Throughout modern history, Germany has dominated Mitteleuropa. Following the tragedy of the Second World War, the country served as the lynchpin of the political reconstruction of Europe, building closer economic ties with France through the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and acting as a key player in the construction of the European Union.
But now the story is very different. Merkel’s Christian Democrats scraped a pyrrhic victory in the German general election last year, which was then proceeded by a lengthy struggle to form a viable coalition. Merkel’s patchwork government remains unstable, with recent threats from her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who has demanded Germany no longer admit migrants who have first entered the EU via other member states.
But for all the political strife, Germany faces an even greater threat to its global leverage: a weak military.
Whilst Germany plays a key role on the global stage, particularly as an economic power, its influence is hampered by its military deficiencies. The armed forces, the Bundeswehr, simply do not have the means to carry out any serious military expeditions.
Indeed, although Germany has a population of 81 million, and recently achieved an impressive budget surplus of €18.3bn, the country has only 178,000 soldiers, and much of its military equipment is in disrepair.
A parliamentary report leaked to the German press in September 2014, and later obtained by The Washington Post, detailed the extent of disrepair, revealing that only 70 out of its 180 GTK Boxer tanks were fit for deployment, and only seven of the navy’s fleet of 43 helicopters were flightworthy.
More recently, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, has struggled to fulfil its NATO duties. Many of its planes, including Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets, are only available for four months a year – the rest of the time they are grounded for repairs. There is also a shortage of night-vision equipment, body armour, and winter uniforms. In late 2017, all the navy’s submarines went out of action.
The Bundeswehr also has an ongoing problem far-right extremism. Last year, the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) said it was investigating 275 such cases. (Though, this could be part of a general increase in extremist violence across Germany, rather than a trend that's strictly limited to the military.)
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), have said that improvements need to be made. The two parties agreed in January to increase military spending from €37bn in 2017, to more than €70bn by 2024. Whilst this appears a substantial increase, it is important bear in mind that the Germany economy is predicted to continue expanding, so this increase would still mean defence spending is little over 1% of GDP.
The French government has recently introduced a plan to bring back national service.
For a country that plays an important role on the world stage, Germany remains painfully hampered in its military abilities. It is still not meeting NATO’s defence spending target of 2% of GDP a year – a failure that has drawn criticism from Trump. German troops played an active role in Kosovo in 1999, and in the war in Afghanistan, but the country declined to intervene in Libya, but has committed a small number of planes to airstrikes in Syria.
Next year, the Bundeswehr will take over leadership of NATO’s multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), but this seems a rather awkward role for a country with a disappointingly weak military.
As Merkel struggles to steer her country through the turbulence of rising right-wing populism, which has infiltrated Germany via the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), it is clear the country’s gravitas on the world stage is waning. It remains a rather uncomfortable member of NATO, and cannot realistically commit to international military operations – a responsibility that comes with being a global power. With the fresh Euro kid next door determined to increase France’s military prestige, Germany may soon find itself eclipsed.