Germany rebuffs Trump's call for a big jump in military spending

BERLIN — Europe's most populous and economically powerful country can easily afford to spend more on its military defense, as NATO requires and President Trump demands. Yet Germany, still haunted by the horrors of World War II, simply doesn't want to do that.

Even in today's dangerous world, Germany is a largely pacifist nation, security analysts say.

"It's clear that the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) just can't realistically achieve these goals," said Sönke Neitzel, a professor of military history at the University of Potsdam. "The institution has really fallen behind. We're very far away from being fit for combat on a small scale, let alone on a large one."

The world's fourth-largest economy spent $37 billion — 1.2% of its economic output — on defense last year, according to government figures. That is far short of the 2% set by NATO and a third of the 3.6% of gross domestic product that the United States spent in 2016, according to NATO figures.

That shortfall by Germany and other NATO countries is why Trump renewed his call in a speech to Congress on Feb. 28 for NATO members to pay their fair share of defense costs. "Our partners must meet their financial obligations," Trump said. "Now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact, I can tell you that the money is pouring in."

That's not quite the case in the German capital. The federal government plans to increase its military spending by $2.1 billion this year. It would bring total spending to $39 billion, a 5.4% annual boost. The increase pales in comparison with the 10%, or $54 billion, hike in U.S. defense spending Trump proposes for 2018.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, recently announced plans to add 20,000 soldiers to the Bundeswehr to bring the force to nearly 200,000 but not before 2024, and the increase merely offsets recent cuts in troop strength.

"Security and safety are important," Merkel said last week. "Responsibilities need to be fulfilled. The world expects it of us, and I think they are right to expect Germany to deliver on its pledges."

To fulfill NATO's requirements, the nation of 80 million would have to double its defense spending to more than $79 billion within the next seven years. Plans call for spending $41 billion by 2020.

Defense Ministry officials said the country isn’t shirking its responsibilities. "Germany is prepared to take an early, decisive and substantial role as a driving force in the debate over international security," the ministry said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Even if Merkel pushed for more defense spending, she would face a public with low support for a stronger military. In 2011, the government ended conscription. Since then, the size of the armed forces contracted by about 22,000 soldiers through last year, government figures show.

"Preparedness to fight is an attitude that really doesn't exist here in Germany," Neitzel said.

To attract more recruits, the Defense Ministry launched a multi-million-dollar recruitment campaign late last year featuring a YouTube reality series targeting citizens ages 14 to 35.

Following 12 new soldiers through basic training, the upbeat YouTube series quickly became an Internet sensation in Germany. But many criticized the endeavor for glossing over reality.

In contrast to the well-equipped, modern military force depicted in the series and recruiting advertisements, reports of arms shortages and malfunctioning weapons have tarnished the Bundeswehr’s reputation. Some media stories said German soldiers even used broomsticks instead of weapons in NATO training exercises and paid out of pocket for equipment.

"They should be working toward bettering the working conditions for soldiers instead of manipulating people with an advertising campaign," said Maximillian Schuberth, 28, a student at Humboldt University in Berlin. "It's not believable at all that this is actually how the Bundeswehr is."

Should Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats win national elections in September, Germany might increase military spending even more to placate Trump and avoid a breach with its U.S. ally.

"People see there's pressure from Trump, there's pressure to better the current situation of the armed forces and there's pressure regarding the overall security situation surrounding Germany and Europe," said Christian Mölling, a security and defense analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations.

That doesn't mean the Bundeswehr will meet Trump's expectations, Neitzel said.

"There's certainly pressure from the USA, but I don't think it will fundamentally change cultural perceptions of the military in Germany," he said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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