February 18, 2012 — At a recent joint press conference in Washington, DC, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere and his US counterpart Leon Panetta outdid each other with mutual praise and recognition. Last Thursday, Panetta called Germany "a great ally," singling out its efforts within NATO.
Panetta said the German military plays a very important role as the head of NATO's northern command in Afghanistan.
"I am very grateful, as are all American people, for the very warm hospitality US troops and their families enjoy in Germany," he added.
While two US combat brigades are withdrawing from Germany this year, more than 40 thousand US soldiers will remain stationed in the country.
For his part, de Maiziere said the US troop withdrawal was no reason to complain.
"The objective to move from quantity to quality, which of course entails the reorientation of capabilities, is a step that I in particular understand, since it is exactly the course we take in the restructuring of our own armed forces," he said.
De Maiziere added that he could not criticize the US for doing the same thing as Germany. During his trip, he also announced the closure of a German air force facility at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Saving on defense
US cuts to its overseas presence were dictated by the economy. Panetta recently presented a defense budget with almost $500 million (380 million euros) in savings. Corresponding to the latest change in the US government's strategy, Americans are increasingly turning their attention to Asia and the Middle East - hence the withdrawal from Europe. The withdrawal goes hand in hand with the end of the war in Iraq and a drawdown in combat troops planned for 2013 in Afghanistan.
"Americans are tired," said Geoffrey Kemp, security expert at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, D.C. and former adviser to the Reagan administration. "You get the feeling we have done enough, have made enough sacrifices and invested enough money. We need to take a rest, set up our Marines elsewhere and train in Australia."
The bottom line is that the US will put pressure on Europeans to do more in spite of the painful financial climate. Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned of military underfunding in Europe and potentially negative consequences.
German military shift
Against this background, Germany's military budget grew between 2011 and this year. De Maiziere is planning reforms which he outlined at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) on Friday in Washington, D.C.
"We need robust forces that can be deployed in joint missions and be expanded in an escalation, and are also big enough to be dispatched to more than one region," he said.
The total number of German soldiers is decreasing from 183,000 to 170,000. But de Maiziere said this smaller number of troops will be more flexible and better deployed. That marks a shift toward the American perspective.
"No one expected Germany's army or air force to double," Kemp said. He added that Germany should strengthen its efforts in unconventional deployments that do not require massive ground forces.
In Washington, D.C., de Maiziere said Germany's military has already done a lot over the past decade, especially in the asymmetrical warfare in Afghanistan. He added that German forces learned quickly and adapted to conditions in Afghanistan, saying, "Today, the German army is in a position to fight and to win."
Nevertheless, different rules of engagement apply for German and American soldiers, including in Afghanistan. Nora Bensahel, a defense expert at CNAS, said it is clearly desirable for a coalition of different countries gathered under NATO's umbrella to have the same rules.
"But the counter-argument is that it could undermine individual governments' willingness to continue their deployment," she said.
Bensahel added that there should be caution in calling for individual countries, including Germany, to boost their military deployments.
The question arises whether Germany could take a leading role in a military mission, as France did in last year's strikes against Libya. On the last leg of his US trip, de Maiziere addressed that possibility during a speech in Boston.
He said the times when other countries feared a German leadership role are over. De Maiziere added that Germany is seen as an equally entitled, and equally committed, partner in many places.
"Responsibility for its own safety, as well as a contribution to that of its partners" is Germany's right, he said.
Partnership instead of leadership
However, de Maiziere said expectations for Germany should not be set too high. According to him, the goal for Germany's policy on security is to forge and develop "sound partnerships." He views a multilateral approach as more promising than dominance by a single country – a maxim US President Barack Obama also follows.
De Maiziere added that Europe should get used to a situation in which the United States does not always get it out of hot spots.
For now, the US still does most of the work in deployments like the recent one in Libya. But Bensahel said in light of the Pentagon's budget cuts, "Europeans in general, and Germany in particular, will find they are less able to rely on American support in such operations."
First, the US and its allies have to work out a new understanding of one other. They will get the chance at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.Related: