MUNICH — Lofty goals of European and NATO cooperation abound here at the Munich Security Conference, but who will pay the bill?

Top German leaders here have managed to put a damper on the expectation that Berlin would radically ramp up its defense spending, as Washington would have it, stressing instead that gradual boosts and integration with foreign development would yield better results than military might alone.

For example, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen spotlighted the new government’s plan to couple spending on defense with foreign development. The country currently spends roughly €37 billion annually on the Bundeswehr, or 1.2 percent of GDP, with an upward trajectory. Boosting the spending to 2 percent would translate into a sum of €72 billion.

While she said the NATO spending commitment — 2 percent of GDP by 2025 — remains a goal, she managed to present the issue as more complicated than a mere figure.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) seemed to follow the more nuanced view. While he said reaching the goal of 2 percent would be important simply to appease President Trump, Graham suggested that he considers the mere formation of a new defense consciousness in Europe as perhaps even more valuable.

Notably, the would-be governing coalition parties in Berlin recently left out explicit mention of the 2-percent goal in their final contract, as the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, had demanded.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose fate is unclear in a new Merkel cabinet, said he considers the 2 percent goal to be “difficult.” For one, he argued, European countries should first seek to increase efficiency in their military programs, thereby getting more joint combat power without a drastic defense-spending spree.

But there is another component to the case of Germany, Gabriel said, and it has to do with post-World War II sensitivities.

“Imagine that Germany for 10 years would spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. That would mean more than €70 billion every year,” he said. “I’m not so sure that all partners within Europe would appreciate this after 10 years.”

Politicians from France, for example, had asked Gabriel whether Germany, after leading on the economic stage as well as politically, to a lesser extent, would now also aspire to lead militarily — a prospect that still makes European neighbors nervous.

“I have great reservations” about the prospect of German defense spending one day surpassing that of France, a nuclear power, as the GDP ranking would prescribe, said Gabriel.

Eastern European countries, nervous about a militarily adventurous Moscow, are more forcefully concerned about the mathematics of shoring up NATO’s combat power by European members.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued military spending trends must point upward, eventually weaning the continent from a dependency on U.S. protection.

“I want a ‘Pax Europa,’” he said. “But this is not the case.”

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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