Poll: Germans, Americans far apart on use of military, defense spending

Sebastian Sprenger

COLOGNE, Germany — Germans and Americans remain far apart on defense issues, ranging from when to use the military, how much to spend on defense and which country poses a bigger challenge — Russia or China — according to a new study unveiled Monday.

“Three years into a turbulent period of American-German relations, with Donald Trump at the helm of American foreign policy and Angela Merkel leading Germany, there continues to be a wide divergence in views of bilateral relations and security policy between the publics of both countries,” said a Pew Research Center study published in cooperation with Koerber Stiftung, a German think tank.

The two organizations each polled about 1,000 adults in September 2019 in the United States and Germany. Also included in the data are results from Pew’s “global attitudes” survey conducted in both countries during the spring and summer of 2019.

The results are unlikely to surprise anyone following trans-Atlantic relations, but they put into perspective why deep-seated differences persist in crafting a more coherent political show of force between the two nations.

While roughly 80 percent Americans believe that using military might is sometimes necessary to maintain order in the world, Germans were almost split evenly on the same question, with a slight majority disagreeing.

On the question of defending a fellow NATO ally against Russia in the event of a conflict, 6 in 10 Americans said the United States should help, whereas 6 in 10 German respondents said their country should not get involved.

At the same time, Germans saw the United States high up in the list of key foreign policy allies, much higher than Americans viewed Germany. Asked to name their most or second-most important partner, 42 percent of Germans mentioned the United Sates, surpassed only by the their top choice of France, at 60 percent.

For Americans, the British ranked highest on the same question, at 36 percent, followed by China (23 percent), Canada (20 percent) and Israel (15 percent).

“One area of convergence is the broad support in both the U.S. and Germany for more cooperation with France and Japan. And similar majorities in the U.S. and Germany want to cooperate more with China,” the study read.

As for cooperation with Russia, “Germans are almost twice as likely as Americans to want greater collaboration,” it added.

When it comes to defense spending, 35 percent of Americans felt that Europeans should up their military budget, with 50 percent saying it should stay the same and 9 percent saying it should decrease. In 2017, the share of Americans wanting an increase was 45 percent.

In Germany, the acceptance for defense budget increases has grown since 2017, when only 32 percent of those polled voiced support and 50 percent wanted it to remain the same. In 2018, 43 percent of respondents supported an increase.

Germany’s to-do list: A spring of (in)decisions is brewing in Berlin

At the mid-February Munich Security Conference, much was made about the European Union’s need to “learn to use the language of power,” as Josep Borrell, the bloc’s defense and foreign policy chief, put it.

That, of course, would cost money.

Germans have traditionally frowned upon that kind of talk, though there is an increasing awareness of geopolitical perils in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview last month.

“Germany has been able to get by with its rhetorical response to the deteriorating security environment,” he said. “Now it's increasingly obvious that that is no longer enough.”

While the country has significantly upped its defense spending, sensitizing the public for operational contributions to Europe’s security will be a crucial next step for this government and the next, Rathke argued.

The Pew and Koerber figures point to a generational change in the general attitudes of Germans and Americans about one another.

“Despite these divergences in opinion, young people in both countries have more positive views of the U.S.-German relationship,” the study read. “In the U.S., for example, 82 percent of people ages 18 to 29 say the relationship is good, compared with 73 percent of those ages 65 and older. Similarly, in Germany, four-in-ten young people say relations with the U.S. are good, compared with only 31 percent of those 65 and older.”

Notably, the two countries' militaries enjoy a much closer level of cooperation than the political discourse suggests, especially during the Trump administration, a fact that officials in both countries keep stressing when the tone between Berlin and Washington turns particularly icy.

“There is an instinctive perception in the German public to defense matters anchored in Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance,” Rathke said.