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Commentary | 25 August 2020

An offer postponed: Berlin’s silence on Macron’s deterrence thinking

The question of a European dimension to nuclear deterrence has been brought back into the spotlight recently due to growing tensions in the transatlantic relationship, significant shifts in European security architecture following Russian aggressions during the Ukraine crisis, and the ongoing debate about European strategic autonomy. In President Macron’s speech delivered on 7 February 2020, on the role of French nuclear deterrence in the context of European security and defence, a new door was created for a possible nuclear dialogue with European partners. While the key to that door most likely lies in Berlin, no one there seems inclined to pick it up.

Arguably, President Macron’s renewed offer to lead a dialogue on nuclear deterrence in Europe didn’t come at the right time. Shortly after his February speech, the ongoing coronavirus-pandemic hit Europe hard; it silenced foreign and security policy debates for months. For Berlin, indecisive on how to respond to the French statement, this was likely a blessing in disguise. French presidents’ nuclear speeches have rarely been met with much enthusiasm by German decision-makers and commentators.  Neither the offer to discuss the option of a dissuasion élargie (extended deterrence) that had been floating since 1976 nor the idea of a dissuasion concertée (concerted deterrence), which was brought forward by then-foreign minister Alain Juppé in 1995 and renewed by president Chirac in 2006, were able to capture Berlin’s outspoken interest.

President Macron, however, knows that he must act carefully when reaching out to the Germans, especially if he were to recall how Nicolas Sarkozy carelessly raised nuclear issues in his 2007 visit. So, this time Macron and his speechwriters tried to ensure that ‘right President’ sent a carefully drafted message at the ‘right time.’ In his speech, Macron invited willing European partners to engage in a strategic dialogue “on the role played by France’s nuclear deterrence in our collective security”, this is a low-hanging fruit and a natural starter. He then went on to mention the possibility for “European partners which are willing to walk the road” to “be associated with the exercises of French deterrence forces”. This last proposal, as Benjamin Hautecouverture and Emmanuelle Maitre note, is a phrase that allows respect for the differences in sensibilities regarding nuclear matters in Europe. From a French standpoint, an association of European partners with French nuclear exercises are valuable for they could support the development of a “true strategic culture among Europeans” as Marcon put it.

There has been no clear answer from Germany. Moreover, there’s no indication that Germany would want to be associated with French nuclear exercises. At the Munich Security Conference 2020 German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas admitted there was a need for strategic dialogue on the issue of “building a European Security and Defence Union – as a strong, European pillar of NATO”. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he went on to emphasize that Germany would like to engage in such a dialogue mainly with the goal of bolstering the European side of NATO. While the French tend to point out that a strategic dialogue on the possible role of the force de frappe in the protection of Europe can take place alongside NATO’s nuclear strategy, Germany seems concerned that the slightest move in that direction could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine NATO. In that sense, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s answer was equally cautious. While she said in an interview with ZDF that one would need to discuss Macron’s proposal to clarify what exactly the President imagines, she added, “we have been protected during the past decades by the nuclear umbrella as we know it and I don’t see a reason why we should abandon this principally”.

Paris understands very well that pushing Germany for a decision would be pointless. Their strategy then is to make clear that France supports NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements and Germany’s participation therein while confirming its stance that Paris will continue to stay away from the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). While some officials in Berlin doubt whether France’s stated support for NATO’s nuclear sharing is more than lip service – designed to obfuscate anti-American sentiments – genuine support makes sense for France. In an educational sense, it is easier to build up a “strategic culture” in the long run with a dual-capable aircraft (DCA) country than with a Germany that turns its back on an active role in any form of nuclear deterrence.

The French also know that Germany finds itself in a quandary between an attempt to maintain transatlantic relations in the best shape possible – including NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement – while facing an increasingly hostile and unpredictable US administration that doesn’t stop confronting Berlin. At the same time, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, politicians from the centre-left are calling for a withdrawal of US nuclear devices from Germany as a response to the shrinking US commitment to European security and as a conciliatory step vis-à-vis Russia (although the Kremlin would probably not care much about a decision that was unilaterally taken by Germany because this wouldn’t have any impact on NATO-Russia relations). Both camps are powerful actors in the public debate and neither have the appetite now for entering into a dialogue with France about the future of European deterrence. While the die-hard transatlanticists fear that any dialogue could damage relations with the US, the abolitionists don’t see any benefit in consulting another nuclear power when they’re aiming for a nuclear-weapons-free Europe. And there are justified concerns that, if Germany wants to get rid of US nuclear devices, they could be installed in Poland instead.

Although there are individual calls coming from the expert community and the political spectrum (such as Deputy Chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group Johann Wadephul’s statement earlier this year, and former leaders like General (ret.) Klaus Naumann and former Ambassador to the US Wolfgang Ischinger) to rethink Germany’s position and take into account the changing security landscape, these calls – although gaining occasional attention – are unpopular. But more problematic than the fact that these considerations are seldom put on the table is the way in which parts of the expert community tend to muse about the nature of an independent European deterrence: Some have gone as far as to call for a German bomb, while others (like Wadephul) wish to see the force de frappe under the control of a single EU or NATO entity one day, which is a highly unrealistic idea. A second DCA wing, something that Klaus Naumann considered, wouldn’t be more than a mirroring of what NATO already does. Others toy with the idea of supporting the mission of the nuclear-capable Rafale-M fighter bomber on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier with Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD)-capable F-18 fighters, as well as equipping a new European aircraft carrier with F-18 and Rafale aircraft. Although in theory these are interesting options, neither is more than “Zukunftsmusik” (visions of the future) as a French expert puts it.

There also seems to be deep mistrust ingrained in the minds of many analysts and policymakers in Berlin. Offers by France to lead a nuclear dialogue with Berlin are regularly interpreted by some as a French attempt to either undermine transatlantic ties or to seek another funding source for the force de frappe. Indeed, if NATO’s nuclear sharing was to be replaced by an extended French deterrence, French experts note that this would require a qualitative and quantitative enhancement (more weapons and more advanced equipment), and a financial burden shared by other European partners would be obligatory. This again is a premature consideration which makes little sense in the absence of bespoke dialogue which would bring to light which areas, and to what extent, Paris is willing to move and accept compromises, and in which areas it is not. As the senior advisor for Europe at IISS François Heisbourg noted in 2019, with regard to military operations, a “grand compromise” along the lines of shared risk-taking and decision-making would be necessary. “Paris may be more prepared for it than officials in Berlin may think. The same remark applies to the field of nuclear deterrence”, he added.

Macron’s speech in February created a tangible option for leading a meaningful dialogue on European deterrence, but at the moment there are no encouraging signals coming from Berlin. While it is understandable that there are other, pandemic-related matters that take priority at present, Germany has to invest more resources in strategic thinking about the future of European defence and security, including the future of nuclear deterrence in the mid- and long-term. While large parts of the expert community come up with extreme positions, meandering between ‘all or nothing’, there is a lack of considered thinking on the options in between, such as the proposed association with French nuclear exercises or a rotation of non-nuclear equipped Rafale fighter bombers as suggested by Bruno Tertrais in 2018. This also includes being realistic about the “damage” that could be done to transatlantic relations (especially if pursued at the same time as a project such as Nord Stream 2 which might be a greater concern not only for the US but for some European partners as well). Entering into a nuclear dialogue and hearing what Paris has to offer without hiding behind the assertion of French anti-American sentiments would be a necessary first step.

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 aims to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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