A Merkel-Trump clash at NATO seems inevitable - what will Germany do?


Germany has faced increased criticism from President Trump on the issue of NATO spending, arguing that it is "free riding" off American security in Europe. How will Chancellor Merkel respond to these allegations at the 2018 NATO Summit? 

Following a dispute over Germany’s refugee policy with her closest governing coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), German Chancellor Angela Merkel barely averted the collapse of her government last week. At the same time, she was under pressure to reach a compromise on migration with reluctant partners at a recent European Union summit. President Donald Trump has tried to take advantage of Merkel’s vulnerable position by attacking her stance during the migration crisis, arguing that “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership.”

Indeed, German-U.S. relations are approaching a historic low — and could hit rock bottom at this week’s NATO summit.

The discussions there will especially focus on burden-sharing within the alliance. Trump has long criticized Germany and other allies for failing to meet the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product by the year 2024. He recently warned several NATO members that the U.S. is losing patience with their failure to sufficiently contribute to the alliance’s collective defense. He seems especially fixated on Germany, and a clash between Trump and Merkel seems increasingly inevitable. How will the German chancellor respond to Trump’s allegation that Germany is a “free rider” of American security in Europe?

As in the past, Merkel will likely argue that commitment to the NATO alliance cannot only be measured by the percentage that each NATO member spends on defense but also by its engagement in NATO operations and defense efforts in Europe. Germany is a major troop contributor to the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and leads a multinational battle group in Lithuania. In 2019, Germany will lead NATO’s “Spearhead Force,” which can be deployed as first responder in a potential conflict. In addition to these commitments, Germany will host a new NATO command for logistics and support that should facilitate quick troop and defense material movements within Europe.

Germany’s recent role in international counterterrorism efforts is perhaps a stronger argument to conciliate Trump. In her encounters with the U.S. president, Merkel can point out that Germany plans to contribute to a new NATO mission in Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers in the fight against ISIS. Merkel will likely also highlight that Germany contributes up to 1,100 troops to the U.N. mission in Mali, which is involved in fighting extremist groups in the Sahel.

Merkel’s main vulnerability in relation to Trump, however, remains Germany’s defense budget.

The budget has significantly increased over the past years but is unlikely to meet the NATO target. Merkel’s hands are tied, as her coalition partner, the German Social Democrats (SPD), oppose major defense increases. According to the recent budget proposal of the German finance minister Olaf Scholz (SPD), German defense spending will grow by more than 4 billion Euros in 2019 and then slowly further increase in the next years. But given the projected economic growth in Germany, the defense component of the German budget would still only amount to 1.23 percent in 2022.

This has frustrated German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen (Christian Democratic Union of Germany), a Merkel ally, who argues that the current budget is insufficient for the modernization of the armed forces and requested an additional 12 million Euros over the next four years.

German defense experts attest to the poor state of readiness of the German armed forces and its military capabilities. But they also argue that the problem is less related to the defense budget and more to an inefficient use of the funding, especially with regards to procurement. SPD politicians therefore request Von der Leyen to address mismanagement within her ministry.

With a growing economy, leading SPD politicians have also warned that more defense spending will make Germany the most powerful military power in Europe. Given Germany’s history, this scenario is frightening for many Germans. Indeed, public support for further defense spending is limited. According to an opinion poll of October 2017, only 32 percent of Germans think that the defense budget should be increased, whereas 51 percent think it should remain at the current levels.

Even if Germany’s GDP continues to increase at the projected rate and the defense component of the budget reaches 1.5 percent by 2025 (a number that is often mentioned by the government), Germany will have increased its defense budget by 80 percent in 11 years – an impressive growth. In encounters with Trump, Merkel can argue that U.S. pressure on Germany to increase its defense spending has clearly paid off.

But it’s uncertain that this strategy toward Trump will work out.

In the past, NATO summits often served to show unity and solidarity within the Western alliance. Trump does not seem to share this objective. Instead, he appears interested in disrupting this convention by targeting Germany and other defense laggards.

Merkel’s best hope might be that the summit will be overshadowed by other disputes and concerns within the alliance. The United States and Turkey, for example, have continued to clash over Ankara’s plans to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense missile system. Many Eastern European NATO members are wary of the U.S. commitment to NATO's Article 5 principle of common defense and are therefore anxious about Trump’s motives for meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While these topics could distract from the defense spending issue, it is far from certain that a major clash between the U.S. president and Chancellor Merkel can be averted.

The article was originally published in The Hill on July 10th, 2018.