With U.S. President Donald Trump poised to pull the United States back from global leadership and with the United Kingdom mired in a messy withdrawal from the European Union, Germany has emerged as the central economic and political power in Europe. Since German President Joachim Gauck’s much-lauded speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2014—“Let us thus not turn a blind eye,” he intoned, “not run from threats, but instead stand firm”—the country has shown its commitment to ensuring its own security and the continent’s. It has agreed to gradually increase its defense spending to reach NATO’s target of two percent of GDP and to create a credible European defense system. It made a unilateral decision in early 2015, for example, to send the Bundeswehr on a training mission to the north of Iraq and to join the military campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) after France invoked the mutual defense clause of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty following the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. Berlin has continued to help manage the crisis on Europe’s southern periphery, in Syria and Iraq, becoming a reliable partner to Washington at a time when the United States had significantly retrenched under former President Barack Obama.

The hope among many anxious Europeans and Americans, worried about the fate of the liberal order and the transatlantic relationship, is that Germany will take the United States’ place as leader of the liberal order. But that is wishful thinking.

Germany is already overwhelmed by crises at home and on its borders. And it cannot replace the United States as the world’s liberal hegemon for the simple reason that it isn’t one. In 2015, it had a defense budget that was one-twentieth the size of the United States’, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is not a nuclear power and has comparatively smaller ambitions to provide for the common good on the global stage than the United States.

But neither is Berlin complacent, and there is much it can and is willing to do to ensure that Europe stays united, particularly on defense. For the first time since reunification, Germany is set to increase its defense budget, a rise of eight percent from 2016. And it is also moving to advance EU defense cooperation. In fact, even though Germany is unlikely to take over for the United States on European defense, it and its partners may find much opportunity in Trump’s threats to overcome their own political malaise.


In a joint press conference with Trump last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May stated the U.S. leader was “100 percent behind NATO.” But if Trump’s campaign words reflect his intended policy as president, U.S. support for NATO will shrink and support for Russia will grow. On the one hand, this would give Russia an opportunity to assert itself in eastern Europe and mean the likely end of EU and NATO membership for Ukraine and other potential candidates. But on the other hand, Russia has no intention of provoking a NATO member to invoke Article 5, NATO’s collective defense provision, given the way the Ukraine crisis reinvigorated the organization in 2014. Moscow does not have the economic or military means to fight NATO, which means Germany’s main concern will be for Moscow’s use of the more cost-effective hybrid warfare in its immediate neighborhood.

Berlin’s likely response, then, will be to continue its dual approach of being both tough and accommodating with Moscow. On the former, Berlin has shown a great willingness to convince its European partners to maintain their sanctions on Russia, or even extend them, given Moscow’s incursions into Syria, even if the new U.S. administration discontinues its own. On the latter, Berlin should incrementally give up on expanding the European Union farther east and accept, on de facto terms, Russia’s spheres of influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and, most recently, Ukraine. NATO could also try to accommodate Russian interests by giving up on enlargement and (maybe) the building of its missile defense system in Romania and Poland, which it has planned for 2018. There are strong sections of the German party system that would be willing to support these steps. They believe European missile defense is closely tied to future arms talks with Russia, which have stalled in recent years as both sides pursue nuclear arms modernization programs.

But such deals must include a clear message to Moscow that détente is not weakness, in case Russia is tempted to escalate tensions in eastern Europe to test the limits of the new U.S. administration. Therefore, Europeans, with Berlin and Paris taking the lead, will have to build up already existing plans for a permanent and more efficient EU military force and develop a contingency plan for the Baltics and eastern Europe. This must involve, at the very least, a serious commitment to contribute two percent of GDP to NATO. It must also include Berlin’s support of the European Commission’s plan to do away with all redundant structures and units in European defense. Roughly 80 percent of defense procurement is run on a purely national basis, leading to costly duplications of military capabilities (an estimated $27 billion to $107 billion annually, according to the European Commission). And it should include strategic investments in drones, air-to-air refueling, satellite communication, and cybersecurity, since until now Washington has had to provide for nearly every European military operation, even in Libya, where France and the United Kingdom took the lead within NATO. Berlin has also been one of the key proponents of developing joint civilian-military planning for managing crises and building an EU military headquartersto prepare for threats such as those in Libya and to coordinate joint civilian-military operations. Finally, Berlin’s ongoing efforts to contribute to NATO deterrence in the Baltics and Poland—a step that is more than symbolic, since it will put German soldiers on the frontline in an armed conflict—have so far been met with skepticism but might now be valued in Europe, given its need for stronger cooperation over defense.


But Germany cannot move forward without French partnership. Together, they need to take the lead in making Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy more operational. Berlin may consider Paris’ proposals to have defense spending taken out of deficit calculations, which would allow more spending without breaking the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact deficit limitations, and to create a European defense fund that would allow European partners to pool investments.

Although boosting Europe’s nuclear deterrence capabilities seems unrealistic, it is possible that France might consider the possibility more seriously after the United Kingdom leaves the EU. French and British nuclear weapons have been part of a European strategy of deterrence since NATO’s Ottawa Declaration of 1974, in which the two nuclear powers expressed their willingness to contribute “to the overall strengthening of the deterrence of the Alliance.” Since Germany has agreed not to develop and acquire nuclear weapons under the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Two Plus Four Treaty, it is likely that it would be willing to pay for the French force de frappe and to do everything possible to keep the United Kingdom included in any plans for European nuclear deterrence. 

The strengthening of all these elements serves two goals for Germans and Europeans alike: to convince Washington to maintain NATO by stepping up their own contributions to collective defense and to project power in their own neighborhood, particularly if the United States pulls back from the Middle East. In fact, Germany’s key argument for introducing joint EU structures is that Europe must play a bigger role in stabilizing the Middle East and the African continent—both crucial in tackling terrorism and resolving the refugee crisis.

Given that Germany today is more willing to exert military leadership than ever before, and provided it receives support from its major European partners, there is a great chance that the current political climate may bring Europeans closer, particularly France and Germany (and perhaps even the departing United Kingdom). Europe will not fall apart over doubts about the future of U.S. security guarantees, and Germany will step up to the challenge to make sure of that. 

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  • STEFAN FRÖHLICH is Senior Fellow at Transatlantic Academy and a Professor for International Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.
  • More By Stefan Fröhlich