I used to take the train every morning from my village, Lebring St. Margarethen, to the state capital of Styria, Graz, to attend high school in the late 1990s. Every weekday, for three years, a mustachioed major of the Austrian Army, wearing a green beret and carrying a dark brown leather briefcase, would board the train in neighboring Wildon.
One winter morning in 1997, I found myself in the same cabin with the major, a middle-age lawyer and two secretaries in their fifties sporting bleached perm haircuts. At some point, the four adults began chatting about the Austrian Army and debated whether Austria should maintain armed forces.
The major, uncomfortably put on the spot as the only military representative present, described in vivid detail, how the Austrian military during the so-called Slovenian Independence War in June–July of 1991, moved thousands of troops to the Austro-Slovenian border to prevent the fighting between Slovenian militia and the regular Yugoslav Army from spilling into Austria. (There had been multiple border violations and heavy fighting near a number of border crossings). The major at the time was part of the staff at corps headquarters in Graz, which was tasked with coordinating the military operation.
He proudly stated that the swift action of the Austrian military prevented an expansion of the conflict into Austrian territory. While the lawyer vacillated during the ensuing discussion, the two ladies, not impressed with the major’s elucidations, cut him short and one curtly stated: “Let me tell you something major, the Army should just be disbanded! End of story!” (“I sog ihnen jetzt wos Herr Major: Des Heer ghert obgschofft! Fertig!”). The major shook his head with a gentle smile and stopped speaking. The conversation was over.
I have revisited this discussion over the past couple of years when pondering European defense and security issues. It always brings me back to a simple question: short of a contagious war in a neighboring country, what can justify the existence of a military? As a matter of fact, the conversation I overheard in 1997 succinctly encapsulates a major problem experienced not only by Austria, but also Germany and much of Europe: The lack of a good rationale for retaining armed forces let alone a strong military.
While Austria and Germany have markedly different defense policies, they share a common military history, are geographically located in the heart of Europe, and both countries’ politicians face domestic constituencies with relatively similar opinions on defense issues.
In the wake of the U.S. push to have European members of NATO spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense and to take more responsibility for European security, the question of why Austria (which is not a member of NATO and not even spending 1 percent of GDP on defense) and Germany need to increase military spending. Also, why are their national interests often overlooked—or at least poorly communicated—not only by policymakers but also the militaries in both countries.
The rehashed Cold War justification that without a strong military you may end up with a Russian (Soviet) tank in your backyard does not seem to cut it anymore. A recently released poll by German public television says that while only 14 percent see the United States as a reliable partner, over twice as many (36 percent) think that Russia is a dependable political partner. Austria and Germany, for multiple reasons, maintain friendlier ties with Russia—Europe’s only major nation-state threat. This includes the common legacy of the Eastern Front during World War II, the liberation from Nazism, which the two countries attribute to the sacrifices of the Soviets rather than the Western allies, and an only slowly fading sense of collective guilt, suppressed during Cold War years, for what Austrians and Germans did during the war in Russia.
Austrians and Germans simply do not fear the Russian bogeyman. Vegetius’ old Latin adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war—the core assumption of modern deterrence strategy, is a hard sell in Austria and Germany when it comes to Russia. Of course, this does not mean that Germans or Austrians want to jettison the military in its entirety. According to a 2017 poll, 91 percent of Germans want the German Army to deter attacks on Germany and 49 percent want more soldiers, 47 percent support an increase in defense spending, and 72 percent support Bundeswehr missions in support of NATO allies.
On the other hand, when asked concretely in 2015 whether Germany should defend a NATO ally against an attack by Russia, 58 percent of Germans were opposed to any military action. While no similar data is available for Austria, it is considered to be one of the most Russian-friendly countries in Europe. A 2014 poll suggested that 58 percent of Austrians would welcome a visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin (he eventually visited in June 2014) during the height of the crisis in Ukraine, with only 28 percent blaming the Russian government for the conflict in the East and 44 percent assigning both Ukraine and Russia equal guilt. About 8 percent of Germans blamed the Ukrainian government.
While there may be a collective sense in Austria and Germany that security has worsened in Europe and the world, Russia is not seen as a major security threat. As a consequence, using Russia to justify an increase in defense spending may only bring forth a lackluster response and may merely make Austrians and German policymakers go through the motion of ostensibly stepping up their defense postures, or in the case of Germany, reluctantly dispatching small troop contingents to the East (if the German Bundeswehr will actually have tanks available to dispatch to the Baltic), without any major changes to defense policies.
A good case in point is that despite a pledge to increase defense spending, Austrian military allocations will barely increase in 2018 and 2019. Austria has one of the lowest defense budgets in all of Europe, around $2.8 billion, which in the United States would buy you about a fifth of a $13 billion Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. Additionally, Germany, despite pledges to increase its defense expenditure from 1.2 percent of GDP to 1.5 percent by 2025, finds it difficult to spend extra funds on the depleted Bundeswehr.
It goes without saying that defense analysts, commentators and the military have a rather different perspective regarding the Russian threat. Austria’s Ministry of Defense published a security-policy outlook for 2018, specifically singling out Russia and its military strategy of hybrid warfare as a threat to Austrian security, although it attests that the relationship between the United States and Russia is influenced by “irrational fears” on both sides. However, despite the soundness of the report, it was barely picked up by Austrian media outlets and did not have an impact on the public.
Also, concepts such as cyber and hybrid warfare are simply too abstract—even if there is clear evidence of Russian-orchestrated influence campaigns to influence elections or exploit other security concerns to accentuate divides with Austria or Germany as was the case during the height of the refugee crisis—to be good rallying points for an increase in defense spending.
Deployments of Austrian and German troops to “Konfliktregionen” (conflict regions) are also not seen as substantially enhancing security by the public and hence cannot be used by many politicians as justification for increased defense spending. In Germany, the conviction, uttered by a German defense minister in 2002, that “Germany’s security is defended in the Hindukush” continues to ring hollow: the German public is largely opposed to sending troops abroad into harm’s way. The Bundeswehr has around 3,700 troops deployed on foreign missions with over 1,100 stationed in Afghanistan. However, the truth is that these soldiers are deployed primarily to strengthen the transatlantic alliance, and not against any threat emanating from Afghanistan.
Austria has around one thousand troops deployed abroad, primarily in the Western Balkans. Yet, Austrian missions, with minor exceptions, are relatively risk free as troops rarely engage in combat. (Ostensibly this is because Austria’s neutrality law prohibits the Austrian Army—the Bundesheer—from actively taking sides in a conflict.) Indeed, to judge how important Austria sees its missions abroad for its security at home, according to a number of experts, Vienna would in all likelihood rather remove its troops from the Balkans and allow other European countries—along with the United States—sort out any new major military crisis to occur on the Balkans. (e.g., in 2013, Austria hastily withdrew from a UN Peacekeeping Mission from the Golan Heights in Syria due to the deteriorating security situation.)
What is the right narrative for Austria and Germany (and the rest of Europe) to convince policymakers and citizens to spend more on defense? To simply say that the world is more dangerous and that threats more complex will not suffice. Even during the Cold War years, people insisted that the world had gotten more complex and, as a result, more dangerous. To draw attention to the need for territorial defense and conventional defense, as well as nuclear deterrence, may be an effective way to engage experts, but that tactic will garner little attention from politicians and the public.
Going forward, any narrative supporting an increase in Austrian and German defense spending—plus an increased military role of both countries in European security—cannot be built in reaction to threats from Russia or the Islamic State, but they must be formulated as actions to preserve the unique economic and political achievements of both Austria and Germany. There has to be an Austrian, German, and European equivalent of the idea of American exceptionalism founded upon liberal principles and not blood. In short, both countries and the whole of Europe need to jointly shape a narrative around becoming an “arsenal of liberal democracy,” to paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lack of such a narrative will ultimately doom European efforts to failure.
Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior editor with The Diplomat.