1945 ushered in the nuclear era. Yet, the construction of a European project, with the ambitions to achieve economic integration and strategic cooperation, did not have an agenda on nuclear force and deterrence. French President Emmanuel Macron brought the issue back up in a speech delivered at the Ecole de Guerre in February 2020, during which he called upon European leaders to engage in a strategic dialogue on nuclear issues. This call has remained relatively unanswered, especially in Germany, which is strongly committed to pursuing European security through a NATO framework, and fears France’s proposal could threaten the transatlantic partnership. In this new episode of our Weapons of Mass Debate series, Claudia Major, Head of the International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), and Christian Mölling, Research Director and Head of the Security and Defense Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), help us understand Germany’s ambivalence towards nuclear weapons.
Germany and Nuclear Weapons
Germany hosts US nuclear weapons, yet it feels deeply uncomfortable about them. This is mainly due to its traditional normative policy of focusing on arms control and disarmament. As a result, Germany is reluctant to consider nuclear weapons from a strategic and security perspective and is hesitant to lead an honest and informed debate about nuclear deterrence. This leaves Berlin ill-prepared for discussions that go beyond disarmament and that address nuclear weapons as something that is here to stay. That is at least the case for the foreseeable future, be it as a security tool, as a crucial element of Europe’s deterrence and defense architecture, or as a global challenge, such as North Korea.
In the domestic German debate, there is a divide between those who want to exit all nuclear arrangements and a nominally smaller group that wants the arrangements to remain as they are. Most government officials certainly recognize the importance of nuclear deterrence and Germany’s role herein in a NATO context. But there is deep political and societal scepticism. The expert community is split. The majority of the public and most politicians fundamentally reject nuclear weapons, with the role of the US being an additional challenge. In a 2020 survey, a staggering 66% of interviewees believed that Germany should stop relying on nuclear deterrence. Within the current coalition government, the Conservative party supports nuclear deterrence and sharing, while most of the Social Democrats oppose it. Equally critical are the Liberals, the Left and the Greens.
Consequently, "remainer" politicians and officials rarely engage in public discussions, let alone foster them. If debates on nuclear deterrence take place, they usually run along predictable normative lines.
This has turned into a vicious circle: after several years of political ignorance, fear and inertia on nuclear issues, the government now faces extreme pressure to legitimize Germany’s role, especially in nuclear sharing. This is one reason why the current government has been unable to decide on the renewal of its outdated nuclear delivery aircraft, the Tornado. Those who want to take Germany out of nuclear deterrence use this pending decision as an opportunity to generally question nuclear sharing. Yet, what critics describe as a mere technicality (leaving nuclear sharing arrangements for example by no longer providing a dual-capable aircraft), has the potential to crack NATO’s nuclear deterrence and decouple Europe from the US. If Germany exits nuclear sharing, other countries might follow like dominoes, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.
If they are badly managed, these processes might see Germany sleepwalk out of its nuclear role: not so much out of conviction but because of missed timelines and ill-informed decisions.
Attitudes Towards NATO and the Biden Administration
Over the next year, Europeans will be rethinking their security and defense approaches in the EU (Strategic Compass) and NATO (update of the Strategic Concept). The Biden administration will set the tone, at least for NATO and the nuclear language.
For Germany, the updated Strategic Concept should strengthen NATO, increase its cohesion, and solidify the position of the Alliance for the next decade. It should not become a divisive exercise. Berlin has a stake in the process: in 2019, it suggested launching a reflection process which eventually led to the NATO 2030 report. The report was put together by a group of experts led by former German defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, and former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Wess Mitchel. It calls, inter alia, for a new strategic concept. Germany hopes it will anchor NATO’s central role in European and transatlantic defense. While recognizing new aspects (like China, technology and climate change), NATO’s core tasks should focus on Europe and strike the right balance among its core tasks.
With regards to the Biden administration, there seems to be a certain ambivalence in the German government. On the one hand, there are huge expectations that things will be better compared to the Trump years - in NATO, on European interests, arms control, and global responsibility. The extension of New Start was greeted with great relief, as was the renewed commitment to NATO.
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