Many are demanding a massive rearming of Germany – but is it a good idea?

Two Leopard 2 main battle tanks and a Puma infantry armoured fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)


Bashing Berlin on defence has become a very popular sport among experts and officials across NATO. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in particular, with his cautious approach to supplying Ukraine with weapons, attracts vast amounts of criticism often verging on contempt for what is seen as his weak stance on military affairs and on confronting Russia.

Transatlantic opinion periodically goes into a collective meltdown over Germany’s “failure” to supply Kyiv quickly enough with some military equipment that is suddenly seen as battle-winning.

Last year it was Leopard tanks, which, though helpful, did not make any difference in the end to Ukraine’s summer offensive. Now the fixation is with long-range Taurus missiles: a useful capability on paper, but, like everything else, subject to the operational complexities of war, and likely not a wunderwaffe either.

In every such case, as Scholz drags his feet before making a decision – chiefly for internal political reasons, given his fragile governing coalition – the symbolic value of the weapon in question surges in the maelstrom of international punditry on the topic.

Confusing symbols with reality is par for the course in the largely performative, PR-ready strategic “debate” of our Twitter-age. In any case, the result is that the narrative of German defence policy inadequacy – with undertones of betrayal towards Ukraine and collusion with Russia – only grows stronger.

Germany makes an easy target for everyone else, and the “strategic community” loves to gang up on Berlin. Part of it is clearly driven by deep-seated (and justified) resentment towards the 2nd and 3rd Reichs’ historical “engagement” with the rest of Europe; and there is certainly also satisfaction, for some, in seeing mighty Germany – which has dominated and twisted arms for decades in Europe – on the ropes, politically.

Another explanation for the anti-German mood at the moment is that there are now also high expectations of this country, which are not easily or quickly satisfied. These are often couched in moral terms, tied to what these days is habitually seen as the country’s double guilt in relation to European security.

The first charge is in relation to Germany’s Russia policy under Merkel, epitomised by the Nord Stream gas pipeline project. Germany got cheap energy, ensuring its industrial and economic dominance of Europe; while Putin got not just a great deal of money later used to fund his war on Ukraine, but also acquired political influence over German decision-making.

The Russo-German collaboration went much deeper – in terms of the large amounts of trade between the two countries even in the post-2014 period of “sanctions” – but also further back in time, right to the days of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.

All this makes Germany, in many people’s eyes, a major if indirect culprit in the tragedy that has befallen Ukraine. Berlin’s behaviour and self-imposed dependency on Russian gas is now widely seen to have emboldened Putin to escalate his aggression in Europe.

Germany did not execute this policy in a vacuum; it had other European leaders cheering it on all along the way, such as Mark Rutte, the Dutch PM and a Nord Stream enthusiast himself, who is now brazenly angling for the NATO Secretary General job.

The second charge against Germany is over defence spending. Germany hasn’t spent 2 per cent of GDP on the military since the early 1990s, and has only averaged about 1.2 per cent over the past decade. This is what experts call “free-riding” on security.

Some European countries, like the UK, took their 2 per cent commitments seriously and met them at considerable expense. In contrast, Berlin effectively saved itself hundreds of billions of euros, which it ploughed into the economy instead, thus increasing its advantage over competitor nations.

No doubt, before February 2022 Germany had constructed for itself an extremely convenient, self-perpetuating system of economic supremacy in Europe. It saved vast amounts of money both on energy (courtesy of Russia) and on defence (courtesy of NATO), which only compounded its other built-in advantages within the EU such as the euro monetary system. Hence the Merkel era of abundance and budget surpluses.

Putin’s invasion effectively collapsed Germany’s entire geoeconomic model, throwing the country in crisis. This is what compelled Olaf Scholz, only a few days into the war, to frame this shift as a Zeitenwende, or the “end of an era”. As the rapid de-industrialisation of Germany since 2022 suggests, the Chancellor’s assessment was very accurate.

This brings us to the present day, when – with the Nord Stream question now put to the sea-bed – the rest of the Western world is pressing Germany to rectify its other past “mistake” and rearm at scale.

Last November, under intense international pressure, Berlin published a landmark defence policy “guidelines” document , effectively a new defence strategy.

Like the Zeitenwende policy from 2022, this paper also includes strong language, promising to make Germany “the backbone of defence” in Europe, with a “war-ready” military. In the accompanying speech, Scholz called for a “powerful Bundeswehr” and promised a 2 per cent defence budget in 2024 and beyond, “for the long term, throughout the ’20s and ’30s”.

While most observers retain great scepticism over how much of this will be delivered and how quickly the German army will transform itself into a truly efficient fighting force, the astounding fact is that this really is seen by Europe’s “strategic community” as a positive, indeed desirable, end-goal.

It is even amusing to see some commentators one moment sagely recalling Lord Ismay’s dictum about the purpose of NATO – “to keep the Americans in [Europe], the Russians out, and the Germans down” – and then calling for greater German power the next.

Somewhat less amusing are the full implications of this German rearmament. A Germany spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence would have Europe’s largest defence budget: at this rate it would be around €82 billion in 2024, considering a 2023 GDP of €4,121 billion with 0.3 per cent growth this year. Needless to say, this would significantly outstrip even UK’s defence outlays, knocking Britain off its pedestal as Europe’s top military spender. (For now, Berlin hasn’t yet hit the 2 per cent mark; the budget is closer to €52 billion this year.)

In time, the reconstitution of German military power will inevitably begin to alter political relations in Europe. It is true that the Bundeswehr is in a sorry state today, and that the country still seems strongly tied down, psychologically and culturally, by its historical burden. But these things can change, particularly as generational memory fades.

There is no objective reason to assume that a few years of such enormous military spending will not produce quality as well as quantity across the German armed forces – together with, perhaps, a more historically-normal German perspective on the use of the military instrument. What then?

Those who today clamour for German rearmament must be doing so under the assumption that this will strengthen NATO deterrence against Russia in the short term (3-5 years), which is the window of opportunity for a presumed Russian attack westwards if Ukraine falls.

But the Germans won’t be ready to fight Russia in this timeframe even if they wanted to, and wouldn’t alter Putin’s plans anyway if he was really bent on more war. And after this window closes, the wider defence build-up of Europe – which, as explained in a previous article, is already underway – will make a Russian assault on NATO increasingly unlikely.

So the only real result of forcing Germany to greatly expand its military power will be to store up more political problems for Europe in the future, as a stronger state naturally tends to assert its interests with greater vigour. Perhaps the determined advocates of this policy believe, with the Francis Fukuyama of the 1990s, that somehow we have escaped History and its cycles, or that “people(s) change”.

That is a very generous but foolish view that ignores what we have learnt from two world wars.

There are those who point out that during the Cold War West Germany maintained a large army – some half a million troops, plus about 700,000 reservists – without any major concerns in terms of the political risk associated with this military establishment.

But that situation was so different as to be irrelevant to today’s. For one, at that time the Federal Republic had large allied forces deployed on its soil, facing the Soviets but also keeping the Germans in check. More importantly, the country was divided, with East Germany in communist hands; its scope for geopolitical mischief was completely constrained – per NATO’s objective according to Ismay.

In the 2020s and 2030s, restoring full military power – at levels of spending greater than of any other European nation – to a united Germany would turn the clock back not to the mid-Cold War, but to the days of Bismarck.

As Henry Kissinger and others have observed time and time again, a united Germany with a full-fledged economy and army is automatically destabilising to the European system, by virtue of basic balance-of-power geopolitical mechanics.

In this sense, avoiding the return of the German problem, even at the price of allowing Berlin to under-spend on defence, may one day seem to have been a good trade for a while, looking back. Of course, this is a realist view; those who still cling to their “normative” illusions may feel less concern for such developments.

Still, if a change of course were possible at this stage, what should be the alternative policy? Certainly Berlin should not be given a pass as far as the defence of Europe is concerned; it must share the burden and contribute to the common cause – just not by building its own military up across the board.

Instead, Germany could take on the role of “the arsenal of Europe”, bankrolling new armaments factories that can supply other European forces at lower prices and in large quantities.

Another area that is already generating debates is that of nuclear deterrence: a backup to the US nuclear umbrella, especially in terms of tactical nuclear weapons, is required. Britain can play a role in this: there is a case for a re-introduction of UK tactical nukes (withdrawn in 1998), and Berlin could perhaps finance such a programme in return for certain guarantees from London.

Finally, Germany can and should also continue to lead Europe on financial and military support for Kyiv.

Critics who keep snapping at Scholz forget that the Bundesrepublik now outstrips all other European countries in its total military aid to Ukraine (€17.7 billion, almost double than second-placed UK’s €9.1 billion). It might not include all the weapons some would like to see, but the financial effort is very large for a country already in economic trouble.

There is little real scope for Berlin turning from this policy direction – although the international rhetoric against Scholz and his government could tone down a bit, not least because it is unproductive and can backfire in the longer run. But on the main issue, Germany’s march into the new military age is now hard to stop: the centre-right opposition in the Bundestag have many more hawks in their ranks.

There is, however, a silver lining to German rearmament. The political future of such a state is not pre-determined, just as – contra many historians – the geopolitical choices made in the first half of the 20th century were not inevitable. The prospective New Germany mooted here could well open up new possibilities for re-casting and ordering the “European project” along different lines.

This future Germany could even reset the entire political and security architecture of the continent.

One would expect nothing less than “maximum impact” from the kind of German state that today’s critics and prodders of Berlin seem keen to bring on. The accretion of military power never fails to create new geopolitical realities. Those advocating higher German defence spending should be careful what they wish for.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy and a fellow at Yorktown Institute