Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
That postwar Germany has developed a political culture reluctant to use military force is eminently understandable. Militarism brought only disaster upon Germany, Europe and indeed the world.
Yet alongside this reluctance to project military power, Germans also absorbed a further lesson: of the need to confront the enemies of democracy and the rule of law robustly, though carefully, while maintaining faith in the principles that underpin modern liberal society. During the cold war, West Germany became an indispensable member of the Western alliance. It suppressed any revival of Nazism and overcame German nationalist ideas (even these days, the German far right is largely to be found in the ex-communist East). It defeated the terrorism of the Red Army Faction. Though like many western countries it initially overlooked the rise of Islamist extremism (much of 9/11 was plotted in Hamburg), it has been active in the struggle against it. It should not come as a surprise that one of the wisest heads in this field, King’s College’s Peter Neumann, is himself German.
The Iraq war, conducted while government of the Bundesrepublik had been entrusted to Gerhard Schroder (whose subsequent behaviour in both bedroom and boardroom does much to confirm the prejudice against ageing men who continue dyeing their hair past the point at which plausible deniability can be maintained), appeared to be high point of a Germany that recognises its economic power while considering itself, in the words one German foreign policy analyst used to me, “a small country.” But the crisis over Ukraine has confirmed the emergence of a strategic culture more in keeping with the country’s responsibilities.
Merkel’s cautious, but just-sufficiently strong, handling of the Ukraine crisis marked the start of a more vigorous and less straightforwardly commercial policy in Berlin. Last January, Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, argued that his country should “take more resolute steps to preserve and help shape” the international order.
Since then however, the German economy has stalled a little and short-termists have begun to ask whether this greater ambition can be afforded. But on this occasion greater ambition is precisely what is needed.
The reasons for German slowdown are a combination of manufacturing export weakness thanks to crisis with Russia, higher energy costs because of a hugely ambitious decarbonisation programme, and a collapse in car exports not unrelated to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption. Fear of inflation limits the ECB’s room for manoeuvre, while Germans’ reluctance to spend has prevented consumers taking up the slack. The fear of inflation is quite understandable and the reluctance to spend money you don’t have may be a useful lesson that would do well to be learned elsewhere, but together they produce a market failure in the form of negative nominal yields on long term German government debt. The markets’ signal could not be clearer: start borrowing money and spending it on something, anything.
The traditional conservative Keynesian solution – tax cuts – might have merit (German taxes are high, and in these conditions on the wrong side of the Laffer curve), but would be of little use if the money were left in savings accounts. Perhaps a case could be made to further improve Germany’s roads and railways, or to add a fifth runaway to Frankfurt airport. But Germany’s main shortage, apart from demand, is of labour. More labour-intensive infrastructure projects would only make that problem worse.
There has, however, been a significant shortfall in military spending. Despite the improvement in strategic culture under Merkel and the transformation of the Bundeswehr from a conscript into a professional army, the first duty of government has been neglected.
Germany spends just 1.4 per cent of its GDP on defence, less than NATO’s 2 per cent target. Increasing defence expenditure to 2 per cent would leave its contribution to global security at $68 billion, a little more than that of Britain or France, and rectify decades of neglect of the country’s military preparedness that has left much of equipment in disrepair.
A military investment programme would also come at the right time for the German economy, offset declining Russian and Chinese demand and stimulate domestic industry. The opportunity to buy the very best European equipment could yield orders for industry across the continent and sap the strength of extremists such as the French National Front.
Germans have quite rightly abandoned the militarism of their past (though they only escaped East Germany’s hyper-militarised society rather more recently). But collective security ought to have an altogether different ring. German rearmament would not be about projecting power but exercising responsibility for the defence of democracy and the rule of law in Europe.