SPD Asks Others to Hold the Nuclear Umbrella

Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AGI

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.



Recent calls by members of the SPD leadership to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory have sparked debate within the SPD and with its governing partner, the CDU/CSU, over Germany’s security role in general. AGI presents three articles that examine the nuclear sharing issue and discussion today.

One of Germany’s most significant political figures grabbed and shook an important pillar of transatlantic security a few days ago. Rolf Mützenich, leader of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) Bundestag caucus, called for the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil and an end to Germany’s participation in NATO’s “nuclear sharing” arrangement, through which Germany and four other European members of the alliance host and are prepared to deliver U.S. nuclear bombs in the event of an all-out war. He was quickly backed up by the national co-chairs of the SPD. The nuclear sharing policy has been like a spinning top since the end of the Cold War: unobtrusively and predictably twirling in a tight circle, undisturbed by the dramatic changes in the surrounding international security landscape. The ruckus has died down since Mützenich’s May 3 interview with the Tagesspiegel, and perhaps his gambit will have only passing impact; the top quickly righting itself after a momentary wobble and continuing to trace its path. But in a dynamic electoral landscape, the initiative could send a crucial part of the transatlantic security machine skittering across the table and onto the floor. What is behind the push by Mützenich, and why would it affect European security? Companion articles by Dieter Dettke and Stephan Kieninger explore the domestic politics and the history of the nuclear issue.

Other Articles On This Topic

First of all, the SPD’s push on nuclear disarmament will not change German policy in the short term; a withdrawal from NATO’s nuclear policy is not in the cards during this legislative session, which lasts until the fall of 2021. The governing agreement between Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the center-left SPD calls for a world without nuclear weapons but states: “Successful arms control negotiations create the precondition for a withdrawal of the tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Germany and Europe.” There are unfortunately no near-term prospects for successful arms control negotiations to fulfill the Grand Coalition’s condition, and SPD foreign minister Heiko Maas has underscored his adherence to the coalition agreement and spoken out against “unilateral” steps that undermine the trust of Germany’s closest partners.

Arms control enjoys wide support in Germany, a function of the strong pacifist strain in public opinion and the legacy of four decades of hair-trigger tension on the front line of the Cold War. But there is also the unavoidable reality that security in Europe has deteriorated since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, which is the principal reason Germany has increased its defense spending by 40 percent in the past six years. While Caucus Leader Mützenich has focused on an estimated twenty U.S. B-61 gravity bombs stored in Germany, Russia is widely known to have fielded missiles that brought about the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, has stationed nuclear-capable short-range missiles within reach of NATO capitals Berlin, Warsaw, Vilnius, and Riga, and President Putin regularly announces new nuclear weapons systems, such as the nuclear-powered “Skyfall” cruise missile involved in a catastrophic accident in Severodvinsk in August 2019. It is remarkable that a push for a fundamental change in Germany’s NATO role is made without any reference to the grave situation in which Russia is redrawing borders in Europe by force. One could draw the conclusion that the SPD leadership is seeking mainly to capitalize on an issue with significant mobilizing potential. But even if government policy will not change for the next eighteen months and the SPD seems unlikely to lead the next government, this new position marks an effort to change Germany’s security role within NATO and cannot be written off purely as an electoral stratagem.

It is remarkable that a push for a fundamental change in Germany’s NATO role is made without any reference to the grave situation in which Russia is redrawing borders in Europe by force.

Is Rolf Mützenich wrong when he suggests that the U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe are “politically and militarily obsolete”? In a military sense he may have a point: the utility of bombs that would have to be delivered by airplanes penetrating Russia’s sophisticated air defenses is questionable. But that recognition is not a policy, because it neglects the far greater political salience of the nuclear link between Europe and the United States and the essential need for cohesion within NATO, which is the ultimate basis of the alliance’s strength. The new SPD position with regard to the B-61 system could form the basis for a reasonable nuclear debate within NATO, if its objective were to create leverage in the alliance that would enable new nuclear arms control measures with Russia, much as SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt did in bringing about the 1979 “Double-Track” decision. This would have to be accompanied by a commitment to building shared understanding among NATO members and an outcome supported by the alliance—something that for Mützenich and his supporters thus far seems to be an afterthought.

Calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forward-stationed nuclear weapons ignore the architecture of expectations and mutual reliance in an alliance, which is at an apex in the nuclear realm. This interconnectedness means that national security steps by one ally must be assessed for their effect on allies and adversaries, and not just on the domestic political benefit they might bring. That principle suffuses the “Alliance for Multilateralism” initiative launched by the German government in 2019 but it is absent in this instance. Pressed in the interview on the impact that withdrawal would have on NATO, Mützenich answered, “I don’t need the support of NATO. I want the support of the [German] population.”

Calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forward-stationed nuclear weapons ignore the architecture of expectations and mutual reliance in an alliance, which is at an apex in the nuclear realm.

None of this is to suggest that the way forward is more nuclear weapons in Europe. The path toward greater European security involves meaningful engagement with Russia, which can only come through strong defense, consistent allied diplomacy, and a constructive German role. Germany should be looking to build its influence now over future U.S. decisions—whether in a Trump second term, or a Biden first term, either of which has the potential for addressing Russia in new ways on international security with the New START Treaty set to expire in 2021. Germany and other NATO allies should be building shared perceptions of how the fundamental assurance, burden-sharing, and political solidarity within NATO will be maintained and leveraged when the right circumstances prevail.

German interests for seventy-one years have been defined in relation to building European solidarity and preserving the transatlantic bond. “Never alone” is a touchstone. An SPD initiative that loses sight of its European and transatlantic vocation bears the risks of unilateralism, an isolated Germany, and a weakened Europe.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.