The ‘What’ Is Always The Easiest Part; It’s The ‘How’ That Paralyzes

In our latest podcast episode, we look at how Covid has thrown a wrench into the machine of international relations. Everything seems to have been put on hold. We also discuss how, if Europe wants to recalibrate its crucial relations with the United States, if will have to step up to the plate. As is usual, formulating an objective – the ‘what’ – is always the easiest part in politics; it’s the question of ‘how’ where unstoppable forces tend to meet immovable objects.

By Kaj Leers

As luck would have it, literally while we were recording our episode in which we ask how the United States and Europe might reforge its now stale Atlantic alliance in new terms, Germany’s defense minister layed out Berlin’s thinking on the issue. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, until recently seen as Angela Merkel’s successor to lead the governing Atlanticist CDU party, formulated the German government’s viewpoints in a speech.

As could be expected, the Realpolitiker in Berlin realize all too well that the US-European relationship has become frayed. Germany knows quite well that the United States has pivoted its attention to the Pacific, or more to the point China’s growing influence in East Asia. This is not new; that pivot had started even before Barack Obama became president. His two administrations focused on keeping the US-European relationship alive while prodding European NATO member states to up their defense spending, so as to decrease dependence on the US military apparatus.

Donald Trump essentially hyperpolarized the issue by taking the discussion out of the diplomatic backroom chatter rooms and putting Europe’s perceived negligence front and center as a pillar of his foreign policy. If the message hadn’t already been clear enough under the Obama presidency, Trump was broadcasting with the volume turned to 11.

And Germany heard it loud and clear. Kramp-Karrenbauer states that Germany understands that Washington has a new set of priorities mainly geared toward Asia, also under a possible Biden presidency, and that Germany – Europe – will have to do more in order to achieve a relationship of equals, instead of one that can best be described as needy co-dependence. So far, so gut.

But that’s stating the objective — the ‘what’. Washington – and Moscow… – will be a lot more interested in the ‘how’, because that gives insight in how much money Germany (and thus Europe) will put in the spot where its mouth is. And that’s where Kramp-Karrenbauer’s speech lacks substance.

Berlin agrees with Washington that Germany and other European nations should improve their conventional war capacity, while retaining the American nuclear umbrella as a deterrent.

But While Kramp-Karrenbauer acknowledges that Germany could – and should – do more to increase defense spending, she in the same breath states that the Covid 19-crisis is preventing that. Fighting the crisis is costing Germany too much money at the moment, she says, while she tries to alleviate any American disappointment by stating that German defense spending will increase a little next year.

She clearly also tries to comfort Washington by reiterating Germany’s Nuclear Sharing role and explicitly mentions a possible aircraft purchase deal after Germany formally declined to buy F-35 multi-role fighter jets, which are currently the only new American Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) on the market. Jets need to be DCA-certified by Washington in order to operate the American upgraded B61 tactical nuclear bombs present in Germany.

These crumbs – the lip service, the small increase in defense spending, perhaps the acquisition of some other US aircraft – are unlikely to set Washington at ease, whether under a Trump or Biden administration. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s speech – in which she voices the opinion of the governing coalition in Berlin – will instead disappoint. She describes the kind of meal she wants to put on the table, but declines to offer the necessary ingredients. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden will demand more than that.