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Germany’s New Government Settles the Nuclear Debate – for Now

November 29, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock.com
When Germany’s prospective government published its coalition treaty last week, its closest allies focused on one topic in particular: nuclear weapons.

Many feared that the country’s swing to the political left could result in an exit from NATO nuclear sharing. Since the early Cold War, Germany has been hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. As Europe’s largest NATO country, a shift in Germany’s nuclear policy is feared to reverberate throughout the alliance and greatly damage transatlantic security. The coalition treaty certainly elicited a collective sigh of relief from allies: The new German government will continue to support nuclear sharing. At a first glance, the issue seems resolved. But a closer look at the new government’s position and the global nuclear landscape shows that the issue of nuclear policy, both in Germany and beyond, is far from settled.

The absence of foreign policy topics in Germany’s election debates created the impression of an overall foreign policy consensus among the country’s political parties. This could not be further from the truth when it comes to nuclear sharing. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has always been a strong supporter of nuclear sharing and ensured continuity in Germany’s nuclear weapons policy over the past 16 years. Following the CDU’s electoral defeat this September, the novel “traffic light” coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP), which will assume office the week of December 6, has a more complicated relationship with nuclear weapons.

In their respective election programs, the SPD and the Greens condemned nuclear weapons and declared a nuclear-weapons-free Germany as their policy goal. Both parties also envisioned Germany as an observer to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), with the ultimate goal of becoming a full member, which no other NATO country has done. SPD floor leader Rolf Mützenich leads the SPD’s intra-party opposition to nuclear sharing. He is an outspoken critic of nuclear deterrence and, most recently, he called German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s reinforced commitment to deterring Russia “irresponsible.” The SPD’s more moderate wing still supports nuclear sharing, fearing a withdrawal could harm transatlantic relations.

The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear weapons has a long history, dating back to the party’s foundation in the wake of Germany’s peace movement. While the party’s pacifist “fundi” wing is known for its strong opposition to all things nuclear, even its more centrist voices supported an unsuccessful Bundestag motion for Germany to join the TPNW at the beginning of this year—which would have required an exit from nuclear sharing.

The SPD and the Greens both saw an influx of first-time candidates elected to the Bundestag, with more than 20% of their parliament members coming from the parties’ youth organizations. The Green Youth and Young Socialists are known for representing more progressive and left-leaning voices, moving the parties’ ideologies further to the left. This will also be felt in the debate on nuclear sharing.

The FDP, while subscribing to the long-term goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, opposes any unilateral actions by Germany that contradict NATO strategy and could undermine the transatlantic alliance. As the smallest out of the three likely coalition partners and focusing on fiscal and economic issues rather than foreign and security policy, the FDP’s assertiveness on the nuclear question is uncertain.

While the issue was unsurprisingly a point of tension during the current coalition talks, the coalition treaty published last Wednesday reveals that the realists prevailed over the pacifists during the negotiation. In the document, the traffic light parties affirm they “are committed to maintaining a credible deterrent potential,”1 acknowledging the continuing threat to the security of Germany and Europe as well as the concerns of Central and Eastern European partners. The party leaders also revealed that the Ministry of Defense would be led by the SPD and the Foreign Office by the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, with the names of the prospective defense minister to be released only on December 4.

The decision on nuclear sharing had been expected: In the wake of the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the fight against climate change, and the backlog of infrastructure investments, it was unlikely that either party was willing to invest the political capital needed to alter Germany’s fundamental foreign policy strategy. But the ministry distribution is a clear signal for the foreign policy direction of the new government: the FDP, the only party clearly in favor of nuclear sharing, does not want to play a prominent role in the country’s foreign and security policy, with the chancellery, foreign ministry, and defense ministry all led by left-leaning parties. A written commitment to nuclear sharing in the coalition treaty will therefore not be the end of the debate.

The Tornado Option

There is another way opponents of nuclear sharing could quietly get what they want. If U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Germany were to be used, German Tornado aircrafts would carry the weapons to their target. However, the current fleet is barely operable and in desperate need of replacement. A further delay of the matter effectively means that Germany would end up without a functioning carrier in a few years and equal a passive withdrawal from nuclear sharing. In the coalition treaty, the traffic light parties commit to procuring a replacement at the beginning of the next legislative session and accompany the procurement and certification process with regard to nuclear sharing “objectively and conscientiously.” That hardly sounds like an act of conviction and German news platform Der Spiegel previously compared the wording to a “self-disciplinary” statement. The coalition partners’ widely differing stances on the nuclear matter and the need for approval through the Bundestag’s budget committee will certainly complicate the process, with the clock in the background ticking louder and louder.

Lastly, the coalition treaty envisages Germany to “constructively accompany the intention of the [TPNW] treaty” as an observer at the next Conference of the Parties, which is scheduled for March. After Norway’s newly elected government made the same announcement last month, Germany will be the second NATO country and first nuclear sharing country to do so. As an observer, Germany is still a step away from membership, but it sends a clear sign to NATO and the United States, where fears have been spreading that such a decision could kick off a domino effect among its members and weaken alliance cohesion.

Germany’s soul-searching on nuclear weapons comes at a time of increasing global polarization on the topic. On the one hand, civil society organizations’ calls to ban nuclear weapons are intensifying and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force early this year with more than 50 signatories. On the other hand, the world’s nuclear weapon states are heading in a different direction.

Early last year, French President Macron invited EU countries to participate in a dialogue about the role of nuclear weapons in EU security and offered participation in French nuclear exercises. In its “Integrated Review,” published this March, the United Kingdom announced it would lift the cap on the number of nuclear warheads in its possession. Russia is planning to increase nuclear spending to modernize its nuclear arsenal and China is already engaging in a massive modernization and buildup of its nuclear arsenal, outpacing previous estimates of the speed and scope of its nuclear ambitions.

NATO is expected to publish its new strategic concept in June next year and there are no signs that the alliance will be reducing the role of nuclear deterrence in its strategy. At this year’s Brussels summit, NATO member states reiterated that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

In the United States, the Biden administration is currently undertaking the Nuclear Posture Review with results expected early next year. Unlike his predecessor, President Biden is a strong proponent of arms control and has spoken in favor of a “sole purpose” strategy during his campaign. While past U.S. nuclear strategies were intentionally vague regarding the scenarios in which the United States would use nuclear weapons, a “sole purpose” strategy would restrict the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons to the deterrence of or retaliation against another nuclear attack. Such a policy is believed to decrease the risk of nuclear escalation because it effectively excludes preemptive nuclear strikes and resembles a “no first use policy.”

A change in U.S. nuclear doctrine would have considerable implications for the U.S. nuclear umbrella in Europe and plays right into the German debate about nuclear sharing. Limiting the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe would decrease their deterrent effect and give those who are demanding a revision of NATO nuclear policy in Europe what they want. Just a few weeks ago, several U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, France, and the outgoing German government, pleaded for Biden not to adopt a “sole purpose” strategy.

Although the incoming traffic light government just decided on continuing Germany’s commitment to nuclear sharing on paper, the coalition agreement will not deter ideologically opposed members of the government coalition from continuing to lobby against it, as demonstrated by SPD floor leader Mützenich during the last government’s term. Significant forces within the SPD and the Greens would likely commend a shift in U.S. nuclear policy and gladly use it as a starting point for revisiting Germany’s nuclear attitude—with Biden as an unlikely but welcome ally for their vision of a nuclear-weapons-free Germany.

  • 1All quotes from the coalition agreement are author’s own translation from German.