder the security costs on its own. They rely on their partner's commitment. With this in mind, Carter welcomed Germany's aim to increase military spending by six percent but also added that this was not enough. Germany, as an active partner, and a more flexible NATO could ensure that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not succeed in turning back time in Europe.

After his stop in Germany, Carter is set to travel to the Baltic States to speak with his counterparts in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The three Baltic States feel threatened by Russia's Ukraine policy. They fear that Moscow may question the inviolability of their frontiers.