After the Second World War, Germany and the USA developed a close transatlantic alliance in the area of defense and security. From the start, the transatlantic security alliance was built on the narrative and the strategic necessity of defense against the Soviet Union and its communist block. The close cooperation between the USA and Germany enabled the two states, and the West as a whole, to enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the communist block, this narrative has lost its importance.
As identified in the first Atlantic Expedition, the security challenges facing both the USA and Germany in recent years have shifted to non-conventional ones such as cyber warfare and terrorist threats. As can be seen across the Middle East and Africa, the breeding ground for extremist ideologies and terrorist groups are unstable states with ungoverned territories that lack economic opportunity and do not adhere to international human rights standards. While these terrorist groups export their violence to western countries and pose a serious threat to their security, refugee flows from such states also pose a challenge to the political stability in the USA and Germany. Thus, it is in the security interest of both the USA and Germany to promote stable states, with working institutions respecting international human rights.
The memos from the first Atlantic Expedition have highlighted the necessity to develop new approaches to meet the 2% defense spending target NATO member states have committed to, but also reiterated the necessity to meet the official development assistance (ODA) target of 0.7% of GDP, both the USA and Germany have vowed to implement. The identification of these two targets as pressing issues for the transatlantic alliance highlights the necessity of developing a holistic approach to tackling the security challenges emanating from unstable and conflict-prone states.
However, the opposing narratives about foreign, security and development policy in Germany and the USA, which prioritize different aspects, have been a serious burden for the transatlantic alliance in recent time.
The forceful push by US-President Trump that other NATO member states, especially Germany with its economic power, meet their 2% defense spending-target, has sparked criticism in German politics. German’s foreign minister has called the benchmark “nonsensical”, while the German chancellor has tried to shed light on the importance of development aid. The majority of Germans reject increases in military spending and, according to a 2013 poll, conversely support meeting the 0.7% spending target for development aid.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the new US-administration plans to significantly boost defense spending and cut development aid, despite the fact that it doesn’t meet the ODA target. A public opinion poll in the USA also shows that the majority thinks the government is spending too much on foreign aid.
These contrary narratives about the importance of defense spending and foreign aid in Germany and the USA have been a burden for the transatlantic alliance. They also drive a wedge between the two societies, as Germans tend to see the USA as militaristic and aggressive and the American public might view Germany as taking advantage of the USA’s defense commitment.
This is where the narrative on the transatlantic security alliance has to be modernized. An understanding amongst the public has to be established in Germany and the United States, that today’s security challenges can only be successfully met when military engagement goes hand in hand with development aid. Changing the narrative of the German-American alliance toward a multinational, integrated approach of military engagement and development assistance could establish a greater understanding among the public for the other side’s defense and development efforts around the world. It would be a way out of the contentious discussion about spending targets and unleash new potential for closer German-American cooperation.
In Germany, politicians and the military should more clearly communicate an image of the military as a force, which proactively engages to maintain stability and prevents violence by extremists or rival factions in fragile states and with that enables their countries development aid to reach the regions and people needing it. In addition, the German military and development agencies should develop publicly visible initiatives to work closer together and share experiences in regard to the support of fragile states.
In the United States on the other hand, public officials have to make significantly greater efforts to show their constituents the importance and achievements of US-American development assistance in promoting security and stability around the world as well as for the United States and its deployed troops, as has previously been stressed by former US military leaders.
While such a change of narrative in itself would already help to increase the mutual understanding for the respective efforts in foreign policy and with that strengthen the transatlantic alliance, it would also open the door for deepened German-American cooperation. Channels of communication and experience-sharing could be established between German development institutions and the US-military, or vice versa. With that, military operations and development efforts of both states in fragile regions could be better coordinated, leading to increased effectiveness in establishing stability abroad and ensuring security at home, while strengthening the German-American security alliance.
The narrative on the contentious issue of defense spending in Germany and foreign aid in the USA, can also be changed, if both spending goals are started to be seen as complementary: Germany would need to increase its defense spending, while the USA would be urged to increase or at least maintain its level of development aid. Alternatively, reciprocal agreements on how the USA increases its ODA and Germany its defense spending could be found. This would ease the strain on the transatlantic alliance and even strengthen their cooperation in foreign and security policy.