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Germany’s defense minister lays down a strategic marker | American Enterprise Institute

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On Thursday, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — colloquially known as AKK — gave a major address before the Munich Bundeswehr University. Coming just before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Berlin on the 30th anniversary of the “fall of the wall” and French President Emmanuel Macron’s virtually simultaneous declaration that NATO was for all intents and purposes “brain dead,” AKK’s speech lays out a marker for German statecraft that is neither stuck in nostalgia for the past nor pessimistic about what Berlin can and should do in the future when it comes to international security.

To start, the defense minister, who was hand-picked by Chancellor Merkel to lead the Christian Democrat Union as Merkel’s tenure as head of Germany winds down, describes an international threat environment that the authors of the American national security strategy would find largely consonant with their own: an aggressive Russia, global networks of Islamist terrorism, a rising China pushing well beyond its immediate neighbors, and authoritarians challenging liberal norms and regimes. Complicating matters further, she notes, is a US which, “for the longest time,” has contributed “more than its fair share” to keep the barbarians at the gates but whose “willingness” to continue do so is more open to question than in the past. 

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Berlin, Germany November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

While the minister might have noted that US efforts to bolster European security has been substantial since 2016, it’s also true that President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and President Trump’s questioning of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V has given allies pause about the American commitment to Europe. Also absent from the speech, but on the positive side, is the somewhat now routine German trope by German politicians that Germany needs to find a way to balance between Russia, China and the United States — as though the three were equally problematic.

Indeed, AKK’s real purpose here
is to ask Germans to do more to protect the liberal order that has so benefited
the country since the end of World War II. Germany cannot be afraid, borrowing
language from a former German president, to act “earlier, more decisively and
more substantially.” The goal of German security policy should be “to create
the conditions for progress, prosperity and freedom.” In short, Germany should
not be sitting on its haunches. It must admit that “We Germans are often better
at declaring our good, even morally motivated intentions, placing high demands
on ourselves and others, than at actually proposing measures and implementing
them.”

Idealism must be grounded in action. Germany, she notes, must continue its efforts in Afghanistan, the fight against ISIS, its deployment in the Baltic States and carry through with plans to spend more on defense. She even raises, with a critical eye, the fact that the French military are carrying out counter-terrorism operations in Africa’s Sahel region — operations that benefit German security — but which have no substantial German participation. 

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Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer arrives to address a news conference at the party headquarters in Berlin, Germany June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In addition, AKK wants to see a new security arrangement with the UK after it leaves the EU, and continuing efforts to strengthen the EU’s common security programs — but “always orientated towards cooperation with NATO, which remains the anchor of security in Europe.” Farther afield, she notes that Germany’s democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific region “feel increasingly encroached upon by China” and a “clear sign of solidarity” from Berlin is in order. To carry out this more comprehensive, complex and forward leaning security agenda, she proposes the creation of a national security council to better coordinate all the elements of German statecraft. 

There is no question that, along with her recent advocacy of the establishment of an internationally controlled security zone in Syria in cooperation with other European states, the Munich speech will be read by Germans and those who watch German politics as Kramer-Karrenbauer’s attempt to suggest that she has more chops than being just Merkel’s personal pick to follow her as CDU head, more knowledgeable about the world than a former governor of a smallish German state might be expected to be, and ready to take on the challenge of being the party’s candidate to be Germany’s Chancellor. But it would short-sighted not to take AKK’s policy perspectives and agenda seriously. She might in fact become chancellor and it would be in the US and the transatlantic alliance’s interest to use this speech as a marker to work with Berlin to begin to reinvigorate security ties. 

To paraphrase Mark Twain and in contrast with Macron’s declaration about NATO, perhaps, just perhaps, the minister’s speech might indicate that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated after all.

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