Reforming Germany's Army

MUNICH: What are the military threats European countries now face? What forces are required to meet them? How much are governments willing to pay? The debate over these issues has now reached West Europe's biggest army, Germany's Bundeswehr. Its outcome concerns not only Germans but their partners in Nato and the EU as well.

It is a belated debate here. The Cold War ended a decade ago, and most of Germany's allies conducted their debate years ago. If Germany has lagged, it is for two reasons: Germany's security environment has undergone the most dramatic change, and Germans remain deeply attached to military conscription.

Revolutions happen quickly but it takes time to adjust to the changes they bring. For half-a-century, Germany was the point where the Cold War was most likely to turn hot. Then, beginning in the spring of 1990, Germany united, the Warsaw Pact and USSR disintegrated, and countries to Germany's east, which had been the staging post for Soviet tank armies, suddenly became friends, then partners. In 1994 the last Russian soldier left German soil.

That would have been the moment to take stock of Germany's new strategic situation. But Helmut Kohl's government feared that any examination would unravel the central feature of the army created in the mid-1950s and a major condition for its wide acceptance in the country: military conscription. The military embraces conscription because it assures the armed forces of high-quality recruits and a close link to civil society; politicians like it because it helps make the armed forces transparent; agencies of the welfare state appreciate it because, without conscription, there would be no conscientious objectors to be usefully (and cheaply) employed in all sorts of social tasks.