US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is the first Biden administration official to come to Germany. A long list of high-stakes issues await the high-profile visit.
When the US and German defense chiefs sit down together in Berlin on Tuesday, there will be pressure mounting on multiple fronts. Russian troops appear to be massing along Ukraine’s border. Israel is suspected of sabotaging an Iranian uranium enrichment facility. An Afghanistan withdrawal deadline looms.
Easy solutions to these and other global security problems are in short supply, and the alliance remains divided over several of them. Yet both sides say they are committed to working together.
“German and American soldiers stand side-by-side in a number of operations,” a German Defense Ministry spokesperson told DW in a statement, describing the US-German partnership as “intense and growing.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit, which is part of a four-stop tour of key allies, is one of several recent virtual or in-person meetings between Biden administration officials and European counterparts. They are part of an all-out diplomatic effort to reestablish the United States as a leader in managing global stability, and to reassure nervous allies shaken by the former Trump administration’s often dismissive, sometimes bullying tone.
Austin’s meeting with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and other German defense and security officials, aims to “reinforce the value the United States places on the bilateral defense relationship with one of our closest NATO Allies,” according to a US Defense Department statement.
The US is also keen to push Germany on “combating the malign influence of our shared strategic rivals” — an allusion to Russia, and a pressure point between the two sides.
Like Trump, Joe Biden opposes Nord Stream 2, an undersea gas pipeline that could double Russian natural gas sales to Germany. Biden has called it a “bad deal” for Germany and looks set to continue a policy of sanctions from the Trump era.
The German government defends the project as a commercial deal divorced from geopolitics. The US and many of Germany’s European allies say that is naive, and worry that it undermines climate goals and jeopardizes both German and European security. They want to cut off Russian state coffers, which can fund saber-rattling near Ukraine and elsewhere, from a potentially lucrative source of revenue.
Defense spending is another holdover from the Trump years, and the Obama ones before that when Joe Biden was vice president. Germany has increased its defense budget by about one-third since 2013, according to NATO figures, but it will need to spend even more to reach the agreed 2% of GDP by 2024.
Among NATO members, Germany spends below the median on defense. It is also one of a minority of members to fall short of a lesser-known metric — that 20% of spending goes towards equipment.
The Greens question
From Berlin, Austin plans to head to southern Germany, home to the US military’s European and African Commands. Germany hosts one of the largest contingents of US troops outside the US, and their decades-long presence is broadly supported for symbolic, security and economic reasons. Biden’s order to pause and review his predecessor’s decision to move as many as 12,000 troops out of Germany was met with widespread relief here.
The military lovefest is not total, however. A strong anti-war and anti-nuclear streak runs through German postwar history, which the ascendant Greens are tightly connected to as well as the Left party. The Green party is in a strong position to join the next government after September’s general elections, and possibly even run it.
Hosting US troops means tolerating operations, such as drone strikes carried out by US forces from German soil, that make many Greens members deeply uncomfortable. The Greens campaign platform is broadly supportive of NATO and trans-Atlantic relations while calling for a nuclear-weapons-free Germany. That would undo US military planning and contradict NATO’s nuclear sharing policy.
The party platform also rejects the 2%-spending guideline as “arbitrary.” The party instead calls for “fair burden sharing.”
The Greens are skeptical of Germany’s ongoing role in Afghanistan, which a German Defense Ministry spokesperson said will be high on the agenda for Austin’s visit. In March, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, voted to extend the country’s part in the NATO mission there. Most of the Greens parliamentary group voted against it or abstained.
At a news conference last month, Biden said the US does plan to withdraw its own troops at some point, but unlikely by a May 1 deadline. German defense officials say those details will be critical during Tuesday’s meeting, as it is US firepower that often protects German and other troops when they get into trouble on the ground.