“Germany today is an economic powerhouse, but a second-rate military power,” declares a new Atlantic Council report which warns, “Europe’s future relevance as a global strategic partner of the United States is contingent on Germany taking its full place as a much stronger political and military leader within Europe and the transatlantic Alliance.”

In Anchoring the Alliance, Nick Burns declares that, “A weak Germany that lacks a capacity to act globally will inevitably weaken NATO. Europe cannot remain a major force within the NATO Alliance if a country of Germany’s size, geography, and prosperity makes the kind of deep reductions in defense spending announced by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in 2011.” He adds that, “American and European leaders we surveyed are in near unanimous agreement that Germany must make a determined effort to lead more confidently and with greater purpose.”

That American and European leaders alike are lamenting Germany’s lack of military engagement has a certain irony. As the authors note, “The ‘German problem’ that plagued European affairs from the country’s birth under Otto von Bismarck in 1871 to its reunification on October 3, 1990 has finally been resolved.” So much so, in fact, that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are complaining that the pendulum has swung too far. Indeed, the report quotes Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski quipping that, “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.”

To be sure, Germany has participated in many out-of-area operations, many of which were quite unpopular at home. The Bundeswehr was in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the last, however, the participation was marred by legendary “caveats” that led to bitter complaints from other Allies that the forces couldn’t be used as well as numerous press reports that German soldiers were too drunk and fat to fight.

Things took a more bitter turn with the Libya operation, in which Germany refused to support United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 from its rotating seat on that body, ultimately agreeing to an abstention that was bitterly denounced by former German leaders, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Once key NATO allies decided to not only intervene but to do so as an Alliance, Germany not only refused to participate but ostentatiously distanced itself from the operation, going so far as to withdraw forces already operating nearby in peaceful missions.

That Germany, easily the richest country in Europe, doesn’t meet NATO’s minimum defense spending threshold of two percent of GDP is an embarrassing abdication of leadership and responsibility. Yet, it’s far from clear what incentive German leaders have to revise their calculations. Germany is, after all, a democracy and its people simply don’t want to intervene in far-flung conflicts. Even its comparatively meager participation in Afghanistan was wildly unpopular.

The fact of the matter is that the Germans don’t see a strong military threat to their national security while at the same time feel very threatened by the economic calamity of the Eurozone. While perhaps short-sighted, it’s an entirely reasonable short-term view.

Additionally, for all the piling on against Germany that’s come from NATO circles of late, it’s worth noting that at least Germany’s strategic ambitions and budget are aligned. France and the UK, in particular, have been eager to turn NATO into a global response force; yet they’re cutting their own defense budgets to the point of impotency. To be sure, they will still meet the two percent target even in austerity. But they have seriously hollowed out their capabilities, to the point where they couldn’t even pull of the Libya operation without heavy reliance on American “unique assets” such as the ability to keep fuel and bullets in stock. Germany, by contrast, has coupled a modest military capability with modest goals.

Indeed, the report’s warning that “Germany will handicap Europe’s ability to play a leading global security role” may well be met with a shrug in Berlin. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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