Germany and Italy Should Be Strong Military Powers: European Security Demands It

German Chancellor Merkel and Italy’s PM Mario Draghi
Photo: Federal Government (Germany)/Denzel

As the world enters into a new period of instability and great power competition, European security cannot be given for granted anymore. The times when the US was fully committed to European defense and the continent lacked any meaningful peer competitor, besides transnational threats such as piracy and terrorism, are over. In particular, the return of Russia, Turkey and China as great powers pose significant security implications for Europe. This is especially true in light of the recent United States’ strategic tilt to the Indo-Pacific and on the containment of China, which  implies a diminished availability of resources and a minor willingness to engage in military operations for the defense of Europe. As a result, Europeans are being forced to spend more in their armed forces and think more strategically to defend their national security, without having to rely too much on Washington. France and the United Kingdom, the two countries with the most powerful militaries in Europe, do not seem capable and willing of covering the whole spectrum of threats. Thus, the rest of European countries should do more and increase their share of responsibility for European defense. While many improvements have been reached in the last five years, such as higher defense spending and the launching of PESCO and the European Defense Fund to increase interoperability among the armed forces of the continent and the development of  military technology, these efforts are not enough to guarantee an acceptable level of European security if two key countries, Italy and especially Germany, do not fully commit their military and political institutions to this cause. Because of their geographical position and economic resources, these two nations are essential to tackle the present and future challenges to European security and prosperity.

Due to its central location at the heart of Europe and as the biggest economy of the continent, Germany in particular, has always been the cornerstone of European stability and defense. For centuries and for better or worse, Germany’s weakness or strength have decided the fate of the continent. Nowadays, Berlin plays chiefly an economic role of semi-hegemony with a high degree of political influence. However, unless Germany also become a military power commensurate to its economic and technological resources, and it assumes more security responsibility, it cannot be regarded as a fully-rounded geopolitical power. And this is a problem for European security, for a weak Germany also means a vulnerable Europe. As the former foreign minister of Poland  Radoslaw Sikorski said in 2011 during the Euro financial crisis, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.” This condition is primarily due to its recent history in Second World War, after which German leaders have developed a pacifist, economy-oriented and non-strategic attitude to questions related to foreign policy and military affairs. This can be clearly observed in the reluctance in engaging in military missions abroad and in the precarious state of its armed forces. 

Germany, in fact, spends only 1.4 % of its GDP in military, compared to the NATO benchmark of 2 %, not to speak of other countries such as the United States and Russia which spend more than 3 %. This lack of funding and focus on armed forces is also reflected on the level of readiness of the Bundeswehr and on the number of troops and weapons available. They are simply not enough in face of the security challenges the country is called to face. Germany is also reluctant to lead Europe geopolitically as this evokes its dark history, and thus preferring to let the French and the Americans take the lead in matters of foreign policy and defense. Once a technologically powerhouse with arguably the best engineers and scientists in the world, Germany is also lagging behind the United States and other countries when it comes to the development of new technologies and the digitalization of its society. This relative absence of innovative spirit is partly related to Germany’s lack of great-power ambition and a reluctance to invest significantly in high-risk military projects capable of overcoming the so-called “the valley of death” and bring about new technologies.

Although Germany has only recently started to address these issues by adopting a more assertive foreign policy, allocating more resources to the military budget and developing future technologies, these changes do not seem to be enough. Berlin is set to reach the 2% NATO military expenditure only by the early 2030s and some parties even question this goal; for several reasons, it is unlikely to catch up technologically with the US and China with regard to new disruptive technologies such as AI and quantum technologies; and most importantly there are not many signs suggesting an attitude change toward the use of the armed forces for geopolitical goals. While this role of Germany as a “tamed power” allows its European neighbors to sleep well at night, eventually it makes Europe weaker, more dependent on other countries and more exposed to external interference and security challenges. Conversely, a stronger Germany would reinforce the Western deterrence against Russia and it would discourage Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy. Moreover, as Europe’s economic powerhouse but with a latent technological potential unexpressed, Berlin could and should play a fundamental role in the development of Europe’s strategic autonomy and sovereignty in order to be more competitive with the economic and technological superpowers of  the US and China. Thus, considering the American pivot to Asia and the difficulties for the rest of European countries to provide for their own security, Germany’s leading economic role and security guarantees are needed more than ever.

Italy too, has an important geopolitical role to play even though this is not properly recognized most of the times. A quick look at the geopolitics of Italy, its resources and the security challenges toward Europe, one immediately understands the strategic importance of the country. Given the fact that it is the third largest economy in the EU, ranking second in its manufacturing output in Europe after Germany and it is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with deep diplomatic, historical and cultural links to North Africa and the Middle-East, Italy is an essential factor in the stabilization and resolution of Europe’s security problems in its southern flank. Libya and the management of migration flow are certainly the most important areas where Italy plays a fundamental role. Libya is becoming a contested area among great powers, fostering further destabilization and driving large number of migrants to Italian shores and successively to the rest of Europe. This causes the rise of extremist political forces, as well as creating negative collateral effects for European cohesion and stability. Hence, Rome should adopt a more assertive foreign policy in Libya, including the use of military forces, so as to stabilize the country and help its recovery.

In addition, with the rise of Turkey, despite being in an economic crisis currently, as an aggressive and revisionist regional power that is willing to use military power for geopolitical goals and to expand its sphere of influence in North Africa (e.g. Libya) and south-east Europe, Italy could also play an important role in the balance of power against Turkey and other antagonistic powers in the Mediterranean. Rome has a bigger GDP than Turkey, a similar population and a relatively strong  navy that could operate as a powerful deterrence against Ankara. However, similarly to Germany, Italy is hesitant to develop an assertive foreign policy and to deploy military resources for geopolitical goals. Its defence expenditure is only 1.6 % of the GDP. This weakens the southern front of Europe and leaves it open to external incursions and the rise of other powers, such as Turkey. Different from Germany though, in the last three decades Italy has been ravaged by a dysfunctional political and economic system that is gradually eroding the country’s geopolitical power. Unless Rome fixes its structural problems, it will be difficult for the country to regain international credibility and play a meaningful role in European affairs and in the security of the continent.

Therefore, I argue that a more active and assertive foreign policy by Germany and Italy in their respective areas is warranted to strengthen European security and power. The unwillingness of these two countries and the Italian incapacity to do so affect the whole continent. Rome and Berlin should learn again how to think strategically and how to use military power to reach political ends and defend their national interests, in the same way as other great powers do. They should also embrace a more innovative and risk-taking spirit, a characteristic of big powers, which allows constant innovation and growth of the economy to happen. To do so, structural changes are needed in both cases, especially for Italy. However, such a prospect is unlikely to materialize in the short-medium term as strategic cultures and political institutions persist through generations and they usually change only after dramatic and historical events like a war, or with a shift in the dominant narrative, which could slowly lead to a different zeitgeist.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.