The next German government will have to tackle several controversial security issues, from arms exports to meeting NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. But the one item that is particularly difficult for Berlin—and that it is ill-prepared to deal with—is nuclear weapons.

The nuclear world has changed dramatically. Security and defense policy is focusing again on nuclear weapons, but Berlin is keeping its traditional focus on disarmament. It remains reluctant to discuss nuclear weapons in a wider security context, and this is turning into a risk for Europe. Indeed, as some question the utility of nuclear deterrence, there is a risk that a German unilateral stance could undermine alliance unity—and hence European security. That stance might be driven by the moral determination to protect peace; yet it might end up resulting in the opposite.

In February, the United States will publish its Nuclear Posture Review. North Korea will remain high on Washington’s security agenda. The Iran dossier is fragile. As for NATO, nuclear policies remain an issue; the alliance has voiced its concern on Russia’s alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. All this will affect the German debate, whether it is prepared for it or not.

Germany hosts nuclear weapons, yet it is deeply uncomfortable about them. This is mainly due to its traditional normative policy of focusing on disarmament, which it regards as the morally right approach. As a result, Germany is reluctant to perceive nuclear weapons from a strategic and security perspective and is hesitant to lead an honest and informed debate about nuclear deterrence. This leaves Berlin ill-prepared for discussions that go beyond disarmament and address nuclear weapons as something that is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, be it as a security tool and crucial element of Europe’s defense architecture or as a major global challenge, such as North Korea.  

Germany’s peculiar position risks undermining European and transatlantic unity, solidarity, and security. A prime example is the decision that Berlin needs to take soon on the succession of its Tornado aircraft, which should leave service in 2024. The Tornados should be replaced by new dual-capable aircraft that would ensure Germany’s nuclear sharing role in NATO. Nuclear sharing means that some non-nuclear allies like Germany participate in policy decisions and provide aircraft that can carry U.S. nuclear payloads. The Tornado succession is likely to lead to a debate about nuclear deterrence, including calls to abandon nuclear sharing. This rather technical issue is likely to turn political and risks unsettling the new German government, which is likely to be a fragile grand coalition and not at all comfortable in dealing with such issues.

The most dangerous scenario would be for Germany to leave NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements because of the Tornado succession debate. This would seriously limit Germany’s strategic decisionmaking options—besides damaging the alliance’s capacity to act. Being part of nuclear sharing allows Germany to have a say where and when nuclear weapons are used or not. Abandoning it would rob Berlin of a voice in NATO’s nuclear policy. It would also damage Germany’s credibility and contributions to the alliance, adding to the impression of the country being a defense free rider as Berlin hasn’t yet met the 2 percent defense spending target.

In this scenario, other allies would have to carry the German share and risk within NATO. That would intensify internal alliance debates. It might even trigger other capitals that are also uncomfortable about nuclear sharing to follow the German example. It would send a signal to Russia and the outside world that NATO is in turmoil and that its cohesion can be undermined, ultimately weakening the alliance’s military and political capacity to act and thus European defense.

In short, the country increasingly considered—and claiming—to be a cornerstone of European defense would be opting out. This would also have an impact on other policy areas because, in essence, it’s about nations trusting each other and sharing risks in the transatlantic and European context.

Even without this worst-case scenario, Germany’s nuclear unease means leaving it to others to address current challenges, such as how to deal with a more dangerous multipolar nuclear world in which more states own nuclear weapons—and some are ready to use them beyond deterrence as an active threat—while at the same time the acceptance of nuclear disarmament and arms control is eroding.

The issue affects other discussions, too. It goes straight to debates on the very future of EU defense. Germany and France claim a leadership role in driving Europe toward strategic autonomy. Yet, discussions have so far excluded the nuclear dimension.

This is not about Germany becoming a nuclear hawk. But as a country aspiring to take greater international responsibility, Berlin has to be able and willing to discuss nuclear issues—non-proliferation as much as deterrence—and weight the responsibility of its actions for its partners.

Berlin’s allies, for their part, have to accompany a constructive discussion about nuclear issues in Germany in view of developing leadership and responsibility rather than a Sonderweg (or “special way”). Becoming a respected nuclear partner of, say, France does not demand Germany becoming nuclear. It would, however, mean Berlin taking arms control and non-proliferation seriously and linking it to deterrence. Addressing nuclear issues might be the remaining crucial part of the jigsaw of Germany taking up greater responsibility in international security.

Claudia Major is a senior associate for international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and a member of Women in International Security (WIIS) Berlin.