What are western interests

German defense policy

Sven morning

to person

Sven Morgen is a political scientist and research assistant at the Chair for International Relations at the University of Jena. He teaches and researches primarily on German foreign and security policy, foreign missions and German engagement in NATO.

Germany in the alliance

For Germany, NATO is the most important security policy alliance. It has gone through several changes since the end of the Cold War. Their future also depends on how European members organize their own security.

German and NATO flags stand on the occasion of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Federal Republic's membership in the Foreign Office in Berlin. Germany has been a member of NATO since 1955. (& copy dpa)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949 by twelve European and North American states. As a system of collective defense, the alliance was directed against the Soviet Union. With its expansionist efforts, this represented a direct threat to the European states in particular and, against the backdrop of the looming Cold War, entered into direct competition with the USA for political and economic supremacy in the world.

"Keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down" - this is how its first general secretary, Lord Hastings Ismay, is said to have summed up the spirit and purpose of NATO. However, shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany was not one of the founding states of NATO. Divided Germany soon developed into the central arena of the East-West conflict. The Western Allies finally agreed to rearm the Federal Republic and join NATO in 1955 in order to bind them permanently to the Western military alliance. As a frontline state in the Cold War, the Federal Republic was a cornerstone of alliance defense in Central Europe.

Change to the system of collective security

At the latest with the end of the Cold War - with the loss of the main enemy, the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact - the alliance's defense dimension lost its importance. NATO made a transformation from a system more collective defense towards a system more collective security. Systems of collective security work not only externally but also internally and pacify the relationships between members. This became evident even before 1989: For example, it can be assumed that the conflict-laden relationship between Turkey and Greece (both members since 1952) was defused by membership in NATO and was therefore carried out with political rather than military means.

In the 1990s, the collective security approach became a defining characteristic for the Alliance (also for Germany) and also the basis for the eastward expansion of NATO. With the prospect of accession, NATO offered the former Warsaw Pact states an attractive perspective that promoted the development of the young democracies in Eastern and Central Europe in the direction of liberal democratic models and political stabilization. In 1999 Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. This expanded the area of ​​the alliance to the borders of the Russian Federation. The motivation of the Eastern and Central European states to carry out the costly and challenging political and military transformations necessary for NATO membership was in turn the attractiveness of the system of collective defense against the (historically determined) perceived threat from Russia.

In the 1990s, Germany was able to improve its geostrategic position with the help of NATO as a system of collective security. Due to NATO's eastward expansion and the associated stabilization of Central and Eastern Europe, Germany would no longer be a front-line state in the event of a military conflict, but now occupies a relatively secure geopolitical position in the heart of Europe and is completely surrounded by "friends".

The (geo-) strategic perspectives and fields of action

Until 1990, deterrence and potential defense against the Soviet Union were NATO's dominant geostrategic perspective. National defense in Europe and the North Atlantic area was the main task of the alliance. NATO and the armed forces of its members were aligned accordingly.

From 1990 to 1999, the focus was on striving for self-preservation and the necessary transformation of NATO as an organization and alliance. In order to cope with this task, in its strategic concept of 1991, NATO also focused on non-traditional security threats and thus created new fields of activity for the alliance. As an expression of an expanded understanding of security and in the sense of a security policy that is no longer just threat, but rather risk-oriented and thus more proactive, NATO's field of activity has been expanded to include crisis prevention and crisis management.

With the new strategic perspective, no longer only immediate or territorial security threats played a role. Instead, the focus was on regional and global developments and their indirect effects on NATO member states. Non-traditional security threats such as internal conflicts (e.g. civil wars) and transnational phenomena such as terrorism or the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction (proliferation) were now also on NATO's agenda. As an actor, NATO itself actively advanced this transformation in some cases; in some cases, the member states also saw the alliance as a suitable instrument for tackling new security policy challenges.

A tornado fighter takes off from Italy on March 23, 1999 on a reconnaissance flight. At that time, Germany took part in the NATO air strikes on Serbia. Its use in the context of the Kosovo war is still controversial under international law. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

This strategic change in perspective was particularly evident in the 1990s in the first NATO out-of-area missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (IFOR) and in Kosovo (Operation Allied Force and KFOR). The extent to which NATO internalized the logic of the expanded concept of security as a guiding benchmark was also shown by the fact that the NATO air strikes to end the Kosovo war were carried out despite the lack of a mandate from the UN Security Council and thus without a basis under international law. Instead, strong reference was made to moral legitimacy, as the mission was intended to end Serbia's ongoing massive human rights violations in Kosovo.

At the same time, in the 1990s, NATO functioned - alongside the European Community - as a "socialization agency" for the former Warsaw Pact states that wanted to become part of the Western community. The partnership programs and the accession processes integrated the Eastern European countries into NATO and then later into the European Union. Here the strategic perspective was more inward.

Reorientation towards foreign assignments

The successful consolidation and realignment of NATO found its expression in the strategic concept of 1999. With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent, first-time declaration of the NATO alliance case, the out-of-area orientation experienced a dissolution of boundaries. While this approach was still understood regionally in the alliance in the 1990s and related to the periphery of the alliance area, "out of area" was also thought globally in the 2000s. A global claim to action was derived from this whenever the interests of the member states were endangered by threats in the sense of an expanded security concept.

However, this development was also characterized by sometimes violent internal disputes about the direction and use of NATO. Since the potential out-of-area missions (for example in Iraq 2002/03) were often rather subordinate for the majority of the members ("second order concerns") and therefore the immediate necessity for their implementation was difficult to convey to one's own population , it was not always possible to reach a consensus on how to proceed together. This led to the emergence of new forms of cooperation alongside NATO (e.g. the coalition of the willing - in the Iraq war), thereby weakening the cohesion and importance of the alliance.

Afghanistan as an endurance test

The Afghanistan mission caused another stress test within NATO. Germany participated in the Afghanistan mission right from the start, but was criticized by the alliance partners for the rather cautious design of the mission and the strict caveats. This would have had negative effects on the performance of the German troops in action and thus also on the actions of NATO as a whole. This led to sometimes sharp discussions and the allegation of a lack of alliance solidarity in Germany by the allies.

The 2000s were a major security challenge for NATO and especially for Germany, since the reorientation to new threat situations required an adjustment of military capabilities. The armed forces of most member states were structurally geared towards national and alliance defense in Central and Eastern Europe. However, global crisis management required a new composition of the armed forces, which went hand in hand with major reform efforts and high financial burdens. Several structural reforms of the Bundeswehr have also been initiated in Germany. For example, the total number of soldiers has been steadily reduced, but more emphasis has been placed on global operational capability, for example in the case of equipment and vehicles. Thus an attempt was made to do justice to the new realities and tasks. Despite various internal disputes, NATO did not lose its importance in the 2000s. On the contrary, NATO kept carrying out new operations and missions in which Germany - despite the lack of an immediate threat - participated and thus showed solidarity with the alliance (e.g. in operations in Macedonia, the Horn of Africa, Turkey or the Mediterranean Sea) . The fact that the Federal Government and the Bundestag refused to participate in a major NATO mission has been the exception so far, despite the increasingly negative attitude of public opinion in Germany (Libya mission 2011).

This phase was continued in the strategic concept from 2010. With this concept the developments in the 2000s were taken up and the member states added in the course of the eastward enlargement were included in the alignment of NATO. NATO emphasized three tasks of equal importance:
  1. collective defense according to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (alliance case),
  2. political and military crisis management and
  3. cooperative security with third countries.

Crimean annexation as a turning point

With the annexation of Crimea by Russia in the spring of 2014, in violation of international law, another change in NATO's strategic direction became necessary. What had already been indicated in the war in Georgia in 2008 was confirmed in 2014: Russia is ready to use aggressive military means in its foreign policy and to enforce its geopolitical interests, to disregard existing international treaties and agreements and thus to the European peace order undermine.

This made it necessary for the NATO states to place greater emphasis on territorial defense in Europe as a deterrent, which was decided at the NATO summits in Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016). This development made the very resource-intensive and challenging restructuring into armed forces that could be deployed around the world in the 2000s obsolete. The previously dismantled capabilities were needed again and had to be rebuilt or modernized accordingly.

German battle tanks will be loaded onto railroad tracks on July 27, 2018. You are part of a Bundeswehr battalion stationed in Lithuania as part of NATO's "Enhanced Forward Presence". (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

More defense spending

From the perspective of the Eastern European NATO states in particular, the Russian approach required a (partial) return to alliance defense, which is to be halted by deterring Russian foreign policy. For this reason, in 2014 in Wales, in addition to specific measures such as the stationing of (including German) NATO troops in the Baltic states ("Enhanced Forward Presence"), a target for increasing the defense spending of the individual NATO states was also decided: annually, at least two percent of the gross domestic product is spent on the armed forces. This is to maintain an effective deterrent against Russia.

In Germany, the two percent target is politically controversial. Although the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had negotiated and confirmed the decision, a discussion broke out in the election campaign for the 2017 federal election at the latest as to whether the increase in defense spending and the burden on German public finances were proportionate. In the meantime, the debate about the two percent target has also become internationally emotional, as this is used by some as an indicator of the willingness to join forces. This is expressed not least in the demands of incumbent US President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly threatened the US to withdraw if the NATO member states - above all Germany - do not contribute more to joint military and armaments spending.

Perspectives and controversies

The development of NATO depicted in this text is largely depicted from a German perspective. Taking a global perspective provides a broader picture of the challenges and problems facing NATO that could determine the future of the Alliance.

The now widely diverging threat perceptions of the NATO countries pose a structural challenge. A clear divide can be seen here between Northern and Eastern Europe on the one hand and Southern Europe on the other. Poland and the Baltic states in particular, but also Germany, Norway and the NATO partner states Sweden and Finland, have been looking increasingly towards the east since 2014 and see Russia as a threat to the territorial integrity of the NATO alliance area. The member states bordering the Mediterranean, such as France, Spain and Italy, see themselves more at risk from threats in the sense of an expanded security concept such as terrorism and migration. These different threat perceptions lead to different priorities and the associated strategic orientations of the armed forces in the individual member states. In the future, this could also lead to problems or ambiguities in alliance solidarity when it comes to where, how and why NATO forces should be deployed.

On a global level, the competition between the USA and China will shape international politics in the coming decades. With its economic and associated political rise, the People's Republic of China is increasingly questioning the hegemonic supremacy of the USA. The USA already responded to this under President Barack Obama with the "Pivot to Asia" and shifted more attention and armed forces to Asia. However, this inevitably means that the USA will gradually turn away from Europe. This development will intensify as the United States sees Russia only as a regional challenge and not as a global player. As a result, the Europeans face the threat that the USA can or will less and less support them in overcoming their regional security challenges.

This does not go unnoticed in Europe. A political debate has long been going on as to whether and how the European states can become more militarily independent in order to be able to act in terms of security policy even with little or no support from the USA. To what extent a separate European army could represent a sensible alternative or supplement to NATO, or whether it will result in closer cooperation between national armed forces within the framework of European institutions, remains to be seen. In a situation in which a new competitive situation between the liberal-democratic West and autocratic actors such as China and Russia is foreseeable, NATO and its partner USA could still remain the means of choice to guarantee European security interests regionally and globally.

Sources and references

Deni, John R. (2017): NATO and Article 5. The transatlantic Alliance and the Twenty-First-Century Challenges of Collective Defense, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham.

Dettke, Dieter (2009): Germany as a European power and ally, in: From Politics and Contemporary History No. 15-16 / 2009, Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn, pp. 41-46.

Galeotti, Mark (2016): Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of is Military in Europe since 2014, European Council on Foreign Relations. Available online at: https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/heavy_metal_diplomacy_russias_political_use_of_its_military_in_europe_since.

Giegerich, Bastian (2012): NATO in Action - Determinants of Multilateral Strategic Capability, in: Seiffert Anja / Langer, Phil C. / Pietsch, Carsten (eds.): The deployment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan, Springer VS, Wiesbaden, pp. 65-78.

Górka-Winter, Beata and Madej, Marek (2010): NATO Member States and the New Strategic Concept: An Overview, The Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw. Available online at: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/116768/PISM_Report_NATO_ENG.pdf.

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Naumann, Klaus (2010): Mission without a goal? The political need of the military, Special edition of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn.