Russia, Ukraine, and German Rearmament

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Only three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a seemingly unparalleled expansion of the German military budget, consisting of €100 billion of additional spending for the Bundeswehr. In addition, a commitment was made to increase yearly military spending to meet the 2% of GDP that NATO has demanded. Yet, while being heralded as a defensive reaction to the new threat from the East, this move towards rearmament is neither new nor reactive.


Special funds in Germany are passed by law and are not part of the regular government budget, which is why they are also called “Shadow Budgets”. Examples of special funds include the Federal Railroad Fund (Bundeseisenbahnvermögen) and the Special Fund for Child Day Care (Sondervermögen Kinderbetreuung) which are required in order to bypass the constitutionally mandated debt limit. This boost in military spending has yet to be passed because the Chancellor wants to ensure that this change is permanent, which requires an amendment to the German constitution. Such an amendment would require a supermajority in the German federal parliament and the parties are currently wrangling over exactly how this new money will be allotted. Yet, the need for such a fund is not in itself contested and will most likely pass.


Germany’s increase in military spending will, no doubt, be welcomed in many quarters of Washington DC. Former US President Donald Trump famously complained about Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s target that members of the alliance should spend 2% of GDP on what is often euphemistically called “defense”. This new guideline, which is not legally binding, emerged in the wake of the last Ukraine crisis in 2014. In this regard, Germany pledged to hit the 2% mark by 2022, but what is not fully clear yet, is whether the Special Fund for Bundeswehr will be used to meet the 2% target or will be additional spending.


A turning point?


Significantly, this new tranche of military spending is being sold to the public in the most bombastic of terms. In a speech to the Bundestag in late February 2022, Chancellor Scholz proclaimed that:


We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before. The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law. Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers. Or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check. That requires strength of our own. […]To make it possible, the Bundeswehr needs new, strong capabilities.[…] It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country. In order to protect our freedom and our democracy. […] This is a major national undertaking. The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us.


Implicit to this narrative is the idea that German military spending has been reduced and so this new infusion of cash represents a remarkable change of tides. Yet even a cursory look at the numbers shows that this is not the case. Statistics offered by the Federal Ministry of Finances show that spending on the military rose from €32,44 billion in 2014 to €46,93 billion in 2021 – a shift that the Bundeswehr itself calls the “Trend Turnaround of Finances” (Trendwende Finanzen).


Moreover, Der Spiegel reported that discussions between government and military planners to increase the military budget had been going on for months. Indeed, in a six-page confidential paper from October 2021, the Defense Ministry demanded a Special Fund of €102 billion in order to finance “complex, expensive armament projects which span many years and therefore require long-term planning and financial stability”.


The reality is that if we look back even before 2014, it is apparent the budget of the Bundeswehr has long since been on the rise. Adjusted for inflation, between 2000 and 2014, it rose from €24,30 billion to €33,26 Billion. Moreover, these numbers do not take into account that NATO’s definition of military spending comprises much more than simply this spending of the defense ministry. Hence, the narrative of Kaputtsparen, namely the idea that the Bundeswehr has been subject to “destructive austerity” is a myth. While it is true that after 2000 military spending tended not to flow towards conventional ground forces, this is because Germany has increasingly relied on high-tech weaponry such as drones and jet aircraft – especially in NATO and EU missions.


Of course, as with many militaries, the Bundeswehr is an incredibly wasteful and inefficient organization. New arms procurements often turn out years too late, end up billions over budget, and often do not work properly or are defective. One official report noted that new weaponry arrives on average 52 months after the parliamentary decision to purchase and costing €13,8 billion more than initially planned. But that is perhaps beside the point, new spending will most certainly be good news for the arms industry.


Germany and the New World Order


In 2020, Germany occupied the number 7 spot on the list of the world’s biggest military spenders. However, the planned increase of Germany’s budget will likely catapult it to number 3, overtaking Saudi Arabia, Britain, Russia, and India. Germany’s new “traffic light coalition” – formed from the Social Democrats (SPD), the Liberals (FDP), and Greens – seems committed to this path. In the coalition agreement, we find statements calling for Germany to outfit its armed forces with the latest weapons of war and stressing the need to increase Europe’s “strategic sovereignty”.


Theinescapable conclusion is that Germany is back and, although we are witnessing a continuation of a decades-long process of remilitarization, we have reached a tipping point. Germany is now openly proclaiming its desire to become a leading military power in an increasingly multi-polar new world order. This reinforcement of German military capabilities will reduce dependence on the United States, the bolstering Germany’s role in the European Union, and restore Germany’s position as the leading European military power. This will, no doubt, result in the strengthening of German imperialism both within Europe and further afield. The most visible outcome of this will most likely be an increase in German active military involvement in conflicts around the world and further pushes towards a sharing of NATO nuclear weapons.


Imperialism and War


Proponents of a multi-polar world welcome these developments in a hope that the emergence of a new global military order will promote greater international stability. Vulgar anti-imperialists too rejoice at the potential decline of the United States and the termination of its role as the world hegemon. Yet both arguments are shortsighted. Set aside the total lack of historical evidence for the causal relation that is being propagated – namely that a more equally balanced distribution of military power will mean that wars and violence will be less likely. Such views also disregard the evidence already mounting both in the US as well as in Germany, that the increase of military capacities always comes along with increased militarization of civil society, be it in the form of the mobilization of people to fight, or the internal militarization of police directed at quelling unrest and stamping on dissidents. Finally, they disregard the environmental footstep of growing militaries that will, on the one hand, escalate energy consumption dramatically and, on the other, bind budgets and productive capacity that could and should otherwise be used to deal with the upcoming climate catastrophe.


The main misconception lies in an analytical divorce of wars and imperialism from the underlying capitalist mechanisms. Socialists traditionally understood that capitalism breeds war. Imperialism was understood not as a separate category but, at most as, a distinct stage of capitalism. Wars and imperialist exploitation happen precisely because of competition for markets and resources. As profitability declines, inter-imperialist competition intensifies, and the risk of catastrophic violence increases. The development of worldwide rearmament is a symptom of this competition; it is neither its cause nor a remedy.


In short, despite the assertions of some “anti-imperialists”, imperialism – or more precisely US imperialism – cannot be fought with imperialism. A serious anti-imperialist peace movement would do well to take seriously Carl von Clausewitz’s famous aphorism that “War is a continuation of policy by other means…” as well as heed the mistakes of 1914. The left should oppose rearmament initiatives all over the world and join past communists in their realization that wars in capitalism are a continuation and escalation of the underlying contradiction of capital. What is needed is not rearmament of the capitalist nations to fulfill some idealist liberal fever-dream of a competitive equilibrium. Such an arms race will not miraculously lead to the end of American imperialism nor will it usher in world peace. Instead, we should focus all our intellectual and political energy on the rebuilding of an internationalist communist movement that targets the enemy that stands in all their respective nations, the capitalist class.