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Commentary | 29 May 2020

A plea for realism in Germany’s nuclear sharing debate

The debate about replacing Germany’s ageing Tornado fleet—the aircraft that would deliver an authorised nuclear strike from German soil—commenced in the early 2000s. Since then, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) could have raised objections about German participation in allied nuclear sharing, especially in the years when the SPD held the Federal Chancellery (1998-2005) and the Federal Foreign Office (2005-2009, 2013-today). The SPD agreed instead to continue nuclear sharing in the 2018 coalition agreement with Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

But on the eve of the government’s procurement decision for the Tornado replacement, the SPD is suddenly pushing for its dangerous disarmament idealism. The chairman of the SPD group in the Bundestag, Dr Rolf Mützenich, has called for Germany to unilaterally terminate its participation in the ‘technical aspect of nuclear sharing’. Instead of investing in an expensive Tornado replacement, Germany should spend the funds ‘on the fight against the [Covid-19] pandemic and on the re-construction of the economy’. Dr Mützenich further claims that nuclear sharing is a Cold War relic that impedes nuclear disarmament and that the ‘unpredictable’ Trump administration has re-conceptualised the role of this ‘inhumane type of weapon’ from ‘deterrence-only’ to the potential use of low-yield nuclear weapons in battle. Germany would be safer without hosting US nuclear weapons.

Dr Mützenich is mistaken. The removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil would undermine the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and, ultimately, increase the likelihood of war in Europe, including that of nuclear use. Exiting nuclear sharing would also raise concerns in the Baltics and Eastern Europe about Germany’s commitment to protect its immediate neighbourhood, end Germany’s influence over launching nuclear strikes, render German preferences less relevant for US policy, remove a geostrategic barrier to Russian armament and unduly jeopardise the already strained relations with Moscow.

To be sure, the pace of nuclear disarmament has slowed since the 1990s. This liberal interlude saw the indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although the nuclear powers have also cut their nuclear arsenals by some 75% since the mid-1980s, an estimated 13,355 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of nine countries today. This reduction contains an important unilateral component; the United States and Russia, which possess the vast majority of global warheads, have reduced mostly very expensive, excess stockpiles.

But the pace of disarmament has slowed due to dramatic changes in the international security environment. If in the 1990s, Russia appeared to be a strategic partner for the West, then Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which led to its demise, are only the latest indicators for Russia’s re-emergence as a geopolitical competitor. President Putin’s 2005 state of the union speech, in which he ‘described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”’, announced this shift in Moscow’s strategic thinking. Moscow judged that Western hegemony denied Russia its rightful great-power status. A more disruptive Russian foreign policy based on power politics, zero-sum games and spheres of influence was more suitable for recalibrating the global order to better accommodate Russian interests. As President Putin put it at the 2007 Munich Security Conference: ‘we must seriously think about the architecture of global security…[to achieve] a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue’.

The existing Western rules-based order is incompatible with Moscow’s stated objectives. Dr Mützenich’s claim that ‘we [the SPD] orient ourselves not only on our own, national interest, but also consider the interests of other countries, because we know that we can only be strong together’, is thus ideologically commendable but divorced from the geopolitical realities. Unilaterally exiting nuclear sharing is at odds with the SPD’s insistence that German foreign policy must be multilateral and in the European interest. It would prompt questions in the Baltics and Eastern Europe about Germany’s stated commitment to protect its immediate neighbourhood. And yes, Canada and Greece ended nuclear sharing in 1984 and 2001, respectively. But that is precisely why continuity is needed. As the US ambassadors to Poland and Germany warned, Germany’s exit from allied nuclear sharing would ‘diminish nuclear capability and weaken NATO’ by ‘eroding the solidarity that undergirds NATO’s nuclear deterrent’. Another unilateral weakening of the existing Euro-Atlantic security architecture—whether through Russia’s violation of arms control agreements or the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from German territory—does not strengthen European security; it merely removes the legal and geostrategic barriers to Russian armament. An arms race could ensue, bringing volatility rather than predictability to European security. Volatility increases the risk of escalation, whether accidental or intentional, including the probability of a nuclear exchange. Instead of unilaterally removing an important element of the security architecture, the SPD should encourage measures to increase strategic stability.

The assertion that the Trump administration has re-defined the purpose of nuclear weapons away from a ‘deterrence-only’ approach to their potential use on the battlefield is correct. But Dr Mützenich ignores that the shift came in response to a perceived Russian ‘escalate to de-escalate policy’ and to force modernisations in Russia and China, which have prompted observers to question the continued validity of the latter’s no-first-use policy. And Dr Mützenich also forgets that the United States consulted allies on the changes. They were a reaction to a rapidly deteriorating geopolitical environment rather than the result of President Trump’s ‘unpredictability’.

President Trump does have a poor record on nuclear diplomacy. The US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a mistake. The summit diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has not resulted in the desired denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. However, unilaterally terminating the hosting of US nuclear weapons in Germany will not change President Trump’s approach to nuclear diplomacy. It would merely foster the perception that Germany is an unreliable ally. German preferences would matter less to Washington, reducing German influence on US policy as a result. As Washington’s ambassador to Berlin put it, ‘Germany’s participation in nuclear share ensures that its voice matters’. President Trump’s position should instead prompt the SPD to encourage multilateral arms control, based on reciprocity, between the nuclear-armed states without jeopardising the geostrategic pillars of our security.

Dr Mützenich states that nuclear armaments are ‘inhumane’. Granted. But nuclear weapons are armaments of last resort, as NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has recently reaffirmed. Armament questions are in Germany for historical reasons thorny and unpopular. It is thus not surprising that the political debate stirs up much disarmament idealism rather than focusing on the security realities. Dr Mützenich himself suggests that US nuclear weapons could be hosted in Poland instead of Germany. This is problematic for three reasons.

First, to simply move ‘inhumane’ weapons several hundred kilometres to the east will make no contribution to nuclear disarmament; it merely undermines the very transatlantic solidarity that has kept Germany safe and ensured German influence within the alliance.

Second, Moscow regards any such move as provocative encroachment. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that the relocation would violate the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act and ‘threaten the material basis of European security’.

Third, Dr Mützenich’s apparent lack of concern at the prospect of Warsaw making nuclear launch decisions is inconsistent with the SPD’s frequent criticism of the incumbent Polish government for undermining human rights such as freedom of the press.

The way to ensure that these ‘inhumane’ weapons will not be used in battle is, in the final analysis, to retain some form of influence over the delivery process. Even Dr Mützenich’s own party colleagues admit that if and when German pilots deliver a nuclear strike authorised by the US president ‘will always be decided by the German chancellor’. Unilaterally ending Germany’s participation in the ‘technical aspects of nuclear sharing’ would remove this vital avenue of influence.

The noble claim that instead of investing an estimated US$2 billion in nuclear systems, humanity would be better off using the funds to contain Covid-19 is similarly ill-founded. The detractors of the existing rules-based international order—China and Russia—have not shied away from exploiting the global health emergency for their geopolitical gains by spreading disinformation designed to divide the West. These revisionist states will not end the geopolitical competition out of altruism; they seek the re-shaping of the present international order to better accommodate their interests, as President Putin himself stated in his 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference. In an ideal world, there is no need for weapons of any type. That remains the declared aim of the States parties to the NPT. But the simple geostrategic reality is that we are far from this disarmament utopia. Until the great powers enforce a mutually beneficial rules-based international system, the prospects for further disarmament remain grim.

Unilaterally removing US nuclear weapons from German soil would not change this geostrategic reality. Instead, it would undermine transatlantic solidarity, raise questions about Germany’s commitment to European security, end Germany’s influence over launching nuclear strikes, render German preferences less relevant for US policy, remove a geostrategic barrier to Russian armament and unduly jeopardise the already strained relations with Moscow. Dr Mützenich and his SPD colleagues should embrace the geopolitical reality by honouring their commitment made in the coalition agreement with the CDU. They must procure an adequate replacement for Berlin’s ageing Tornado fleet to continue the present nuclear sharing arrangement.

To make a viable additional contribution to Euro-Atlantic security, the SPD should encourage the great powers to increase strategic stability; that is, to build a robust security architecture based on shared objectives and reciprocal arms control. This is the only path to cultivating the strategic trust required for further disarmament. The obvious policy option is to prevent the further erosion of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture by seeking the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), a replacement for the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), a solution to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) question, and a restatement of the principles of the INF Treaty. The SPD, with its long-espoused Ostpolitik, would be well-positioned to mediate between Washington and Moscow.

The author would like to thank Thilo Kräußlich and Andreas Persbo for their helpful comments on a draft version of the text.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Bundeswehr Panavia Tornado