Berlin’s Balancing Act

Merkel Needs Trump—but Also Needs to Keep Her Distance

The odd couple: Trump and Merkel at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017. POOL / REUTERS

In January, a disturbing report made the rounds in Berlin’s corridors of power. Written by Hans-Peter Bartels, the German parliament’s commissioner for defense oversight, the 95-page document laid out the abysmal state of the German military. Soldiers, the report said, lacked guns, ammunition, and night-vision goggles. Some new recruits were being forced to wait 45 weeks to get their uniforms. Only one-third of Germany’s 123 Typhoon fighter jets were fully deployable, as were just five of its 60 Sikorsky CH-53 transport helicopters. Military training sometimes featured “laughable improvisations,” the document said; earlier reports had described battle exercises during which soldiers used broomsticks to stand in for gun barrels and passenger vans instead of armored personnel carriers. The report was damning but not surprising: for years, the German government has starved the Bundeswehr of funds, leaving it with only 170,000 soldiers, few of them with combat experience, down from over 500,000 in 1990. 

The decline of Germany’s military comes at a particularly bad time for the country. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly singled Germany out for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees and for the country’s huge trade surplus with the United States. No other U.S. ally has received more of Trump’s ire. “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change,” Trump tweeted at the end of May. 

Trump’s bluster and oversimplification aside, the core of his accusation—that Germany has benefited more from the global order than the country has contributed to it—is largely correct. And the claim isn’t new: other U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, have made similar points. For decades, Germany has sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella and built its economy on the back of the global economic system created and upheld by the United States. Despite recent steps toward taking a more active role in Europe—engineering a eurozone bailout

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