Sigmar Gabriel

Enough Military, More Aid

Sigmar Gabriel Deutschland Dinner Dominik Butzmann for HB
Sigmar Gabriel wants to work with Donald Trump, but not on defense. Source: Dominik Butsmann for Handelsblatt

It’s been a common refrain that Germany’s federal election to date has been rather boring, highlighted by a television debate between the country’s two main candidates last weekend that exposed very few real differences on policy. On Monday, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister and a senior member of the Social Democrats, sought to highlight one key difference with Angela Merkel that should matter for the United States: defense spending.

In an interview, Mr. Gabriel said defense spending was among the only areas of foreign policy where he and the chancellor don’t see eye to eye. While Ms. Merkel has said she intends to meet a target agreed to with other NATO members to raise military spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, and has taken steps to meet that target, Mr. Gabriel said he’s opposed.

“I don’t think it is necessary and I believe it sends the wrong signal,” Mr. Gabriel said in an interview with Handelsblatt’s publisher Gabor Steingart in Berlin. Instead, the foreign minister has pushed for aid spending, which he views as critical to maintaining global security, to be included as part of that 2-percent target.

This disagreement matters, because the country happens to be in a so-called grand coalition, where Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and Mr. Gabriel’s center-left Social Democrats are governing together. That means these two leaders, though they come from different parties, have to speak with one voice.

“It would damage Germany's leadership position within NATO if it were backing away from an agreed decision by heads of government and heads of state.”

Jeffrey Rathke, Senior fellow, Center for Strategic & International Studies

Instead, Germany has sent mixed signals when it comes to whether the country will meet its defense spending goals. Ms. Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, also from the Christian Democrats, have said they intend to meet the 2-percent target (Germany spends about 1.2 percent currently) that was agreed at a NATO summit back in 2014. Donald Trump, who has repeatedly railed against European NATO members for not holding up their end of the bargain on defense, has welcomed Ms. Merkel’s commitment.

Mr. Gabriel, who was the Social Democratic party’s leader until he chose to step aside for Martin Schulz at the start of this year, argued it’s nonsensical to spend more on defense when Germany already struggles to efficiently spend its current military budget. Germany spends half as much as the US on defense as a percentage of GDP half as efficiently, he complained. It would be better to focus on doubling that efficiency first.

Which side will win out? Maybe neither. While Ms. Merkel’s party looks almost certain to win the most votes in the country’s September 24 election, opinion polls currently suggest a grand coalition is the most likely outcome (Ms. Merkel may not win enough votes to govern on her own or with a smaller fringe party). That means these two major political parties could be stuck with each other in government for some time.

For that to work, one side or the other will have to give some ground – including on the issue of defense. A possible compromise: Ms. Merkel might be open to including development aid, which she also views as critical to maintaining security globally by building up emerging countries where terrorism, for example, can take root. A fudge might also be possible, raising spending to 1.6 percent of GDP over the next four years, for example, without expressly mentioning the 2-percent target for 2024.

Whatever Ms. Merkel agrees to, a renegotiation seems to be a non-starter for the United States – and not only because Donald Trump is in charge – according to Jeffrey Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “The Social Democratic party is a member of current coalition government, and that government agreed to the 2-percent target in 2014 before the Trump administration took office. I don’t really understand what has changed in the meantime that should change the agreement,” he told Handelsblatt Global.

While development spending has some security ramifications, Mr. Rathke said it should be treated separately and “it doesn’t make sense to conflate the two.” He suggested the US administration might be open to a joint spending target – 3 percent for example – but would never agree to an amount below 2 percent for defense.

Mr. Rathke also warned that looking to renegotiate, while it may be palatable to some other NATO members that are missing their targets, could undermine Germany’s own position in the military alliance: “It would damage Germany’s leadership position within NATO if it were backing away from an agreed decision by heads of government and heads of state,” he said.

“Otherwise our children will wake up one day in a very dangerous world.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

It’s not that Mr. Gabriel isn’t prepared to work with Donald Trump. On the contrary, while he said the two sides disagree on many issues, he made an impassioned plea for Europe not to go it alone. In our interview, he took the example of North Korea: Nothing could happen without the United States, Russia or China. For Europe to have any global impact, it has no choice but to establish good relations with all three. “Otherwise our children will wake up one day in a very dangerous world,” he said.

But dealing effectively with the United States also means making clear Europe’s own priorities and interests, he said. That requires Europe becoming better at speaking with one voice on foreign and defense issues. “The path into a much stronger cooperation has ben laid out,” he said, and could even end with the creation of a European army. “Europe needs to become a global political actor,” he said.

Becoming a global player isn’t just about dealing with the United States. The German foreign minister also pleaded with Europe to be more open to negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He argued – not for the first time – that Germany, for which Mr. Putin has some affinity, has a unique role here as a mediator.

And while he may not have highlighted it as a policy difference, this is an area where Mr. Gabriel departs from Ms. Merkel too. The German foreign minister called on Europe to accept the Russian president’s proposal to allow UN peacekeeping troops to police conflict regions in eastern Ukraine. He suggested sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea could be relaxed (though only in part) once a ceasefire in Ukraine is in place. This is a step that neither Ms. Merkel, nor the United States, have been willing to take.

If Mr. Gabriel said he remains willing to work with Russia and the United States, he expects the same from his partners: It’s in Mr. Trump’s interest not to shut the United States off to Europe, or the world, he said. A global vacuum will be filled by another actor, one that won’t necessarily be sympathetic to US interests, he warned. In that point at least, Mr. Gabriel isn’t very far off from his boss, Angela Merkel.

Gabor Steingart, publisher of Handelsblatt, conducted the interview. Christopher Cermak, an editor currently based in Washington DC, wrote this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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