Scaremongers predicting abrupt departures in Berlin’s approach to nuclear arms control and deterrence got it wrong. The government’s coalition agreement emphasizes continuity over change, writes Valdai Club expert Hanna Notte.
The German “traffic light” coalition government assumed its duties last month, entering a highly volatile international security and arms control landscape. Amid the world’s focus on the specter of war between Russia and Ukraine, European capitals have also been keeping a close eye on the U.S.-Russia strategic stability talks and the Biden administration’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review. Against that dynamic backdrop, the German government’s coalition agreement included closely scrutinized language—likely wrangled over by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP)—concerning Germany’s future role in NATO’s nuclear mission. Those in Washington and European capitals previously worried about a German retreat from NATO’s nuclear deterrent were likely relieved when perusing the document. Though the coalition agreement is only a first starting point for Germany’s future foreign policy, the contours of Berlin’s approach to nuclear arms control appear fairly clear: While the new government will support legacy initiatives to bolster nuclear disarmament, and plans to observe the upcoming Meeting of States Parties (MSP) of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), U.S.-Russian bilateral talks continue to be viewed as the principal vehicle for reducing non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) in Europe.
The coalition agreement
NATO’s nuclear deterrent includes an estimated 100 non-strategic B-61 nuclear gravity bombs deployed by the U.S. in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Their use during wartime pends authorization by the U.S. president and would be operationalized by allied Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) and pilots. Amid international uncertainty regarding Germany’s continued willingness to participate in that arrangement, the coalition agreement provided important clues: It emphasized Germany’s commitment to NATO as the central pillar of European security and indicated support for the procurement of a nuclear-capable successor to Berlin’s aging fleet of Tornado fighter jets. In addition, the document announced Germany’s intention to participate as an observer in the TPNW MSP, called for a “disarmament policy offensive,” vouched support for a successor agreement to New START and U.S.-Russia talks for “complete disarmament in the sub-strategic domain,” while professing a desire for China’s increased involvement in nuclear arms control.
NATO fears of a German volte-face
For months, the talks to form a new German government had been watched anxiously across NATO capitals, given the coalition partners’ prior positions on the operational aspects of nuclear sharing (ie. the willingness to host forward-deployed nuclear weapons and contribute to NATO’s DCA posture). Speaking at a conference in Berlin on 19 November, just days before the coalition agreement was released, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear that he “counts” on Germany to remain committed to NATO’s nuclear sharing. He went on to warn that “the alternative is that we easily end up with nuclear weapons in other countries in Europe, also to the east of Germany.” Meanwhile, other NATO members felt nervous that a prospective German retreat from nuclear sharing could set off a domino effect among other NATO DCA allies, including Belgium and the Netherlands. Such worries were compounded by separate concerns over the Biden administration’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review and the possibility that a “sole purpose” or “no first use” declaration could weaken the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in Europe.
And NATO allies had reason to be worried. Last spring, then German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal to replace Germany’s Tornado DCA fleet with 90 Eurofighters and 45 U.S. F-18 aircraft (30 of which could carry nuclear weapons) was challenged by prominent Social Democrats. According to German scholar Pia Fuhrhop, positions in the German debate can be crudely categorized into three camps: ‘Abolitionists’ (parts of the SPD and Greens, plus Die Linke) intent on ending Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing, since they hold that nuclear deterrence is a fundamentally flawed policy; ‘uneasy progressives’ (parts of the SPD and Greens) acknowledging the need for some form of nuclear deterrence in Europe, critical of any German unilateral retreats, yet also adamant that real progress toward nuclear disarmament be made; and ‘nuclear sharing supporters’ in the conservative CDU/CSU and FDP.
Given the divisions in the now ruling SPD and Greens, in particular, the language on nuclear sharing in the coalition agreement was not a given. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, a prominent Social Democrat affirmed that he wants the B-61 “out of the country” and a moratorium of 4-5 years on replacing the Tornado fleet. True, the agreement took a somewhat cryptic approach to addressing the issue, stating that Germany will go through the procurement and certification process for the new fighter jets with a view to maintaining German participation in nuclear sharing, without explicitly committing them to NATO’s deterrent mission. Still, observers in NATO capitals likely breathed a sigh of relief, judging the language in the document as sufficiently committal.
Germany’s nuclear arms control and disarmament policies
Against that backdrop, and judging by recent statements by German officials, Berlin’s future nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts will have four prominent features:
First, Germany continues to view an arms control accord based on mutual obligations by Moscow and Washington as the principal avenue for achieving NSNW reductions in Europe, in line with a paradigm that has largely framed the German debate and government position for the past decade. Instead of taking dramatic unilateral steps, such as proactively opting-out of nuclear sharing, Berlin will support bilateral talks between Russia and the United States on a post-New START agreement that ideally includes non-strategic nuclear weapons. In the context of such talks, the continued presence of B-61 in Europe is viewed as an American bargaining chip vis-a-vis Moscow. Yet, the German debate remains superficial in considering how a viable arms control choreography, to include the NSNW, could look like concretely: how these systems could be linked to other elements of Russia’s desired “new security equation,” and in what type of arms control agreement. It is left to Russia and the United States to square that circle.
Second, the new German government, just like its predecessor, harbors few illusions that China, France and the United Kingdom—also recognized as nuclear weapons states under the NPT—can be convinced to reduce their arsenals anytime soon. The coalition agreement’s cautious invitation to “involve” China more in nuclear arms control is indicative of the likely continuation of a more general tightrope walk vis-à-vis Beijing, which Berlin has labelled partner, competitor and rival at the same time. Meanwhile, the coalition agreement’s strong language in support of NATO as the “indispensable basis of Germany’s security,” coupled with the lack of reference to a European army, suggests that aspirations for greater European “strategic sovereignty” do not necessarily equal greater receptivity to France’s offer for Europeans to participate in French nuclear exercises. Lars Klingbeil, the new SPD co-leader, previously rejected an even more advanced CDU proposal for greater German-Franco cooperation on nuclear deterrence as “dangerous and absurd.”
Third, Germany’s prospective engagement with the TPNW is likely intended as a quid-pro-quo to limit the backlash over the Tornado replacement from within the SPD and Greens’ anti-nuclear constituencies. Notwithstanding the stated caveat that Germany plans to observe the TPNW MSP “in light of the results of the NPT Review Conference,” and “in close consultation” with its allies, it appears that Germany will follow through on its open-minded engagement, but will not accede to the Ban Treaty as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance. Some in Germany’s expert community have long called on Berlin and other European capitals to constructively engage with the TPNW. Notwithstanding NATO’s critical attitude to allies’ flirtations with the Ban Treaty, the coalition agreement’s compromise language on nuclear deterrence versus disarmament likely assuages concerns by both defense hawks and disarmament activists for the time being.
Finally, the government’s pleas for a “disarmament policy offensive” and Germany playing a “leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation regimes” suggest Berlin’s support for legacy efforts like the Stockholm Initiative and the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI). Co-hosting the fifth ministerial meeting of the former, just one week into her new post as German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock vowed in mid-December that it was time to end the protracted stalemate in nuclear disarmament. She went on to suggest that the Stockholm Initiative could serve as a “bridge-builder” ahead of the upcoming NPT Review Conference, since it gathers states “keen to breathe new life and vigor into nuclear disarmament efforts.” In other areas, the new German government will also likely pursue continuity over change, supporting efforts to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, as well as dialogue on the impact of non-nuclear emerging disruptive technologies on strategic stability, among other initiatives.
Continuity over change
Scaremongers predicting abrupt departures in Berlin’s approach to nuclear arms control and deterrence got it wrong. The government’s coalition agreement emphasizes continuity over change. Germany supports NATO as a nuclear alliance and leaves the future of NSNW in Europe in the hands of Moscow and Washington. Though a continued commitment to Germany’s DCA status is softened by a planned engagement with the TPNW and a variety of efforts to strengthen nuclear disarmament, it remains doubtful that Germany can afford the political bandwidth and foster the necessary compromises for a veritable “disarmament policy offensive.” Indeed, the complete lack of reference to all things nuclear (except for the JCPOA) in Baerbock’s inaugural address disappointed those who were hoping for more under a traffic light coalition. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that the coalition agreement is but a starting point for the foreign policy of the new German government. Much will depend on the dynamics within the coalition, between the various “camps” on nuclear sharing, and surely also on the broader context of NATO-Russian and German-Russian relations, which are highly dynamic and unstable at this time.