international politics

Having Decided It Can’t Rely On America, Germany Debates Acquiring Its Own Nuclear Weapons

Tornado combat aircraft of the German Air Force on December 2, 2015, in Hamburg, Germany.
Tornado combat aircraft of the German Air Force on December 2, 2015, in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

You can now read in English the article that spoiled many a European summer weekend last month, when eminent German political scientist Christian Hacke opined that Germany should acquire its own nuclear weapon:

Since the U.S. nuclear guarantee has become increasingly doubtful and a common European deterrent does not seem to be forthcoming, only one possible conclusion can be drawn: in a serious crisis the only one Germany can truly rely on is itself.

Well then.

The article drew many responses from European and American thinkers, most offering reasons why Germany could not, or should not, get the bomb:  Such a step would be “strategic suicide,” said one keen observer, and Berlin should focus on strengthening its conventional defenses instead. Germany, already spending far less than what it pledged NATO, has armed forces that are in great disrepair and could not possibly muster the political will to pay for an A-bomb.

The state of their armed forces aside, Germans hate nuclear power so much that their conservative government committed to getting rid of it after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan. Nor would they be comfortable repealing or exiting the treaties Germany has signed in which it explicitly forswore nuclear arms.

Neither of those factors discourage German strategic thinkers entirely, though. Many commenters are tempted by the prospect of Germany buying a share, so to speak, of the British or French nuclear forces to create a “European deterrent.” But when the West German government tried this proposal out on France during the heat of the Cold War, Charles de Gaulle responded with a statement that has now become a maxim: nuclear weapons, he said, are “hard to share.”

Americans should be more concerned about two arguments that were not made. First, no one said: Why would Germany need a nuclear weapon? A cynical American might say, as some have, that Germany is at grave risk of being deterred in a crisis by Russian control of its natural gas supply. The threat of nuclear bombs is no help with that.

But let’s say Germany’s recent surges in wind power eventually do solve the Russia gas problem Trump loves to embarrass Berlin with. There’s a bigger strategic shift that Americans may be missing. For the first 25 years after the Cold War, many civilian strategists assumed that the political and environmental costs borne by any European state that used a nuclear weapon in Europe would be so high that no country would ever attempt it. European integration had succeeded, and even if European countries still have spectacular political and economic fights, from a military point of view the continent was dormant. Germany was neutered, Britain self-isolated, France too interested in its global role. And oil markets, political influence, and cyberattacks could get it everything it wanted.

The idea that military might was nearly obsolete in Europe underlay both the decisions of major European powers to stop investing in defense and Washington’s interest in a pivot to Asia. Nothing was going on in Europe, and anyway, if it was, the Europeans could handle it.

Now here we are. Europe is — again — a continent where laying waste to one’s neighbors seems a viable strategic option. At minimum, it’s something that Germany, but also Poland, France, and those stereotypically peaceable Nordics, among others, want Russia to know is a strategic option.

And it’s an option which can move ahead without Washington. Remarkably absent from the German nuclear debate were voices saying this is all overblown, Trump will be gone, the Americans will be back, everything is fine. Americans are still telling each other that, including very prominent senators from both parties. But our European allies are not. The cumulative weight of bad faith and bad policy has collapsed trust that, while imperfect all around, had lasted seven decades. “Germany can no longer rely on the protection of the United States,” says the introduction to the English-language version of Hacke’s article. How stunning is it that no one has even tried to argue the point?

“We Europeans have to look out for ourselves more,” said the German foreign minister last week, echoing his boss the German chancellor as well as his neighbors in Brussels and Paris. While dreams of strategic independence are on the rise among European intellectuals, plain old anti-Americanism is on the rise among European peoples. Six months ago, more than two-thirds of Americans said relations with Germany were good, but more than half of Germans begged to differ. And that was before Trump imposed economic sanctions, dressed Merkel down at a NATO breakfast, and reportedly threw Starburst candy at her in a G-7 economic forum. That’s not usually how you treat a leader whose country is thinking about getting its own nuclear weapon.

Why Germany Is Talking About Getting Its Own Nuclear Weapons