Nuclear weapons policies have reached the 2017 German federal election. In a last-ditch effort to narrow Chancellor Angela Merkel’s impressive lead in the polls, Martin Schulz, her contender from the Social Democrats, called on August 22 for the removal of the last remaining assets of U.S. extended deterrence from German soil—some estimated twenty B61 nuclear gravity bombs.

Ulrich Kühn
Ulrich Kühn is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the head of the arms control and emerging technologies program at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.
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While Schulz’s foray seems desperate and is out of touch with the realities of transatlantic and European security, his initiative deserves credit for bringing up the issue of nuclear deterrence and arms control—not least because the coming years will likely see a host of interlocking nuclear crises affecting Germany and Europe. But instead of hopelessly scanning the horizon for a catchy nuclear topic, the next German government must double down on its role of building bridges in the nuclear realm. There are four areas where Berlin must be more active and vocal.

The first is the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. Since 2014, the U.S. government has accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a critical Cold War arms-control pact banning all ground-launched missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,420 miles). According to U.S. government sources, Moscow has meanwhile developed, produced, and deployed a number of forbidden new systems, all of which can hold targets throughout Europe at risk.

For Germany, the Russian violation poses an inconvenient problem. On the one hand, Berlin cannot ignore the military impact of the violation and the heightened threat perceptions in NATO capitals east of Berlin. On the other hand, Germany wants to avoid a nuclear tit-for-tat in Europe with the United States possibly deploying new nuclear-capable intermediate-range systems in Europe—a back-to-the-1980s nightmare scenario for Berlin.

So far, Berlin has relied on tacit, behind-the-scenes diplomacy but has avoided a clear public stance on the INF Treaty. This is problematic not only because it sends a confusing signal to European NATO allies but also because recent U.S. Congressional legislative efforts seem to clear the way for the White House to opt out of the treaty in 2019.

As time is running out on the INF Treaty, Berlin needs to advance its diplomatic agenda on several fronts. The next government has to work toward developing a unified NATO response to the Russian violation. If Berlin wants to prevent a new intermediate-range arms race in Europe, it has to make clear what alternative military and diplomatic options it would consider. Berlin also needs to publicly bring up the issue at the highest levels with Moscow and Washington, including at the level of the chancellor. As the new Russian intermediate-range weapon will affect the balance in Asia, Berlin should additionally engage with China, India, Japan, and South Korea to build up international pressure on Moscow.

Second, the U.S. Congress has threatened to prohibit the use of funds to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear systems. Moscow has already expressed its interest in extending the treaty for another five years beyond its current expiration in 2021, but U.S. President Donald Trump has not yet taken up the issue.

Without New START, U.S.-Russian strategic stability would be in peril, with potentially grave negative consequences for global security. Here, Germany should act as an honest broker, reminding Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump that their national nuclear policies will have direct impacts on the possible nuclear proliferation of third states.

Third, Trump has threatened not to implement the July 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear options. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program is a signature achievement of multilateral diplomacy, not least because of Germany’s and the EU’s constructive role in the painstaking negotiation process of preventing Tehran from going nuclear.

Despite the manifold shortcomings of the agreement, such as not curbing Iran’s regional ambitions or addressing human-rights violations, doing away with the JCPOA would be a huge mistake. It would not only further destabilize the Middle East by incentivizing Iran—and perhaps other regional powers—to go down the proliferation route but would also send the devastating signal to any adversary of the United States that making agreements with Washington comes with high uncertainty and potentially serious risks and costs.

As one of the negotiation parties to the JCPOA, Germany, in concert with other powers such as France, Russia, and China, must remind Trump and the hawks in the U.S. Congress and in his administration that Washington would find itself maximally isolated if it were to rip apart the accord. Any additional destabilization of the Middle East would run counter to German business interests in Iran and could be the bellwether for the next refugee wave from the war-torn region to Europe.

Fourth, as a beneficiary of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, Germany will have to work hard to reconcile global nuclear disarmament efforts with the interests of those states that enjoy nuclear protection from others. In July 2017, 122 UN member states voted in favor of a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Being a member of NATO, a military alliance that relies on the concept of nuclear deterrence, Germany did not take part in the negotiations. Although proponents of global disarmament are deservedly in high spirits now, the ultimate hangover will come when reliance on nuclear weapons will continue to shape global security policies in the years ahead.

Before the inevitable frustrations of the treaty signatories turn into outright rejection of the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime, Berlin must aim to renew the deal that was at the heart of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT Treaty)—that nuclear “haves” disarm and nuclear “have nots” do not pursue the bomb. Again, Germany cannot act alone on that. But its participation in the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative—a group of like-minded states—gives Berlin a promising diplomatic tool to remind nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapons states to take their NPT Treaty obligations seriously.

As any dedicated bridge builder, Germany will face attacks from those that prefer trenches over bridges. But in a crisis-ridden world of national egoisms, Berlin will have to pull its weight more decidedly if it wants to help maintain the order it cherishes so deeply. This is why, unfortunately, the current German debate for or against increased defense spending is somewhat beside the point. Only those actors who back up cooperative efforts with hard power will receive respect from both their allies and the challengers of international order.