Germany Reforms Its Military, But to No Avail

Following its announcement last year to end compulsory conscription, Germany has further outlined its ambitious military reform plans. The crux of the effort to suspend compulsory conscription will vastly reduce the number of German military personnel, and pave the way for a smaller, all-volunteer, more agile military. This is a clear attempt to boost Germany’s contribution to international security operations like those in Afghanistan, which have been criticized for being too small or ineffective in recent years.

Yet, despite the necessity and boldness of these reform efforts, Germany’s complicated historical and political relationship with military force will continue to thwart a coherent defense policy in Berlin.

Historically, Germany’s relationship with its military has been legally defined by its defeat in World War II, resulting in its pacifist stance. Its contemporary view of military force is colored by the post-war constitution of West Germany, which committed the German military to a “state of defense” doctrine, meaning that deploying for anything other than defending the nation was against the constitution.

While this strict constitutional interpretation has faded post-unification — and German forces have seen active combat in both Kosovo and Afghanistan — there remains a complicated political legacy surrounding the use of military power. This legacy is stuck between two contrasting impulses: the average German’s heightened reticence about using military force and the political elite’s feelings that Germany’s economic stature requires it to participate in international security.

These impulses account for Germany’s often schizophrenic defense policy in the last decade. For instance, in 2003 Germany joined France in taking a vehemently anti-war stance against the U.S invasion of Iraq — with strong popular support. Yet just three years later, Germany agreed to extend the mandate of NATO in Afghanistan, thus committing themselves to a lengthy and difficult military mission few Germans desired.

Similarly, Germany felt compelled to abstain from the UN Security Council resolution that authorized a military mission in Libya. In choosing to side with the likes of Russia and China, Germany affronted NATO allies with its military-averse stance. Sure enough, Germany quickly changed its direction, and now has naval assets committed to help blockade President Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. 

With Berlin’s planned defense reform, German policy once again lacks coherence. While committing to modernize its military for participation in over-seas missions, Berlin simultaneously commits only 1.4% of its GDP to defense spending annually — falling short of the 2% NATO benchmark.

This deficit, the equivalent of €20 billion per year, outweighs by a vast magnitude the savings being made by the upcoming reform package; this invalidates Berlin’s apparent desire to seriously strengthen its defense stance.

Germany is often unfairly characterized as “pacifist,” or simply “soft on defense.” Its current reform package, which will fundamentally re-structure the military, indicates this is not true. However, the reality is far worse. Germany is torn between contrary defense policy imperatives, and the result is an incoherent mess. Until Berlin can firmly strike out in a strategic direction, its international military commitment will continue to be a half-hearted and dangerously under-resourced.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons