OCTOBER 31, 2018 AT 8:34 AM CET
German policymakers and pundits were shocked by Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty. This step would give the US a free hand to arm itself with land-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles, be it against Russia or any other potential adversary, including China (which is an even greater concern for the Americans than Russia). But in Germany, it is conventional wisdom that the treaty forms part of the bedrock of European security. Many Germans thus automatically assume that America’s departure from the treaty would undermine European security.
But with this assumption, Germans are missing three things: First, Berlin policymakers believe that existing arms-control treaties are a good thing in and of themselves. However, the INF Treaty did not eliminate the nuclear threat; it only slowed down its growth. In that way, the treaty still had some value. But Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did not sign the treaty in 1987 to slow the danger, they wanted to eliminate it.
If both sides had complied with the treaty since then, land-based, intermediate-range nuclear weapons or their delivery systems could have been limited in Europe. Instead, Russia has built up a nuclear arsenal which allows Moscow today to quickly and massively attack the European continent. For a long time, these Russian moves respected the formal boundaries of the treaty. But the recent deployment of a mid-range cruise missile was a blatant violation.
So it is not clear why Europe would be more secure with or without a treaty, if Russia gained a military advantage in the long term. Keeping a treaty that has been violated does not add to European security.
The second German miscalculation is to forget the original context and rationale of the INF Treaty, which no longer applies today. The treaty was inspired by the so-called Harmel-report logic. It was named after Pierre Harmel, a Belgian foreign minister, who believed in a combination of deterrence and dialogue. Thus, he proposed dialogue with the Soviet Union, but from a position of military strength. First NATO, including Germany, had to equip itself with intermediate-range missiles. Arms control would then become possible only as a second step. This made the treaty possible.
But that means that Germans today should remember that a new round of arms-control talks would also require military strength as a prerequisite. To negotiate successfully, NATO must raise the risks for Russia of failed negotiations.
The third German miscalculation is to assume that Germany’s European NATO partners automatically share Germany’s stance. But there is no common position. Instead, NATO could even split over this existential question of how best to keep Europe secure. Some allies will be open to bringing more nuclear weapons to Europe to counter the Russian advantage. This would alienate other member states, especially Germany, where rearmament is anathema.
Any such debate within NATO about adding nuclear (or even conventional) weapons would thus place the German government in a dilemma: It would be caught between domestic audiences (against rearmament) and foreign ones (often in favor). Besides, rearmament would mean relying even more on American weapons. Given the current mood in Germany toward President Trump, this would be a non-starter.
To help NATO stay united and to keep Europe safe, Germany should, therefore, take the following four steps: First, Germany should show the Americans that it takes their concerns about Asian security seriously. Germany should occasionally send its navy into Asian waters to relieve the US in keeping sea routes open, and to show that it is prepared to share burdens.
Second, Germany should try to rescue the INF Treaty by publicly calling on Russia to demonstrate its compliance. This could slow America’s exit and provide time for negotiations. The goal should be to avoid dissolving the treaty, and instead merely to suspend it or to withdraw only from parts of it, while a new treaty is being renegotiated. This would make Germany more credible among its NATO partners.
Third, Germany should ask the US to move more air- and sea-based nuclear weapons to Europe (which are not covered by the treaty). This would reassure Germany’s eastern NATO members in particular and would sidestep a general rearmament debate. And fourth, Germany should work toward improving NATO’s missile defenses. Because today’s missiles can come from all directions, airborne sensors — on reconnaissance planes, for example — can detect the rockets at an early stage.
In general, Germany must move beyond affectations of shock and toward constructive thinking about ways to make Europe safer.
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