It’s time to separate the rhetoric from reality. The awkward public exchanges between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump—despite the hyperbolic reactions on both sides of the Atlantic—should not change the strategic partnership between the US and Germany. On the contrary, a window of unique opportunity exists to redefine the US-German partnership as the “special relationship” of the future. Let’s hope politicians in both countries possess the strategic vision to seize the moment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of security cooperation. Developments in Ukraine, Russia’s resurgence, and the fight against ISIS underscore the critical need for a strong, unified European security framework; however, the one country that must lead, Germany, still struggles to find its voice in security affairs. Germany has too long been haunted by its past and cannot allow the shadows of the Second World War to cloud its future calculus. Particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, Berlin’s global influence as de facto European Union leader presupposes greater military and intelligence roles on a global scale. The German Ministry of Defense’s July 2016 “White Paper,” which outlines more ambitious overtures in defense policy, is a step in the right direction(1). Washington must build upon this foundation and elevate its alliance with Berlin to that of an enduring “special relationship,” one in which Germany emerges as America’s most significant political, economic, and security partner in Europe.
Assigning the term “special relationship” to German-US ties does not occur automatically to most in the American and European policy communities. However, both countries must now account for new geopolitical realities vice status quo arrangements. Most notably, Washington’s storied “special relationship” with the United Kingdom does not merit as significant a role as in the past. Britain’s severely reduced military budget, pending exit from the European Union, and meager roles in both anti-ISIL efforts and the Ukraine crisis, illustrate London’s diminished global influence (2). France, although willing to employ aggressively its military forces abroad, does not possess the economic or political influence to steer singlehandedly European Union policy. Washington’s special relationship with Berlin will not only benefit bilateral relations; a Germany more engaged in global security operations is critical to the maintenance of the current international order. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski perhaps expressed this sentiment best in 2011, stating, “I fear German power less today than German inaction (3).”
Domestic unrest in Germany as a result of the refugee crisis underscores the German security establishment’s inability to address terrorist threats. Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, stated recently, “In a way, we have outsourced our counterterrorism to the US. Germans are not ready to build up their intelligence capabilities for political reasons, so this will continue (4).” Indeed, Germany’s commitment to modernize and invest in its military and intelligence apparatus remains in question. With a defense budget of 1.3% of overall GDP, Germany falls visibly short of fulfilling the 2% NATO provision (5). However, as Germany slowly enacts defense and intelligence policy reforms, Washington should support and reinforce Berlin’s position, while emboldening Germany to expand its global security footprint.
The United States can work with Germany both bilaterally and via NATO to identify niche investment areas in which Germany can specialize. The US should emphasize Germany’s existing forte of organization and efficiency when considering areas for investment. Rather than focusing on the size of Germany’s military, Washington should initially recommend support capabilities (e.g. intelligence systems, air-to- air refueling, strategic lift, etc.) in which Germany can hone expertise and focus future funding. “Owning” specific mission sets will afford Germany the opportunity to develop a further leadership role within the military alliance construct. Additionally, the US should work to encourage the German Ministry of Defense to assume a larger decision-making role in policy circles. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long cast a shadow over defense policy, leaving the Ministry of Defense to focus on procurement and training.
Additionally, today’s dynamic threats require the US and Germany to enhance intelligence cooperation, solidifying silent linkages that facilitate a worldwide anti-terror watch and fight. In an era of radical Islamic terrorism, the cross-border exchange of intelligence is an indispensible tool in the preservation of security and stability. Germany’s complicated privacy laws make cooperation among its intelligence entities and key government ministries exceptionally difficult. To this end, the US should develop a new framework for increased bilateral intelligence sharing and collaboration with Germany. Washington should also invite Germany into the “Five-Eyes” intelligence-sharing framework, along with the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Such a sweeping initiative would add significant capability to existing members’ portfolios as well as assist the German government in managing domestic public opinion, which remains highly suspect of intelligence-related matters.
Today, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s question, “so who do I call to reach Europe?” finally has an answer. Only the German Chancellor, not the President of the European Commission, wields the political and economic clout to claim this mantle. The US must now assist Germany in developing and enhancing the security clout that befits its new role—that of America’s new “special relationship” partner of the future.
(1) German Federal Ministry of Defense, White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, Berlin, July 2016.
(2) The Economist, “Britain’s Role in the World, Muscle Memory,” 14 February 2015.
(3) Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Poland and the Future of the European Union,” Speech of Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski to the German government, Berlin, 28 November 2011.
(4) Quoted in Alison Smale and Melisa Eddy, “German Terrorism Case Highlights Europe’s Security Challenges,” The New York Times, 24 October 2016.
(5) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Military Spending in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis,” 13 April 2015.