German defense minister: without the United States, European security is simply not possible

Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in an interview with International Politics Quarterly that appeared April 28 that a more active foreign and security policy role for Germany would be a big shift. She warned that a possible future coalition government with the Greens would involve difficult negotiations after Germany’s September elections.

International Politics Quarterly is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations (GCR). The interviewer asked, “Madam Defense Minister, since at least 2014, Germany has been trying to take more responsibility in the world. But Germany still does not have a coherent direction or strategy in foreign policy. Why is there this lack of development? Why does everything still seem so fragmented?” Kahlenbauer replied, “One of Germany’s strengths for decades was that it did not occupy center stage (internationally) as a foreign and security policy force. After the horrors of the Nazi era, this position is understandable, and it is partly the basis for our political and economic success. Most importantly, it was the strategy that enabled our country to unify. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the situation has changed so much that our old foreign policy principles no longer work. Many of our partners and allies want and expect, and rightly so, that Germany should do more, spend more, and play a more active role.”

Kahlenbauer said, “This should also be our own desire, because our lives in Germany, our lives of freedom and economic stability, depend on us doing so. Many people have difficulties with this new thinking, which is completely natural. It is not a wake-up process. Nonetheless, it is an important thing and the right thing to do. We can all sense that the world is changing and that we continue to face new risks. We cannot continue to leave the responsibility for our security in the hands of others. It’s a big shift, and it’s not an easy one.” So far, she said, “Germany has been in a very comfortable position, surrounded by a largely non-hostile world. Germany’s armed forces participated in a number of international missions, but paid little attention to traditional national defense. This has changed in recent years, and this has put new pressure on our established way of thinking.” She added, “Suddenly, there is a growing awareness that Germany faces inevitable regional and global challenges. And new threats are emerging, new technologies and weapons systems, new types of hybrid attacks and information warfare. Suddenly it is not just a question of what Germany can contribute, but of taking the lead as a nation and playing an important role in the way the world is organized. It’s a huge break with the past, and it scares a lot of people.”

Kahlenbauer stressed that “we are currently looking for ways to enter this new role. I believe we will succeed in doing that. And the Department of Defense wants to be deeply involved in that.” The reporter asked, “Of course, the political debate on this process is in full swing, from proposals to increase the defense budget, to the creation of new structures like the National Security Council, and questions about the strategic culture of the country. In terms of foreign policy, what do you think is Germany’s biggest shortcoming?” Kahlenbauer noted, “There is no doubt that as one of the largest and strongest economies in the world, there is an imbalance between what is expected of us and what we actually do. On the NATO side, the government has committed to achieving the 2 percent target and providing certain defense capabilities, but we are still far below expectations in terms of those commitments.”

Kallenbauer said, “The second point I would like to make is about the structure of providing security. We now face a threat of qualitative change. Just to mention new technologies, we already face a hybrid, networked threat: to address these problems, we need an equally networked approach to politics. For me, this means a new definition of security and an institutional structure that can coordinate these complex challenges. In my view, this role could be played by a national security council that would create a unified government policy from the various positions put forward by different sectors. We can see it in the present: the new coronavirus pandemic shows that our existing structures are not adequate to deal with these kinds of complex situations.” She continued, “And then there’s another problem: many people in this country are reluctant to face the hard realities of security policy. Paradoxical as it may sound, nuclear deterrence has ensured the security of Europe and Germany in recent years. But Europe’s nuclear balance is also now under serious strain. For my part, there is no doubt: In the future, nuclear deterrence will continue to be the absolute foundation of our security. And that includes Germany’s nuclear participation in NATO.”

The journalist added, “You say that Germany is still behind the target agreed with NATO of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense every year. But Germany has until 2024 to achieve this goal. If it proves so difficult under the current coalition government, do you think the situation will improve after the September elections?” Kahlenbauer said, “For the upcoming budget year, the Defense Ministry’s numbers are not bad. We managed to negotiate an additional 2.5 billion euros, more than the Ministry of Finance had planned. However, if you look at the medium-term fiscal plan, annual defense spending will fall to 1.2 percent of GDP by the end of the current planning period. This is unacceptable: it does not meet our own security needs and it does not allow us to develop the military capabilities we have committed to our international partners.” She said, “For this reason, any new (governing) coalition negotiations must include a frank discussion of what we need to push for in the coming years and how much it will cost. We will have to discuss new ways of providing those necessary resources. For example, I am pushing for a new planning law that will provide long-term political guarantees for long-term security investments.”

The reporter asked, “What will happen in the future when the (German) constitution currently requires specific approval from the chamber for military deployments? Back in 2018, you were already saying. ‘As part of the realization of the new security strategy, there must be some rollback of the approval of the House for military deployments abroad.'” Kallenbauer said, “The requirement for the House review fulfills a very important function. The fact that our armed forces have such a close partnership with the House and can therefore really rely on the support of the House is an important part of the development of German political culture throughout history. The German Army is still a House military force.” But at the same time, we need to make sure that the country can really act effectively in terms of security policy,” she said. That is why the previous chamber committee on this issue recommended making the chamber’s approval more flexible. For example, by adopting an anticipatory resolution, which could provide a framework for missions with more flexibility and more speed in emergency situations. Or, the chamber could be given the power to recall missions. In any case, every foreign deployment to date has been approved by a majority of the House.”

The reporter asked, “House oversight also plays a key role when it comes to European troops. Three years ago, you were talking about supporting the creation of a European army. But in the last year, you said it was an open question whether a European army or an army of Europeans was preferable. What are your views on that now?” In response, she noted, “There are 500 million people living in Europe. It’s about their security and freedom. Defending these people is the mission and goal of the armed forces of every European country. Currently, we do this mainly through national armies and national forms of cooperation. We want to significantly expand this cooperation so that we can act together on a political and military level.” Kahlenbauer said, “The EU’s Strategic Compass process, which is a German initiative, will help in this regard. Likewise, the EU’s ‘Permanent Structural Cooperation’ mechanism (PESCO) and the various common arms initiatives, as well as the coordination of arms acquisitions through the European Defense Agency. This is a long list of projects. It is important that the actions of each country with its national army are seen as a contribution to the overall security of Europe. If we are going to end up with a European army, this is the basic premise on which it is based.”

The interviewer also asked, “On the political side, where will the House majority for a more active German foreign policy come from? Would it be, for example, in a coalition of the CDU and the Greens (that emerges)?” Kahlenbauer said, “The Green Party representatives in the chamber’s defense committee may tend to be more compliant and open than their party as a whole. It is not clear who among the Greens will ultimately prevail. Either way, coalition negotiations with that party will involve tough negotiations across the board. Not just about armed drones.” The reporter asked, “Any new direction in foreign policy requires a majority in the chamber, but it also requires more popular support. Why is it so difficult for you to organize majority funding to adequately equip our armed forces and then explain all this to the German public in the context of the 2 percent target? Is it a communication problem? Or is it just that the Germans still don’t feel threatened at all, even though the international situation has now fundamentally changed?”

Kallenbauer said, “Your last point is a very important question. I think that ultimately the only way to deal with these topics is to deal with them honestly and to encourage a broad debate. We know that foreign and security policy, including overseas development, is often not at the top of the daily political agenda. But we also see how international developments can have a powerful impact on domestic issues. Our job is to actively ensure that foreign and security issues are prominently placed on the agenda and remain there as a prominent issue. Right now, there is a very intense and contentious discussion in the foreign policy community. I want to open up that debate and make things more public.” She said, “You have to lead people, get them involved and not shy away from difficult conversations. That’s been my experience. Germans are mostly very realistic and extremely pragmatic when it comes to security policy. This idea that you can’t talk to the people about threats or deployments, or defense and security policy in general, I think that’s an excuse.”

The reporter asked, “Late last year, the government published policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. Now Germany is sending the frigate ‘Bayern’ to the South China Sea, although there are no plans to participate in the U.S.-led ‘freedom of navigation’ operation. Can you tell us about your objectives in the Indo-Pacific region?” Kallenbauer replied, “The Indo-Pacific guidelines are needed because the strategic importance of the region is growing rapidly, both in general and for us. We have partners there who share our values and who have very similar concerns to us. We also have economic interests in the region. As a country, we depend on world trade being free, fair and rules-based. Stability in the region is vital to us, as is freedom of navigation. Our local partners: Australia, Japan and South Korea expect us to send signals, to show our presence and to flex our muscles. It’s about how we work with regional democracies and rule of law states. And our participation in the regional security dialogue.”

Kallenbauer continued, “So what can a frigate achieve? Obviously, this deployment is first and foremost a symbolic one: it shows our solidarity and our interest in the region. The frigate will cover long distances in its mission: it will also participate in the ‘Atalanta’ anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, as well as the mission to monitor the arms embargo against North Korea. The Bayern’s deployment will also include a number of port visits and joint exercises with partners.” The reporter pressed, “On Twitter, you recently wrote, ‘We’re hearing a disturbingly arbitrary tone from China, even calls for ‘combat readiness. ‘ Here’s how I see it. We work with China when we can, but we will oppose them when we must.’ In what areas do you want to work with this increasingly aggressive China?”

Kallenbauer said, “China has recently imposed sanctions on some individual representatives of public opinion in the EU. This shows very clearly that for Beijing this is not just a matter of pursuing economic interests. China clearly wants to advance its vision of a global system, a system that serves its own interests and increases its political and military influence. It is bent on doing so, often in defiance of a rules-based international order.” She said, “We must be clear: There is absolutely no certainty that the world will continue to be shaped by the Western system and our ideas of democracy, individualism and human rights. If we care about these values, we must stand up for them every day, working closely with like-minded partners. We are already doing this through a large number of coalitions as well as international organizations. But we still have room for improvement.”

But there is another aspect to this reality,” Kallenbauer said. China is an important economic and trading partner, for ourselves and for other countries, and it will continue to be so. And we also need China to address important issues that affect all of humanity, such as climate change. Without the world’s largest economy, solutions are unthinkable. The talks between China and the United States in Anchorage, Alaska started out confrontational, but then you could see that it was actually possible to have constructive talks on international issues.” The reporter asked, “The Biden administration is trying to form a very close alliance with Europe to counter China. Is that the right way to go? Should Germany and Europe be clearly on the side of the United States?”

Kahlenbauer said, “In my opinion, it is impossible for Germany to take an equally distant position between China and the United States. I support a strong Europe. And the fact is that America and American values are closer to us than China or its values. But that doesn’t mean that American interests always coincide with German or European interests. The ASEAN countries have given us a very clever way of thinking about this. It’s not about building an alliance against one side or the other, but building an alliance for something. For example, an alliance for a rules-based world, for the free movement of goods, or for the freedom of shipping routes. If China has other ideas in this regard, it will be necessary for us to make it firmly clear that we will not give in to China in this regard.”

Kallenbauer added, “For me, the question is not at all whether Europe will be crushed between the Americans and the Chinese. The bigger challenge is whether Europe will play any role at all. If you look at who is setting the technical standards, for example, it’s China and the United States. We Europeans have to face the question of our own competitiveness. We cannot allow ourselves to be left behind. We have to maintain our ability to pursue our own interests and take a different position from Beijing and, if necessary, from Washington. This is what we can say to our American friends: we have a strong common base, but on some issues our interests are different. It makes sense, and that’s always been possible among transatlantic friends and partners.”

The reporter said, “You’re starting to sound a little like French President Macron…” Kallenbauer took over and said, “Germany and France agree with that. Europe needs to develop its capabilities strongly in the future. This is a big strategic approach that we share with France.” She said, “But the transatlantic relationship should not be compared to the European relationship. Both relationships are pulling in the same direction. Both are possible: we can strengthen Europe’s security capabilities while still keeping the United States on the European side. European security is simply not possible without the United States, and it will be for a long time to come. We are working to enhance Europe’s ability to act.”

Kallenbauer said, “During Germany’s six-month presidency of the EU last year, we began the path of developing an overall European strategy, a strategic compass, a process that France will conclude next year. That is why we are promoting cooperation on joint armaments projects and PESCO projects. That’s why our armies are working together in the Sahel. One must be aware of the differences between the German and French positions. But what dominates here are the similarities. Ultimately, what matters is that we both want the same thing: a free, secure and strong Europe with a strong voice in world affairs.”