By Felix Manig
Five months after the September 2017 elections, the ‘grand coalition’ deal between Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU, her sister-party CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) is set to end unprecedented political stalemate in Germany. While the deal hinges on a final approval by the 460,000 members of the SPD base in early March, observers are already examining the negotiation agreement for clues of what to expect from Germany’s next government. Given new geopolitical realities in Europe’s neighbourhood, uncertainty about transatlantic relations, and repeated calls for Berlin to take on a more proactive role in international affairs, what does the new proposal hold for the country’s foreign, security and defence policy? The coalition paper builds on Germany’s latest strategic military document, the so-called “White Paper” of 2016, and places a primary focus on developing an integrated approach to European foreign and security policy, increasing Germany’s commitment to multilateral alliances, and the modernization of its armed forces.
Interestingly, the current paper mandates a sense of urgency and reckoning rarely found among German lawmakers in shaping security and defence policy. (Note: A link to the full version of the coalition proposal will be provided at the end of this article.) Commitments to multilateral approaches to conflict resolution, including mechanisms at the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and along the European Union (EU)’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) are recurrent German priorities which appeared in previous coalition deals. However, parties involved in the coalition discussions now describe today’s world as “less secure and less predictable”. The paper identifies geopolitical tensions, climate change, intractable civil conflicts, as well as a new form of aggressive nationalism within and outside of Europe as key threats to international peace, security, and democracy.
European Foreign and Security Policy
Decision-makers in the potential coalition are promoting the clear message that Europe needs a new narrative and must take on more responsibility to ensure its own security. The proposal identifies the need for EU states to adopt an integrated approach in foreign affairs and security issues, and to strengthen existing CSDP mechanisms. The parties’ commitment to the European Defence Union, which would see joint procurement among member states and the establishment of multinational forces within the permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) framework, would be an important first step in this direction. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the paper is the call for an “Army of Europeans”, an idea EU members had previously discarded due to the reluctance to cede sovereignty on defence policy.
The potential new government also plans to strengthen German capacities for strategic analysis and communication, both on the military and civilian front. This includes increased funding for the Federal Academy for Security Policy, an education and training institution under guidance of the Ministry of Defence, as well as key German security and foreign policy think tanks such as the German Council on Foreign Relations or the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Furthermore, the coalition suggests the creation of a “European Council on Global Responsibilities”, an independent institution tasked, somewhat vaguely, to promote a European signature on questions of international order. Equally, there is room for interpretation from what is not mentioned in the paper. While Russian meddling in the US general election continues to make headlines across the Atlantic, the coalition partners appear, at least publicly, less concerned about disinformation campaigns within Germany and its periphery. This omission is likely part of Germany’s strategy to keep wires open to Moscow in order to reach an agreement on Ukraine.
International and European Alliances and Partnerships
Germany continues to view multilateral initiatives and alliances as the best tools for maintaining peace and security. Accordingly, the country is set to expand its role in these forums, harnessing the German government’s forecasts for increasing federal budgetary margins for 2018-2021. These revenues are earmarked to increase defence spending and funding for conflict prevention tools, humanitarian and development aid but also cultural and educational programs abroad. Yet, while the 2016 “White Paper” pledged to reach the NATO target for defence spending of 2% of GDP, this commitment is missing in the new coalition proposal.
As part of NATO’s strategic upgrade in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Germany is also expected to host a new alliance headquarters for troop and equipment transports near the former capital of Bonn. At the UN, Germany is applying for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council for 2019/2020 and advocates for structural reform of the UN organ, which it hopes would pave the way for a permanent seat for the EU. The authors of the coalition proposal also appear willing to increase Germany’s voluntary contributions to various UN programmes, including peacekeeping and crisis management.
Modernizing the Bundeswehr
Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have long made negative headlines about equipment shortages and poor performance. Some of these stories seem borderline comical, including reports that a German battalion in 2015 found itself without weapons during a NATO exercise in Norway, leaving soldiers to holster broomsticks to their armoured vehicles. A more recent report characterised the shortfalls as “dramatically hindering combat readiness”. In reality, the Bundeswehr is in desperate need of modernization, something the next government aims to take on.
The coalition proposal highlights digitalisation as a key priority for the armed forces in the coming years. Extra funding from a higher defence budget would be used for optimizing and harmonizing existing equipment, as well as developing new innovative capacities, such as weaponized drone capabilities. To promote technological innovation, the Ministry of Defence also plans to establish an “Agency for Disruptive Innovation in Cybersecurity and Key Technologies”.
The Bundeswehr will continue participating in most existing theatres, most notably the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, as well as the UN-peacekeeping operation MINUSMA in Mali, where Germany has stationed roughly 1,000 troops respectively. Given the recent tactical defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, the deal sees Germany likely ending its training mission and weapons supplies to the Peshmerga forces operating across the Levant.
A Slowly Changing German Self-Image?
It would be far-fetched to characterise the coalition proposal as a complete departure from previous government statements regarding issues of peace and security. The new government will likely continue to place a premium on diplomacy and dialogue, while at the same time strengthening existing institutions and mechanisms in foreign and security policy.
Yet whilst it may be premature to diagnose a paradigm shift in German foreign and security policy, the proposal does contain the underlying narrative of growing European responsibility and posture. This approach will inevitably mean a more active role for Germany in shaping international affairs. At the same time, as any preliminary guiding document, the paper contains vague language and promises that can be walked back on. Bearing in mind that voter support for the SPD and grand coalition have recently dropped to a record low, there is no guarantee that the rank and file members of the Social Democrats will sign off on the coalition pact in the special ballot. If the deal fails, Germany would likely have to hold new general elections, which would plunge the country into a true political crisis.
Felix Manig is a postgraduate in International Relations at King’s College London. He focuses on global governance, conflict resolution strategies, and cybersecurity. Outside of academia, he is Series Editor at Strife and writes for the Peacekeeping Project at the United Nations Association of Germany. You can follow him on Twitter @felix_manig