In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, Elke Hoff, spokesperson for defense issues of the Free Democratic Party, made public that the remaining 10-20 U.S. American nuclear weapons on German soil will not be withdrawn any time soon. She did not really break news since the decision had been made several months before. However, the statement stirred fierce criticism throughout the parliamentary opposition.

Free Democrats, especially Foreign-Minister-to-be Guido Westerwelle, started to lobby for a withdrawal of these U.S. nukes during the 2009 federal election campaign and managed to anchor this goal in the coalition treaty with Christian Democrats. Apparently inspired by President Barack Obama’s Warsaw speech (April 2009), in which the U.S. President called for a nuclear free world (Global Zero), and by the fact that anti-nuclear positions are a reliable pull factor in German politics, Westerwelle leaned forward by unilaterally stating that Germany would multilaterally push for the proclaimed goal in NATO. Germany, Westerwelle explained, could herewith contribute to disarmament efforts. He was joined in this endeavor by foreign ministers from Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway in February 2010.

The 28 NATO members eventually decided against this sort of disarmament. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR, April 2010) and the NATO Lisbon Strategic Concept (November 2010) emphasized nuclear deterrence’s future role in defense planning and dimmed the prospect of a ‘German Zero’. The NPR stated:

Although the risk of nuclear attack against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members is at an historic low, the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons – combined with NATO’s unique nuclear sharing arrangements under which non-nuclear members participate in nuclear planning and possess specially configured aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons – contribute to Alliance cohesion and provide reassurance to allies and partners who feel exposed to regional threats.

The Lisbon Strategic Concept struck the same tone when Allies proclaimed that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” The Deterrence and Defense Posture Review of NATO, publicized at the Chicago Summit in May 2012, then clarified the prolonged reliability on tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Chicago thus marked the end of the debate:

While seeking to create the conditions and considering options for further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO, Allies … will ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance. … Allies agree … to develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies … in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe.

The decision not to withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany hits Free Democrats hard. The party is already stuck at around 4 per cent support of potential voters nationwide and would not make it into the Bundestag if elections were held this month. Their leading figures, Foreign Minister Westerwelle and Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, share the bottom two spots in the most recent job approval rating with 30 and 18 per cent respectively. (See Sonntagsfrage)

From a transatlantic standpoint, the brief debate in Germany on the failed withdrawal highlights two other relevant points: 1) there is a lack of strategic thinking about defense issues in Germany − when Mr. Westerwelle pushed this initiative there should have been a sound playbook on how allies can be persuaded and what (long term) alternatives for security needs would be made available (See the article by Patrick Keller in Survival’s June/July issue); 2) It is alarming when high ranking (pro-NATO) Members of Parliament slightly deprecatingly distinguish between Allies. Ms. Hoff’s interview – probably due to the sensitivity of this special topic in German politics – exemplifies this, e.g. when she talks about “the U.S. and their allies in Libya” and attributes Cold War thinking to the U.S., Russia and some Eastern European allies.

Although Ms. Hoff is a supporter of NATO, her final remark in the interview that Germany has to, but actually does not want to, provide its end of the nuclear sharing bargain, and thus nuclear deterrence (“Das ist keine Frage des Wollens, sondern einer Buendnisverpflichtung”), leaves an especially bitter aftertaste regarding the idea of alliance solidarity and cohesion. Unfortunately, the lack of a public debate in Germany on such central issues leads to a lack of understanding (which could have been started by this “revelation”) about NATO’s values and Germany’s needed contributions, as well as a further disregard of other states’ security concerns (that might also be German). Also, for German leadership in NATO and Europe this has a detrimental effect. Germany is already seen by other members as a cherry picker, which seems only to engage in defense debates proactively when these promise to be contra-military.

Nuclear disarmament is, of course, a worthwhile goal. Building on progress made is essential and will stay on the German agenda, as both administration and opposition point out. To be successful, however, more thought has to be put into a German alliance strategy that builds on common ground and accepts that cohesion is sometimes an exercise in rhetorical solidarity. After all, NATO is still the indispensible organization for transatlantic security – be it as a mere instrument, an insurance or a multilateral forum.

By Tobias Hecht, DAAD/AICGS Fellow