It will come as a surprise to no one that this has hardly been a banner year for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the most important alliance in the history of the world. First, President Vladimir Putin of Russia reminded the West that their holiday from history is over; there are actual real-world enemies out there who share neither NATO member states’ interests nor values. But even more importantly, Germany and the US – increasingly the two most important economic powers within the alliance – went through arguably the worst dip in their relations since the end of the Second World War.
It is hard to overstate to American ears the effect the Snowden revelations had on Germany in October 2013. Steeped in a culture that rightly abhors its overly secretive history, average Germans were horrified to learn that their American allies had been snooping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone itself. The recent spy scandal of July 2014 built upon this doleful narrative, wherein it was revealed that a member of the BND (German intelligence) was serving as a double agent for the CIA. Astonishingly – and just as a Western state would treat a rogue nation like North Korea – the German government demanded the American CIA station chief in Berlin leave the country. Echoing the feelings of his countrymen, respected German President Joachim Gauck called the affair, “a gamble with friendship.”
All this suspicion has been compounded by shifting geopolitical factors pulling the two allies apart. Germany’s export-driven economy has become increasingly intertwined with both Russia and China, hardly friends of the United States. And popular attitudes are decidedly shifting. As the July 2014 Infratest Dimap poll made clear, the times they are a-changin’. Only 27% of Germans polled said that the US was a trustworthy ally; staggeringly a majority viewed America as an aggressive power. This drift towards divorce must be righted – and righted soon – if the transatlantic alliance itself is to recover.
And this is where the seemingly unrelated matter of German defense procurement comes in. Later in the second half of this year the German Ministry of Defense (MoD) will decide whether to go it alone, and adopt the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), or sign on to the Patriot Missile defense system, a program already adopted by 12 allied nations around the world, including five NATO countries. The Patriot is that rarest of birds, a genuine example of burden sharing between the US and its most important allies. It should be noted that MEADS was originally the result of a joint effort by the US and Germany, plus Italy – but Patriot has remained the tool of first choice for Washington.
America’s commitment to the Patriot could not be clearer; it is the army’s missile defense system of record until at least 2048. Given the US military’s dominance, Patriot will continue to provide the foundation for global, regional, and theatre integration of Western missile defense architecture for at least the next generation. That means that it is crystal clear that any ally that wants to work closely with the United States on missile defense issues will choose to join the common Patriot program.
Think of the two narratives that flow from this reality. If Germany and America spend the next generation working closely together on the vital issue of missile defense, this common burden sharing and system sharing can provide a vital adhesive, helping to keep NATO on the road. Conversely, Germany choosing MEADS (or any other system for that matter) means that this is just another core issue where Berlin and Washington simply fail to see eye-to-eye. At some point, if countries don’t work together on core defense issues, they simply stop being allies. That is why Berlin’s upcoming decision regarding the Patriot has assumed a fundamental importance, given the context of the crisis in the transatlantic relationship itself.
Beyond high politics, there are reasons of low cunning for Berlin to support the Patriot over MEADS. Estimates have it that the Patriot system can be gotten up and running in less than half the time and at one-third of the cost of MEADS, not a small consideration given Germany’s total defense budget of only 15.5 billion euros in 2013. Also, MEADS is only a concept – one that has never seen the battlefield – while Patriot is battle-tested and operational today. As such, choosing MEADS amounts to a staggering gamble.
Given its highly limited finances for defense, is Germany really prepared to pay for MEADS all on its own? Originally, the MEADS program was 58% funded by Washington, 25% by Germany, with Italy chipping in 17%. America long ago grew disillusioned and dropped the MEADS white elephant. Poland, which considered adopting MEADS, gave up the pipe dream at the precise time it came under direct threat from Putin. Italy, presently an economic basket case whose economy is actually smaller than it was in 2008, is not in position to pay for anything.
That leaves only Berlin to shoulder the entire burden, which simply does not make economic or strategic sense. Indeed, on March 5, 2014, German Brigadier General Michael Gschossmann, Director of Ground Based Operations for the German Air Force, said straightforwardly that MEADS in its present form is not an option, though some of its components could be harvested for the German system.
But plucking technology from MEADS could be very costly, and would take valuable time, all the while doing nothing to bind the wounded transatlantic relationship together. It would be far better for Berlin to opt for the modernized Patriot system, where all countries in the program benefit from common upgrades and new capabilities, where there is no duplication of effort, and where new customers get the benefits from all the collective earlier lessons learned. Best of all, it would, in concrete form, show that – for all their difficulties – the two most important members of NATO remain committed to an alliance simply without peer in history.