Shortly after the US presidential election in November 2016, several opinion pieces in German newspapers argued that Berlin should acquire nuclear weapons. Given Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and particularly his talk of NATO obsolescence, the authors suggested that the nuclear assurances the United States had provided for nearly seven decades were no longer credible.
Though claiming to offer a purely rational analysis of the Trumpian new world order, these authors not only ignored German public opinion, long-standing treaty commitments, and the reality of Germany’s nuclear infrastructure, but also the lack of strategic utility for nuclear weapons within Germany’s foreign and security policy. As an instrument of force, a German nuclear weapon would be an impractical approach to deterrence, defense, and other military and political objectives.
The case for German nuclear weapons. According to Maximilian Terhalle, a German political scientist currently teaching in Britain, Trump’s vocal disengagement from European security creates a strategic imbalance in light of Russia’s conventional and nuclear superiority in the European theater. It is urgent, Terhalle argued, that Berlin invest in a credible nuclear deterrent, for the sake of national and European security. Waiting for a clearer formulation of US policy regarding Europe, or integrating British and French nuclear weapons into a European structure, would be insufficient options, Terhalle wrote. (More recently, he made the same argument in Foreign Policy.)
Similarly, Berthold Kohler, editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest dailies, suggested that the rise of China and Russia, and the announcement to reconsider US commitments to European and East Asian security, signal a continental shift in world politics. Even if the new US administration does not follow through on its rhetoric, it has already weakened US credibility. In either case, increasing defense expenditures, reconstituting conscription, and acquiring a nuclear capability would be critical to ensure German and European security in the face of a resurgent Russia and an ambivalent America, Kohler argued.
International publications picked up on the debate. The Economist published an article with the provocative title “Eine deutsche Atombombe” (“a German atomic bomb”). The Financial Times, too, felt compelled to discuss the “unthinkable on Germany going nuclear.” Roderich Kiesewetter, a foreign policy spokesman in parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats and a former Bundeswehr colonel, told Reuters: “If the United States no longer wants to provide this guarantee, Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes.”
Most German lawmakers, however, still agree that German nuclear weapons, for a variety of reasons, would be a bad idea. Nevertheless, Kiesewetter’s remarks signal a broadening of the debate among German lawmakers about “whether and how their nation should develop more traditional forms of power.”
Barriers to going nuclear. Despite flirtations with nuclear weapons in the early days of the Federal Republic of Germany, and attempts to normalize tactical nuclear capabilities, for decades public opinion has been strongly opposed to nuclear proliferation. Currently, 93 percent of Germans support an international legal ban on nuclear weapons, and 85 percent want the roughly 20 remaining US warheads removed from Germany.
In fact, opposition to all things nuclear has become something of a tradition in the country. In the early 1980s, massive public protests against the deployment of medium-range missiles shook West German society. In the early 2000s, Germany made the decision to gradually phase out the civil use of nuclear energy. Though ultimately unsuccessful, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in 2010, vocally demanded that Washington relocate its stockpile. In this context, any government politician who seriously advocates for a German nuclear bomb would risk considerable political capital and electoral prospects.
Germany’s international legal obligations also stand in the way of national nuclear weapons. On three occasions, the Federal Republic renounced their acquisition and possession: with its accession to the Western European Union in 1954, its signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1969, and the Two Plus Four Agreement of 1990, which formalized the reunification of Germany.
If Germany decided to leave the NPT, it would join the only other country that has renounced the treaty: North Korea. This would not only come at great reputational cost, as a break with Germany’s long-standing subscription to the transformative and constraining power of international law, but would likely encourage proliferation. If a wealthy, powerful, and reputable country like Germany needs the bomb, why should others not follow?
There are also logistical barriers to going nuclear. With the decision to switch off nuclear power production in Germany, critical infrastructure has gradually been demolished. Though several small research reactors remain in use, eight of Germany’s industrial nuclear reactors were decommissioned shortly after the Fukushima incident in 2011. By 2022, all remaining power plants will follow. Rebuilding the infrastructure to maintain the full fuel cycle would take decades and come too late to respond to any immediate security threats. A credible nuclear deterrent would also cost German taxpayers trillions of euros, particularly if it were to be extended over other European Union member states.
The utility of nuclear weapons. Despite these serious hurdles, could Germany gain from nuclear weapons? Brandeis University professor Robert J. Art suggests that military force has four functions. As an instrument of force, nuclear weapons can be used for deterrence, compellence, defense, and swaggering.
Nuclear weapons cannot be used for compellence and defense—to induce a change in an adversary’s behavior or to ward off an attack—without actually detonating them. It is hard to conceive of Germany using nuclear weapons under any circumstances, particularly considering that Germany’s armies ravaged its neighbors twice in the twentieth century. A defensive nuclear strike against Russian forces advancing through Poland, for instance, is simply unimaginable.
Though deterrence and swaggering do not presuppose the use of nuclear weapons in combat—deterrence fails when nuclear weapons are employed—the utility of these functions is undermined by the lack of credible scenarios in which Germany would use nuclear weapons. The proponents of a German nuclear capability fail to make explicit what purpose the bomb is intended to serve, so a national deterrent lacks practicality. And if Germany were to extend its deterrence over its European partners, an age-old question would haunt the partnership: Would Berlin take the risk of devastating German cities so that Baltic cities such as Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius might remain free? Terhalle, in particular, fails to explain why German nuclear weapons would be a more credible extended deterrent than French or British ones.
Lastly, developing nuclear weapons for the purpose of swaggering, which Art calls “the most egoistic” function of the bomb, would undermine 70 years of German efforts to transform international relations through law, self-restraint, and Germany’s perception of itself as a normative power. An attempt to enhance a leader’s power and prestige might explain why nuclear weapons are a particularly prominent topic among Germany’s right, however.
Even though commentators such as Terhalle and Kohler consider themselves part of an intellectual avant-garde, with strategic insights others are too naïve to appreciate, their views rightfully remain at the fringe of German foreign-policy circles. A German nuclear weapon has no strategic utility: First use is impractical for compellence and defense, and deterrence and swaggering suffer from a lack of credibility. Furthermore, public opinion, international law, and logistics are nearly insurmountable barriers for any German politician proposing a nuclear arsenal.
That does not mean that Germany should not invest more heavily in its conventional forces, push for genuine European defense integration, start thinking about deterrence in cyberspace and, as Ulrich Kühn and Tristan Volpe recently proposed, play the role of interlocutor for a renewal of the transatlantic partnership—these are areas in which German leadership would be welcome. But Germany should not go nuclear.