Defence policy has generally played a much smaller role in German election campaigns than it has in other countries. As Tom Dyson writes, this is largely because German politicians view the issue as a ‘vote loser’, with little potential to improve a party’s electoral success. Nevertheless, he argues that this approach is highly misguided in the context of modern security challenges. While the CDU/CSU’s platform for this month’s federal elections shows few signs of a change in approach, the SPD have championed stronger German leadership of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. He notes however that it would be difficult for the SPD to live up to these promises due to the institutional constraints German governments are forced to work under.
The position of defence policy in the final pages of the electoral programmes of the SPD and CDU/CSU is indicative of the perception of defence amongst German politicians as a ‘vote loser’. There is little electoral capital to be gained – and much to be lost – by a high-profile stance on defence and security issues in Germany. As a consequence, the German Defence Ministry has a reputation as a ‘schleudersitz’ (ejector seat) that has buried the political ambitions of a number of prominent politicians since the end of the Cold War.
The main priority of Defence Ministers with the ambition of reaching higher office is to survive the Ministry with their political reputations intact. There is also little incentive for German MPs to profile themselves on defence and security issues. As a consequence, for post-Cold War Chancellors – particularly Chancellor Merkel, who has been preoccupied with managing the fallout of the Eurozone crisis – defence has remained a low priority. From Merkel’s point of view, defence can only cause political problems hence the Defence Minister and defence policy experts within the CDU/CSU have been tasked with keeping the policy area low-profile.
Merkel’s failure to meet the challenge of US disengagement from European security
This approach to defence and security policy is highly misguided in the context of contemporary security challenges. During the last electoral period important changes in the international security environment have taken place which demand urgent action from Germany and other European nations. Crucially, in the context of the rise of China as an economic and military power, US defence and security policy has shifted towards a focus on the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of Europe.
European states now face an urgent imperative to enhance their collective capacity to deploy military power within their geopolitical neighbourhood; otherwise a security vacuum may begin to develop around Europe. Furthermore, the context of the economic downturn and austerity measures make it particularly difficult for European states to respond to the Asia Pivot on a unilateral basis and for the British and French to continue to shoulder the lion’s share of Europe’s burden-sharing within the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and NATO. Hence pooling and sharing military capabilities and forces under the auspices of CSDP is vital for Germany.
Yet, under the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition (2009-13) the implications of these changes in the international security environment have not been adequately recognised. The record of the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition in defence is poor. A number of important reforms to the Bundeswehr (German Defence Forces) have been instigated by Defence Ministers Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (2009-11) and Thomas de Maziere (2011-present). These reforms have streamlined command structures and enhanced the ability of the Bundeswehr to adjust its capability procurement processes to the lessons of recent operational experiences. The CDU/CSU/FDP coalition has also abolished conscription, making some significant savings by reducing the number of Bundeswehr troops from 245,000 to 180,000, while freeing up a greater number of forces for overseas deployment.
However, Germany’s record as an alliance partner within NATO and CSDP has been significantly tarnished by the Merkel government. By opposing military action in Libya, Germany ensured that CSDP could not be used as a framework for action, thereby undermining its effectiveness and credibility. In response to criticism from the Obama administration following German non-participation in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, the Chancellor’s Office mandated defence experts in the CDU/CSU (Andreas Schockenhoff MP and Roderich Kiesewetter MP) to instigate proposals to reform the process of parliamentary mandate for troop deployment in order to make Germany a more reliable partner in CSDP/NATO. However, their proposals gained little support from other political parties and were quickly dropped. Furthermore, rather than coordinating defence cuts with alliance partners and seeking opportunities to pool and share military capabilities, Germany’s military reform has proceeded on the basis of maintaining a broad, but limited, capability spectrum (‘breadth over depth’). This has led to a high-level of unnecessary duplication with alliance partners and restricts the opportunities for pooling and sharing.
The CDU/CSU electoral programme: little change
The CDU/CSU electoral programme recognises the need for a new European Security Strategy to help define Europe’s common security interests. Yet, the programme delivers little sign that Germany will provide renewed impetus to CSDP. Joint armaments projects with European partners are recognised as important; however, this necessity is qualified by reference to the importance of Germany’s national defence industry in maintaining a strong defence-industrial base for the Bundeswehr’s policy of ‘breadth over depth’, and to the defence industry’s role in creating jobs.
The structural power of German defence industry within the German political system (particularly the Bundestag’s Budgetary Committee that approves defence procurement projects over 25 million euros) has been a major stumbling block to the pursuit of common European defence projects. Given its strong support in Bavaria, where a large proportion of Germany’s defence industry is based, the CDU/CSU will be unlikely to champion pan-European projects which may lead to a loss of market-share for German industry.
Furthermore, the CDU/CSU electoral programme continues to commit the Bundeswehr to a policy of ‘breadth before depth’ that is not conducive to greater specialisation and pooling and sharing forces and capabilities with alliance partners. However, while the programme does not mention reforms to the process of parliamentary mandate for troop deployment, these proposals will resurface in the next parliament, should the CDU/CSU win office.
The SPD: A commitment to German leadership on European defence cooperation
Senior figures within the SPD rightly view the CDU’s time in charge of the Defence Ministry as ‘wasted years’ for German defence policy. Accordingly, the SPD party programme is far more ambitious in the field of defence. The SPD party programme includes clear recognition of the need for Germany to rekindle its reputation as a reliable alliance partner and notes the imperative of stronger German leadership in CSDP to endow it with greater ‘shape and substance’.
The programme hints at a new German-led ‘impulse’ in CSDP, particularly in the field of pooling and sharing forces and capabilities. In stark contrast to the CDU/CSU, the SPD plans to undertake a radical reform of the Bundeswehr to focus on ‘depth’ rather than ‘breadth’ that will be much more conducive to pooling and sharing with alliance partners. While the programme goes into little detail, it notes the potential of pooling and sharing arrangements to facilitate further defence cuts.
Conclusions: Promises are hard to keep
The SPD have been able to capitalise on the defence policy failings of the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition by championing greater German leadership in CSDP, but significant stumbling blocks stand in the way of translating the good intentions of the party programme into action. First, the SPD faces a difficult international context for promoting pooling and sharing arrangements. Germany has been willing to adopt positions of national strategic autonomy on key security issues in recent years – on Libya, Mali and Syria – and this is unlikely to change under the SPD. The SPD will not be willing to enter into pooling and sharing arrangements which may place pressure on Germany to become involved in future operations which are peripheral to its security interests.
Furthermore, the willingness of the British and French to use high-intensity force within their geopolitical neighbourhood contrasts markedly with the deep scepticism of the German public and political class about the efficacy of military force as an instrument of foreign policy. This will further complicate the process of reaching agreement with the UK and France over pooling and sharing. Hence, while the SPD may focus on ‘depth over breadth’ in Bundeswehr reform, the likely path of German pooling and sharing initiatives under both the SPD and CDU are not through CSDP and institutions such as the European Defence Agency, but through bi-lateral arrangements, with the Dutch, Benelux and Nordic nations, who have a similar reticence to deploy military power.
Finally, the SPD will face similar pressure to the CDU/CSU from the German defence industry to help it maintain its market share. The SPD has strong electoral interests in seats in the North of Germany where the defence industry is a key employer. This will provide a strong impetus to permit German leadership on projects within the European Defence Agency. It also raises significant doubts about the ability of the SPD to make the cuts necessary for a ‘depth over breadth’ military reform that will be an essential prerequisite for extensive pooling and sharing.
This article originally appeared at the Centre for European Politics blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Tom Dyson – Royal Holloway, University of London
Tom Dyson is Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.