A tale of two Europes

A tale of two Europes
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Europe is divided not by an Iron Curtain but by two very different views on the threat posed by Russia. In Sweden and other countries adjacent to the Baltic Sea, increased preparedness for its aggression has produced larger defense budgets and alertness about how Moscow could intimidate these countries. In Germany and much of western Europe, however, there is far less urgency over such a “hard power” threat from Russia.

It is true that when confronted by the disconcerting claims by President Trump regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and transatlantic relations in general, the leaders of these latter countries have responded by enacting various reforms for the alliance and have continued to back sanctions against Russia. However, when it comes to putting significant money toward the conventional military problem in a timely fashion, the distance between the two Europes becomes more clear.

This division cannot end well. While American security promises slow the corrosive effects from these different threat perceptions, any move by the United States to shift resources and strategic attention to Asia could start off the real battle within the European Union and within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Sweden and Germany are two countries symbolic of the tension and potential conflict posed by this situation.


Sweden has a careful multiparty process every four years to determine its defense and security strategy, and for setting the budget which backs up that strategy. The most recent official review recommended a 40 percent increase in national defense spending over the next four years, a proposal that was approved nearly unanimously by the parliament.

The new investments include a hike for the number of military members from 55,000 to 90,000 in the next decade. This growth will be achieved with a larger conscription program. Modern naval capabilities like a new submarine will be purchased and a new cybersecurity center is set to be developed to address threats from Russia and elsewhere.

Sweden has also resurrected civil defense planning to bolster its ability to survive a conflict and even an invasion. In the last five years, following the invasion from Russia and the annexation of Crimea, Sweden has regularly increased its military budget, with plans to spend just under 2 percent of its gross domestic product on national defense by 2025.

In Germany, the story is different. There is far less alarm about aggression from Russia or cyberthreats that emanate with Moscow and others further east. Despite calls from the United States to increase its defense budget, growth has been slow and the pledge from Berlin to spend the 2 percent on defense continues to be moved further into the future.

Successive defense ministers have called for strong conventional military capabilities of Germany more rapidly. Yet as demonstrated by the military ombudsman, the procurement process remains slow, the maintenance of its aircraft and ships is shoddy, and the training for real war is not what it needs to be. To its credit, Germany has taken the lead on various military task forces on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it is temporary and not overly burdensome in terms of needed resources.


Now faced with the bills to deal with the pandemic in Germany, analysts have focused on ways to measure relevant security spending that would include almost all funds spent abroad or on international institutions. The commitment from Berlin to multilateralism is undoubted and valued, but heavy spending on the United Nations or other international institutions does not make the border of eastern Europe any more safe.

Several years ago in Germany, elites rallied around the case that it had to do more in security affairs. As former President Joachim Gauck has said, the country had “to do more for the security it has been provided for by others for decades.” Indeed, if recent history is any indication, this new administration of Joe Biden, with its clear desire to rebuild transatlantic ties, will look to Germany as the keystone to those efforts.

That agenda will surely involve more than security matters. However, it would be unwise for the leaders of Germany to think that it will not be a priority for the next White House as it scrambles to deal with the threat from Russia and a far more ambitious China with its own limited military resources. Indeed, Berlin could do well to look to Stockholm for an idea over what Washington could ask of its partners in Europe.

Craig Kennedy served as former president of the German Marshall Fund. Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.