Yes, Berlin has reason to fear the Kremlin’s aggression. But the U.S. president’s refusal to provide a security umbrella is the real problem.
- By Maximilian TerhalleMaximilian Terhalle is an associate professor of international politics at Winchester University in the U.K. and is a senior research fellow at Cambridge University. His most recent book is The Transition of Global Order: Legitimacy and Contestation.
Donald Trump has put Germany’s security at risk. His campaign trail claim that NATO was “obsolete” eroded the alliance’s most important resource — its credibility. But his repetition of the same comments as U.S. president has been a five-alarm fire for German strategists and for anyone else who cares about the future of Europe.
NATO is not just the world’s most powerful and long-standing military alliance, which has successfully deterred the potential enemies of its members for seven decades. It is a guarantor of Germany’s national security and a precondition of its continued existence as a politically independent state in Europe. And nobody disputes that NATO’s backbone is the United States’ superior and vast military capacities. They protected Germany against Soviet aggression during the Cold War and have deterred revisionist Russia’s repeated demonstrations of force over the last decade. And at the core of this deterrent are nuclear weapons, many of them stationed in Germany itself.
That leaves Germany with a very serious debate ahead: whether to continue relying on a United States that is now committed to signaling its unreliability or to begin pursuing its own nuclear deterrent — either on its own or as part of a new European security structure. Rudolph Herzog’s recent Foreign Policy article presented a simple view of this argument, where proponents of the idea, such as myself, were represented as adventurous cowboys blind to the lessons of history. But the debate is far more complicated, and more critical, than Herzog portrayed. This is a debate triggered not by indulgent fantasies but by the potential of a strategic vacuum at the heart of the continent.
The withdrawal of this security guarantee, as repeatedly suggested by Trump (to the delight, or perhaps at the prompting, of Vladimir Putin), would expose Germany and its neighbors to an increasingly revisionist and aggressive Russia, intent to redress the collapse of the Soviet Union that cost Russia its imperial possessions in Eastern Europe. We can’t be blind to the signs of Russian aggression. Look at the fate of Crimea in 2014, annexed by Russia in a fit of pique at Ukraine’s refusal to be a vassal state, or the Russian nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg) now pointing at German targets.
Russia is unlikely to invade Germany itself. But if the power balance swings in favor of Russia and against Western Europe, that leaves small states like the Baltics in danger from Putin’s revanchist ambitions. With the whip hand in Eastern Europe, Putin would be able to pressure or frighten Western Europe into accepting his authoritarian view of the world. Smaller states would swing toward the Russian side, leaving Germany dangerously exposed. For both moral and realist reasons, Germany needs to shield Eastern Europe against Trump — and nuclear weapons are the only way to guarantee its neighbors independence.
Putin is one tweetstorm by Trump away from having the conventional and strategic military upper hand in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot sustain her sanctions regime, backed by the EU, if the United States retreats from Europe, precisely because Putin knows that her very effective use of economic power ultimately rests on American military power standing at the ready in the background. But if NATO goes, the weakness of German and European diplomacy, faced with a revisionist great power, becomes conspicuously clear.
If this really were to happen, German nuclear weapons would be the most powerful way to compensate for the American withdrawal and the best means to even out the military imbalance that Trump would have created in Russia’s favor. The inherent terror of nuclear weapons means even a relatively small German program could be a mighty deterrent against Russia’s 7,000 nuclear warheads.
In his piece, Herzog argues that nuclear weapons go against Germany’s post-World War II efforts to act as a global moral leader. But Germany’s European neighbors don’t want lecturing but a more engaged and militarily active Germany. The Baltic states openly demanded German panzer battalions during the Crimean crisis. Even the powerful conservative Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, formerly an outspoken Germanophobe, publicly welcomed the idea of a German-driven “European nuclear superpower” in February.
World War II has no real political weight in today’s relations between Germany and its eastern (and western) neighbors anymore. Rather, today’s perception of the Russian-driven security dilemma in Eastern Europe determines the views of the Eastern European countries whose courage helped bring down Soviet oppression in the late 1980s. Central and Eastern Europe share this perception of threat from Russia, and, as Kaczynski indicated, this means nuclear power projection on the part of Berlin would be accepted as legitimate.
We might ask why the Germans don’t figure something out with the British and the French, both of whom already own nuclear weapons. But the U.K.’s and France’s nuclear stockpiles are partly outdated, too small, and largely tactical (i.e., short-range). And, critically, would the two countries really step in and shield Germany and Eastern Europe against a Russian attack? Extended deterrence is a fine thing — as long as it works when push comes to shove. The question that the U.K. and France would most likely ask themselves in such a scenario is why not stay out and make peace with Russia, rather than risk war for the sake of interests in Eastern Europe that they see as distant from their own concerns. Such a self-protective reaction would be understandable (and predictable). But it also underlines Germany’s need to acquire nuclear weapons that provide it the ability to independently protect itself and its neighbors to the east.
It’s true that Germany is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This tremendously important international treaty requires all “have-nots” of nuclear weapons to refrain from acquiring them while the “haves,” in turn, make sure that no one else gets them. That is a valid statement, as long as the foundations that made it unnecessary for Germany to even consider nuclear weapons and sign the treaty still exist. But with NATO becoming “obsolete,” the times are rapidly and drastically changing. If the power conditions that made Germany’s position as a “have-not” justifiable are removed, the country cannot be obliged to remain unprotected in the face of a heavily nuclear-armed Russia. Other countries, like Japan, may remain shielded by the United States — but if Europe is abandoned, a responsible, and deeply realistic, government can’t afford this degree of self-denial.
All this talk of a Berlin deterrent has another purpose, which outsiders — even the Economist — have not fully appreciated. Proponents of a German nuclear deterrent are fully aware that despite the U.S. president’s final executive power, making NATO “obsolete” would require the more explicit approval of the administration’s top echelons. Starting the debate has been a reminder to the more cautious or wiser elements in the U.S. government of the stark consequences of abandoning NATO. The United States doesn’t want Germany to have nuclear weapons, and preventing Bonn — and eventually Berlin — from getting them has been one of the side benefits of NATO.
This is not to say that the nuclear proposal was critical in taming Trump’s wild talk for the moment. Other factors may have pushed and pulled the administration much more strongly to cautiously re-appreciate the strategic value of NATO. Still, with Merkel having to deny any such nuclear plans in public early this year, it is not unlikely that the debate was noted in the United States. Certainly this was the case at NATO itself when its (American) deputy secretary-general, Rose Gottemoeller, rejected the idea and instead reassured the European public that the new U.S. president was aware of his long-standing obligations and the benefits for international stability.
Nuclear weapons are expensive, contentious, potentially contagious, and dangerous. Germany is in no rush to get them. But if the shelter of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is removed while Russian weapons are still pointed at Berlin, it will have no choice.
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