Elisabeth Braw is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and theauthor of a forthcoming book about deterrence of new national security threats.
For years, Germany has diligently discussed how it can become something more than a military midget.
Cheered on by a chorus of outside players ranging from U.S. President Donald Trump — who became obsessed with Berlin’s low military spending — to multilateralist think tankers who urged the country to be more assertive on security issues, Germany has been wrestling with how to reconcile the scars of its past with its position as a European leader.
It’s a false dilemma. To play a key role in European security, Germany doesn’t need to get over its squeamishness about beefing up its military. Instead, it can invest in transforming itself into a champion of modern defense.
Non-military attacks against the West have been intensifying over the past few years. And if the United States is the West’s undisputed champion of traditional military might, when it comes to defense against these modern security threats, the West has none.
Earlier this month, hackers at Russia’s APT29 collective — thought to be affiliated with the SVR, the country’s foreign intelligence agency — managed the remarkable feat of hacking the U.S. State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Treasury, Department of Commerce, sundry government agencies and possibly thousands of companies.
While the APT29 ninjas specialize in espionage, their colleagues at APT28 (thought to be affiliated with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency) are equally skilled in the art of disruption. They’ve hacked the Bundestag, penetrated a number of military entities, and are thought to be behind the intrusion into the U.S. Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election campaign.
The SVR is also accused of masterminding NotPetya, the singularly powerful 2017 cyberattack that brought down not just its intended targets across Ukraine but a host of global corporations too.
Western retaliation against these and other non-military attacks has been decidedly modest. That’s because there’s no protocol, or even a strategy, for how to respond to non-kinetic aggression that doesn’t involve soldiers with weapons. In addition to the Russian examples, these include punitive tariffs by China on Australian wine, threats from Beijing against European countries that have banned Huawei and invasive fishing in Latin America by Chinese fishing armadas.
Washington has indicted Russian and Chinese intelligence officers, as well as assorted proxies over different hacks — a strategy Professor Gary Brown and I call personalized deterrence. Various Western governments have also tried to name and shame offending countries, a strategy of limited utility when the governments concerned — most often Russia and China — don’t feel shame. Unsurprisingly, the aggression continues.
That matters because, in “Dr. Strangelove’s” famous definition of deterrence, a defender needs to produce in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.
An invasive Chinese fishing armada won’t be deterred by armed forces, simply because no civilized country would use its armed forces against fishermen — just as it wouldn’t respond militarily to coercion over 5G providers.
For Germany, moving away from a focus on conventional military spending would be in tune with the public’s attitude to security and defense. According to the last annual survey by the Center for Military History and Social Sciences, German citizens “can be characterized as anti-militarist, anti-Atlantic, and multilateralist, i.e. they don’t believe in military force as an effective or morally suitable means of foreign policy.”
Only 15 percent of Germans consider war in Europe a threat, while 54 percent consider climate change a threat and 38 percent view a global arms race as one. Some 24 percent see a threat in fake news and disinformation and 22 percent in cyberattacks on infrastructure; the same percentage see a threat in tensions between Russia and the West.
With such figures, no matter how hard Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer tries — and no matter how fervently the U.S. and an army of analysts plead with Germany — the Bundeswehr is simply not going to get the backing to take the leap to European first-tier status on par with the U.K. and French militaries.
Indeed, last week, the Social Democrats — the Christian Democrats’ governing coalition partner — went against Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plan to arm the Bundeswehr’s drones, meaning Germany, unlike France and the U.K., will have no weaponized drones.
Nobody disputes that there’s space for Germany to militarily do more for itself and its allies. But given the general resistance to increasing its military might, Berlin would be better off concentrating its investments elsewhere: When it comes to defending against new national security threats, Germany could become not just the equal of the U.K. and France but a global champion.
Imagine an array of specialized headquarters staffed with experts who not only monitor new and emerging forms of aggression on behalf of the Western alliance — NATO, the EU, Five Eyes — but plan and coordinate non-kinetic counter strikes that cause the aggressor pain without needlessly escalating the situation.
If Russia stages another massive cyberattack, if China imposes crippling sanctions on more Western industries or punishes them simply for originating from a country with which Beijing is unhappy, the West — with Germany as the quarterback — would thus be better able to retaliate and convince the adversary that it’s not worth trying.
No blood, no guns, but an exceedingly vital German role in international security. A win-win, one might say.