Ever since Donald Trump took office as US president in January, there has been friction between Berlin and Washington over a variety of topics – and in particular over NATO. While the German government is staunchly in favor of furthering military cooperation within NATO, Mr. Trump has criticized the trans-Atlantic alliance on numerous occasions. Much to Berlin’s dismay, Mr. Trump has called it “obsolete” and berated European allies, including Germany, for owing “vast sums of money” for defense. He has also cast doubts on whether the US would stay committed to NATO’s principle of mutual defense.
However, Mr. Trump is far from being the only one feeling ambivalent about NATO. When it comes to supporting the military alliance, it seems the German public agrees more with the American president than with its own government.
According to the latest 2017 Global Attitudes survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of German respondents said Berlin should not take military action “if Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally.” Yet Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which created NATO in 1949, commits member countries to come to the assistance of a fellow NATO member if that ally is attacked.
Of the eight countries polled, Germany was the only one where more respondents rejected NATO solidarity than backed it. And support for Germany getting dragged into a military conflict with Russia dropped to just 29 percent of respondents from former East Germany, which was under Soviet occupation until 1990. By comparison, 45 percent of Brits said the UK should use military force to defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia, to 43 percent who opposed it. And 62 percent of the Americans surveyed by Pew supported the idea of honoring Article 5, which Mr. Trump declined to endorse at Thursday’s NATO summit in Brussels.
But despite their misgivings about NATO’s principle of mutual assistance, the German public views the security pact increasingly favorably, the survey has found. Two-thirds of the 1,002 respondents said they viewed NATO in a positive light, the third-highest level of support, while just one-quarter disagreed. Support for the trans-Atlantic alliance has surged in Germany in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement by proxy in a border conflict with neighboring Ukraine since 2014.
But if few Germans want their country to withdraw altogether from the military alliance, the country remains divided on NATO defense spending. With Donald Trump in the White House, Berlin’s contributions to the alliance will likely become a campaign topic in the general election scheduled for September 24.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term, has spoken out in favor of boosting military expenditure to meet the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024. But defense spending is a deeply unpopular topic for German voters. To compound Ms. Merkel’s worries, Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, has been embroiled in a series of scandals in recent months, which has tarnished its image.
Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, the chancellor’s main opponent in the September election, has categorically rejected the 2-percent target. Last month, Mr. Schulz said should he become Germany’s next chancellor, he would not block an increase defense spending altogether, but that it was “completely unrealistic to raise expectations in Germany or among our partners that we will add €30 billion ($31.6 billion) to our defense spending over the next 8 years” – the amount required to reach the 2 percent threshold.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the autor: firstname.lastname@example.org.