It was really nothing more than a test. Sigmar Gabriel was standing at the lectern inside the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich for his first appearance at the Munich Security Conference in his new role as German foreign minister. And he looked terrible. He was sick and had cancelled many of his appointments, but nevertheless decided not to forego his speech and the Security Conference. He wanted to toss a fly into the NATO soup.
That morning, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had spoken from the same stage and had used the spotlight to urge NATO member states to fulfil their alliance obligations as agreed and spend the equivalent of at least 2 percent of their GDPs on defense. Germany was one of his primary targets. The country is the clear economic leader in Europe, but Berlin only spends 1.2 percent of its GDP on the military, less even in absolute terms than the United Kingdom, France and a host of other European countries.
Gabriel was well aware of all that, but he said: "We have to be a bit careful here that we don't over-interpret the 2 percent target." He then became much clearer: "Maintain perspective, stay focused on the target, but avoid being consumed by the bliss of a new rearmament spiral!" That was the decisive phrase: Rearmament spiral.
Following the careful test balloon launched in Munich, Gabriel dripped a bit more oil into the fire a few days later, warning of "blind obedience" to the U.S. He also took a dig at his cabinet colleague Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, saying that she apparently had a rather "naïve" notion regarding what was possible in Germany.
Just a few weeks after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, the debate over military spending has reached the depths of the accelerating German election campaign. Trump himself triggered the debate, having declared several times that NATO is "obsolete" and hinting that the U.S. would make its loyalties dependent on member states paying their fair share.
Ever since the real-estate tycoon's adversarial speeches in New York, the trans-Atlantic alliance has found itself in a crisis of trust. But for Gabriel, the issue opens up a world of possibilities. (end of excerpt)
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