NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary on April 4. Official festivities were held in Washington involving the Alliance's foreign ministers. It was decided to drop the idea of a summit not to aggravate the situation and not to spoil the holiday — everyone still remembers last year's summit in Brussels, when Trump gave the Europeans a real tongue lashing, demanding an increase in defense spending.
However, even without the American President the event proved not really successful. The spirit of Donald Trump floated around darkening the mood of those present, primarily the Germans.
Berlin presented a kind of surprise for the holiday. On March 20, the German government approved the draft budget for the next year and another three-year financial plan, under which the country's defense spending, if considered as a percentage of GDP, will not only not increase by 2023, but even get back to the level of 2018.
At the same time, the German Finance Ministry encouraged its colleagues to curtail their ambitions and allocated only two billion euros to them for the next year instead of the requested four billion. All this is due to the bad economic situation forecasts, as explained by Olaf Scholz, the Minister of Finance and one of the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party. And this is while NATO countries, hastened by Washington, are competing to hold the top spot in meeting the commitments to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024.
Becoming the final flourish was the comment by Vice-Chairman of the SPD faction in the Bundestag Rolf Mützenich about the government's budget plans. In an interview with Handelsblatt, he said that the defense budget is turning into a bottomless pit, NATO's mark of 2 percent of GDP is wrong, as well as the entire approach based on relative indicators, and in general, Social Democrats consider pensions more important than military spending.
As a result, the issue of the German defense budget came into focus during the Washington anniversary celebrations. Which, however, is becoming a certain tradition for NATO. " More of our allies are now meeting their commitments, but still others are falling short. And, as we all acknowledge, Germany is chief among them," US Vice President Mike Pence said in his solemn speech. "After great prodding it agreed to spend only 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024, but the draft budget for 2019 just presented to German parliament actually falls short of even that commitment, promising only 1.3 percent." The Germans thus found themselves in the same situation as the Turks — they, too, received a reprimand from Pence, but for the intention to purchase Russia's S-400.
Berlin is certainly trying to vindicate itself, stressing that not everything can be measured in terms of money, and Germany makes a significant contribution to "sharing the load" within the Alliance by participating in joint military operations. Nevertheless, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged in his Washington speech to disregard the current subtleties of his country's budget planning that, in his opinion, are sometimes hard to wrap your mind around, and promised to meet at least the 1.5 percent of GDP requirement.
The three-year financial plan, updated annually by the German government, is not a real indicator, and is only able to serve as an approximate guide at best. The real figures for military expenditures are much higher. Moreover, in raw numbers, the defense budget of Germany has been steadily growing since 2015, and is already higher than Russia's.
And there is one more thing — the recent German Finance Ministry's response to a parliamentary inquiry by Gesine Lötzsch of the left-wing party Die Linke ("The Left") revealed that the German budget includes some significant "hidden" defense costs. These sums, which amounted to 4.6 billion euros in 2019, are being spent on such purposes as, for instance, "conflict prevention" or "strengthening partner countries" in the military field. According to NATO criteria, this kind of costs is included in the defense budget, but in Germany they are documented othergates.
At other times the existence of such "black military funds," as the Junge Welt newspaper called these expenditures, could have been explained by the existing procedure of budget formation. But today, amid demands coming from the United States, Berlin seems to have no point in hiding a tenth of its military spending. And this would be true if not for Germany's public sentiments.
Despite all the talks about the "Russian threat", the German society, as revealed by various opinion polls, remains generally pacifist and, most interestingly, considers the Trump-led USA a greater danger to Germany than Russia. Neither can NATO be regarded popular among the Germans — the country's membership in the Alliance is supported by only 54 percent of the population. And nearly the same number — 53 percent — oppose defense budget growth. Therefore, it would not be sound that the German government go out one day and say: "We actually spend 10 percent more than you think on defense".
In turn, the German political elites have long expected Bundeswehr's more active involvement in various military operations abroad, and, consequently, an increase in military spending. The SPD is no exception here, but it is on a bad streak as compared to its conservative camp colleagues. While among the Christian Democrats' electorate the number of supporters and opponents of increased military spending is somewhat equal, in case of Social Democrats the odds are clearly in favor of the latter: 39 and 57 percent respectively. Hence the "pensions instead of missiles" type statements that can be considered as an attempt to consolidate the dispersing supporters, but are not a manifestation of sincere pacifism.
Therefore, when it comes to the defense budget of Germany, the main thing is not the availability of money or political will — the will does exist, and the money can be found, even though this may entail some other cuts. The challenge is how to increase the budget without causing discontent among voters.
And the proposed solution to this problem involves a further obscuring of budget planning. For instance, back in 2017, there was an idea of combining military expenditures with those for diplomacy and military cooperation to become a single budget item, and then bringing the overall volume to 3 percent of the GDP. Serving as a public argument was the thesis that diplomatic methods of struggling for peace are no less important for the country's security than the military ones. However, if we subtract the amount of Germany's more or less constant expenditures on diplomacy and international cooperation from these 3 percent, we will get the sought-for 2 percent of the GDP. But is an ordinary German citizen able to understand all these twists and turns?
In the face of the current aggravation of military-financial contradictions between Berlin and Washington, Germany's former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested a similar solution: to increase the country's defense budget to 1.5 percent of GDP and to pay another half a percent as allied aid to the Eastern European NATO countries. And for sure, this assistance can be documented as "strengthening partner countries" or another inconspicuous budget item.
So Heiko Maas was quite sincere when in Washington he solemnly promised that Germany will increase its defense spending at least up to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. Berlin is really seeking to achieve this. And not just to please Trump, but simply because they understand that if Germany intends to play any significant role in the future world, it needs a capable army. And it would be highly advisable that this army was also able to become the blueprint for European Union's future army, if it ever comes to it.
But there is international policy that is based on long-term trends, and there is domestic policy that is subject to short-term electoral cycles. And while global trends seem somewhat distant and abstract, approval ratings of parties are rather specific and always in plain sight.
In terms of party popularity, it is more profitable for the German Social Democrats to play the pacifist card, and they will do so by slowing down the increase in defense spending. And what happens next depends on the next ruling coalition's makeup. It is safe to say that the German defense budget will keep growing, the only question is the pace.