Is NATO Back? That Depends on Germany

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, June 6, 2007

The last few months have made clear that NATO’s core mutual-defense mission is more intensely relevant than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union 23 years ago.

And it’s unclear if the alliance still has the credibility to deter Russia.But there’s one more crucial change for NATO: For the first time, Germany, more than the U.S., may hold the key to NATO’s effectiveness.

With the largest population and economy in Europe, Germany has the heft to drive the alliance’s security agenda. NATO’s European members stretch from Iceland to Romania, and the U.S. has shouldered the bulk of security responsibilities since NATO’s 1949 founding. But amid budget cuts at home and an increasingly isolationist public, the U.S. is winding down its European footprint. The only other NATO country with the military size, industrial might and economic wherewithal to fill the gap is Germany. . . .

“The French are overstretched contributing to security missions in Mali and CAR,” observes Jorge Benitez, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic security at the Atlantic Council think tank, referring to the Central African Republic. “The Brits are overstretched. . . .”

Despite talk of increasing the defense budget in the wake of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, Berlin ultimately cut its military spending for the coming year by €800 million (about $1 billion) — from €33.3 billion to €32.4 billion. The government argued it had to close the budget gap, but Benitez says it’s a bad sign that “they’re cutting the defense budget at a time when their economy is doing so much better than the other allies. . . .”

Speaking in Riga, the Latvian capital, on Aug. 18, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel acknowledged that Europe needs to recalibrate its security strategy given Russia’s unexpected aggression. She sought to reassure the Baltics that Germany would come to the defense of its NATO allies. She also acknowledged that preparations for such a scenario “must be stronger than we thought necessary a few years ago. . . .”

But Merkel did not say what Latvian leaders wanted to hear most — that she supported NATO stationing troops permanently on its turf. . . .

“Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have made it clear that they do not support a permanent stationing of NATO forces in Eastern Europe,” believing it to be an “unnecessary escalation,” Robin Allers, a senior fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, writes on the NATOSource blog.

Related Experts: Jorge Benitez

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, June 6, 2007 (photo: Office of the President of Russia)