The Buzz

What Does the Future Hold for Germany's Bundeswehr after 2017?

"It is our strategy that necessitates the dissolution of NATO” so stated the 1998 election platform of the German Green Party. One year later, under the supervision of the leftist Green/SPD coalition government, the German Bundeswehr launched its first combat operations since WWII under the NATO banner in Kosovo. In the years since, Germany has settled itself in an auxiliary role for its military abroad: humanitarian aid, logistical support for larger coalition operations, and capacity building for partners on the ground. But with increasing political fragmentation, featured prominently in recent state elections, and deep political division in the EU, the upcoming German federal elections raise serious questions future of German defense policy.

 Recent polling and the emerging state electoral trajectory suggest that the next Bundestag will be even more divided and contentious than the current session. Under the so-called grand coalition of centrist/conservative CDU/CSU and centrist/left SPD, defense policy has been stuck in a state of limbo. While CDU defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has, at times, attempted to implement ambitious defense reforms, her coalition partners in the SPD have raised objections at nearly every turn.  Most prominently, the CDU/CSU proposed for the first time bolster the strength of Bundeswehr by adding some 7,000 soldiers and 3,000 civilians to the force, including a defense spending increase of $148 billion amounting to a 6.7 percent over the next seven years. Though this attempt is no doubt significant, and met with collective relief of the country’s partners, the increase still fails to amount to the two percent allocation GDP on defense spending goals established by the 2013 NATO Wales Summit.  Perhaps most importantly however, this feat was only made possible by now the eroding political clout of the CDU/CSU. 

Over the last two decades, the German government’s relationship with the Bundeswehr along with its use has remained, for the most part, consistent. Since Kosovo, Germany has wielded military force on a limited capacity only in a handful of circumstances, with the majority of its operations serving an auxiliary function to international campaigns. But there is little doubt that the continuing longstanding operations and losses-in Kosovo and Afghanistan have soured Germany’s taste for military adventurism, something unlikely to change in a short period of time. To date, Germany has contributed over 100,000 soldiers and civilians to operation Resolute Support and seventeen years later German forces still remain in Kosovo – and these experiences in part, explain Germany’s non-participation in the Iraq War, and more recently the 2011 French/Italian led air-campaign against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.  More recent uses of the Bundeswehr’s participation in the Global Anti-ISIL Coalition, including training and lethal aid assistance to Kurdistan Regional Government  (KRG), a policy which too received tremendous backlash from the SPD, Die Linke, and the Greens.  Will emerging challenges to the political status quo result in departures from this norm?  To address this, we must return to 1999.

As seen in the example of German Greens participating in the government that launched the first combat army operations abroad since the end of World War II, strong ideologies and rhetoric go only so far when entering into a governing coalition. Throughout post-war history, the German system has shown a remarkable propensity to institutionalize parties in government to political norms. The historical examples are plenty, from the cool moderatism of Helmut Schmidt to the sober realism of Steinmeier, new parties sharing in power would enact change, but often in a smaller and less revolutionary manner than previously stated in their election platforms.