Military spending and nato interests: too much to ask

After Joe Biden’s victory, Germany should once again spend more on the military. The demand is not new, but the rationale is.

Return of the U33, which has been conducting reconnaissance missions on NATO’s external border, May 2020 Photo: P.Nowack/imago

The German welcome gift to Joe Biden could be costly: After the U.S. election, Germany must commit to significantly higher military spending and NATO’s 2-percent target, is the cumulative message this week from the CDU, sporadically from the SPD and, for the first time, from a Green. "We should begrudge Joe Biden and Kamala Harris their success with the 2-percent target to show the U.S., too, that eye level pays off," writes ex-Bundestag member Volker Beck in a blog post.

The reasoning is new, but the request is not: In 2014, the NATO states agreed to increase national military spending toward 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product within ten years. Since then, Germany has increased its spending from just under 35 billion to over 51 billion euros, measured against NATO criteria, but still remains well below the target in percentage terms.

The calls for even higher military spending therefore come as no surprise. The debate would be similar if the winner of the election were Donald Trump, and it would also exist if the U.S. had not voted at all. However, the NATO quota did not make sense back in 2014. Instead of renewing the false promise now, the German government should use the change in the White House as an opportunity to propose an alternative target value in the alliance.

This conclusion cannot only be reached by those who reject the military or NATO per se. The 2 percent target should actually also be unsuitable from the point of view of those who want NATO to be equipped both for alliance defense against Russia and for interventions around the world. Indeed, the 2 percent target does not measure membership contributions to the alliance and does not indicate who bears what share of a common burden.

The NATO quota simply measures how much money a member state spends on defense and offense overall. It does not record how much of it is used for NATO purposes and how much is used for other purposes.

This criticism is not new either. These days, however, it can be illustrated in a particularly striking way – using the example of Turkey and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Measured by NATO criteria, Turkey is a premium member. No item in the Turkish national budget is increasing as rapidly as the military budget. As a percentage of gross domestic product, it currently amounts to 1.91 percent. Some of this spending actually benefits the alliance; for example, Turkey maintains a radar system as part of NATO’s missile defense system.

Above all, however, the Turkish government is using its strengthened army to go it alone in various international conflicts. Openly in Syria and Libya, even more covertly as Azerbaijan’s partner in the war against Armenia. This war is not in the spirit of NATO, on the contrary: it destabilizes a neighboring region, strengthens Russia and weakens the alleged common values (democracy, freedom, justice). Nevertheless, it probably helps Turkey to get closer to the 2 percent target.

This could be the starting point for a new target. Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer already made a proposal to this effect in the summer: No longer measure how much money a state invests in the military, but instead write down which weapons and capabilities NATO needs. Agree on who buys what according to economic strength. And afterwards, measure what has been purchased.

Such a mode would still have the flaw of focusing too much on the military and NATO as instruments of conflict resolution. Spending would also hardly fall to 2014 levels. But at least the target would no longer be arbitrarily set. And that is not too much to ask of a budget item worth tens of billions.

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