Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Nuclear Deterrence” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
Nuclear weapons have made a return to the top of the agenda of world politics. All major nuclear powers have begun to invest in new capabilities or to modernize their arsenals. At the same time, attempts to curb nuclear proliferation have had, at best, a limited effect, while new technologies may undermine the assumptions on which traditional nuclear strategies have been based. With old rules eroding and new challenges emerging, a “second nuclear age,” marked by more actors and likely less stability, is taking shape.
Nevertheless, critics of nuclear deterrence are gaining ground in Western societies. The abolitionist movement, spearheaded by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has stressed the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapon use and has attempted to outlaw nuclear weapons. On Jan. 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weaponsentered into force. It is unclear what its consequences will be, as all existing nuclear-weapon states have rejected the treaty and most of the 50 participants are smaller countries. However, the treaty has already changed the debate in Western societies, particularly in Europe. What the late Michael Howard described in the early 1980s has become an even greater challenge today. The fact that engaging in deterrence is now seen by many as more dangerous than deterrence failure may result, as Howard wrote almost 40 years ago, from
the degree to which we Europeans have abandoned the primary responsibility for our defense to the United States; have come to take the deterrence provided by others for granted; and now assume that the dangers against which we once demanded reassurance only now exist in the fevered imagination of our protectors.
In other words, extended deterrence has become too successful, undermining its very foundations — the perceived need of protection.Become a Member
Together, this twin challenge puts NATO leaders in a tough spot. They not only have to respond to new nuclear challenges posed by adversaries, but they need to deal with domestic constituencies that are skeptical of nuclear deterrence. While it was far from easy to shore up domestic support for nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, as the Euromissiles crisis in the early 1980s demonstrated, it will likely be even more difficult to do so today. The transatlantic alliance is more heterogeneous than in the past, with some allies promoting a strengthening of NATO’s nuclear posture and others flirting with supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The ongoing debate about the future of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement suggests that NATO policy rests on shakier grounds than often assumed. There is thus a real risk of a new nuclear crisis that could severely hamper NATO’s ability to deter or even endanger the long-term health of the alliance.
Unfortunately, NATO leaders are woefully unprepared for such a crisis. For a long time, many of them have preferred not to talk too much about nuclear deterrence. Apart from the general nod to the existence of nuclear weapons and NATO’s self-understanding as a “nuclear alliance” in official documents or summit declarations, nuclear weapons have hardly been discussed publicly. For many, nuclear deterrence seemed to be a relic of the Cold War. And those who believed it was important not to scrap it often preferred not to discuss it, thinking it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie. The deterioration of NATO’s security environment, as well as the rise of the abolitionist movement in Western societies, have arguably made this strategy unsustainable.
Officially, of course, NATO member states have repeatedly underlined their commitment to nuclear deterrence. Most allies hosting U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons have decided to invest in new dual-capable aircraft. Yet, both public opinion and significant portions of the elites in several NATO member states have become skeptical of NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. According to a 2019 survey for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, public opinion in the four E.U. states that host U.S. nuclear weapons tends to support the removal of these weapons and is highly critical of the idea of equipping new fighter jets with a nuclear capacity.
The Risks of a German Exit
This view is particularly pronounced in Germany. A 2020 public opinion poll for the Munich Security Conference found that two-thirds (66 percent) of Germans supported the position that Germany should completely abandon nuclear deterrence. While the German government’s 2016 white paper on security policy — the Weißbuch, which is similar to America’s national security strategy — stresses the continued necessity of nuclear deterrence as long as nuclear weapons exist, it maintains that “the strategic nuclear capabilities of NATO, and in particular those of the United States, are the ultimate guarantee of the security of its members,” and underlines that “Germany continues to be an integral part of NATO’s nuclear policy and planning” through nuclear sharing, several prominent politicians have recently questioned the acquisition of new dual-capable aircraft needed to replace the ageing Tornados.
The junior partner in the current coalition, the Social Democratic Party, has repeatedly delayed a decision on a Tornado replacement, leading German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to announce her plan to buy American F-18s without being sure whether the Bundestag would support it. The Green Party, which has surpassed the Social Democrats in the polls, has its roots in the peace movement and calls for “a Germany free of nuclear weapons” and “a broad public debate about outdated deterrence doctrines of the Cold War” in its most recent party manifesto (although influential parts of the party argue for some flexibility). As a parliamentary majority without the Greens or the Social Democrats is highly unlikely, this issue will almost certainly be a stumbling block in coalition negotiations after the elections for the Bundestag in September 2021.
Proponents of a withdrawal of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons from German soil argue that it would make Germany and Europe more secure and downplay the potential risks of such a decision. For them, Berlin’s refusal to continually host U.S. nuclear weapons and invest in the next generation of dual-capable aircraft would neither mean the end of nuclear sharing nor undermine NATO cohesion. They often try to distinguish between the so-called technical and political elements of nuclear sharing, arguing that ending the former would not necessarily affect the latter. Pointing to states such as Canada or Greece that once hosted U.S. nuclear weapons but got rid of them a long time ago and still participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, they argue that Germany would still be able to influence NATO nuclear strategy, that the United States would still be willing to protect NATO, and that NATO and the nuclear sharing arrangement as such would continue to exist and function well.
These arguments are based on rather heroic assumptions. First, they assume that it does not matter what you bring to the table. According to Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the Social Democrats in the Bundestag, a withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Germany “would not result in the end of the American nuclear guarantee nor of Germany’s say in nuclear matters … as it would still be guaranteed through its membership in the Nuclear Planning Group.” Yet, it would be very surprising if those states that actively contributed to NATO’s nuclear sharing mission didn’t have more influence than other member states. After all, it is well known that those NATO members that provide troops to allied operations (in particular those that carry special risks) have more influence on NATO strategy for a given operation than other member states.
Second, they implicitly or explicitly argue that it would not make much of a difference for the security provider, the United States, whether their protégésparticipate in the arrangement or not. After all, they argue, the United States does not need the few non-strategic nuclear weapons on European soil to provide effective deterrence for the whole of NATO. According to the critics, these weapons are militarily useless, because there is no realistic scenario for their use. Yet, many military experts disagree. They maintain that even the current generation of jet fighters could successfully carry out their mission. Moreover, from this perspective, jet fighters carrying gravity bombs provide a lot of operational flexibility and are valuable tools for strategic communication.
It could also be argued that these non-strategic nuclear weapons never really had much military use in a narrow sense. Rather, they have always been political symbols, linking European security to American security. It is important to recognize, though, that “symbolic” does not mean politically unimportant. In contrast, nuclear sharing has also meant reassurance and risk sharing. However, as former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, notes, reassurance works both ways: “it’s a two-way street.” For the United States, it will thus make a huge political difference whether U.S. allies are willing to continue to share the risks associated with the nuclear umbrella. In an article for Der Spiegel, two experienced Europe hands, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Townsend, warned in no uncertain terms that “Germany walking away from this vow to share the nuclear burden, this expression of solidarity and risk sharing, strikes at the heart of the trans-Atlantic bargain.”
Third, the German proponents of a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons underestimate the role of their own country. Germany, after all, is not just another member state. To begin with, the country’s role in NATO was a major reason for the very creation of this special arrangement. Its departure from NATO’s technical nuclear sharing arrangement would very likely trigger other “exits” and lead to transatlantic disruption. While the nuclear sharing arrangement may survive a Belgian or Dutch exit, it is hard to imagine that a German withdrawal would not bring about a general crisis of nuclear sharing. According to Flournoy and Townsend, “the bargain sustaining U.S. extended nuclear deterrence to Europe would collapse and the U.S. umbrella would essentially be decoupled from Europe.” At a time of upheaval for the transatlantic alliance and ongoing discussions about a potential “decoupling,” this promises to be a dangerous strategy with potentially far-reaching consequences.
The Road Ahead: How Can We Avoid Transatlantic Nuclear Disruption?
As the past few years have shown, a reactive communication strategy that tries to protect a very fragile elite consensus without rocking the boat is apparently not enough. Those in the strategic community who still believe that nuclear deterrence remains indispensable will have to make the case for it and be ready to engage in moral and ethical discussions. They should not be afraid of a debate with those who think that unilateral disarmament is the safer strategy. After all, the case can be made that supporting NATO cohesion and limited nuclear deterrence is the more promising path toward risk reduction, disarmament, and peaceful relations in the long run.
Most importantly, they need to be clear in communicating the risks of a unilateral end to nuclear sharing. They should also highlight the meager benefits of unilateral disarmament when other states are investing in new nuclear capabilities and doctrinal developments. In particular, Berlin’s allies need to pay attention to the German debate and stress the potential damage of Germany pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. non-strategic weapons. Germans may be less receptive to arguments about nuclear strategy, but they may listen to warnings that the end of nuclear sharing would present a major threat to multilateralism and could pave the way for a renationalization of security policy.
At the same time, proponents of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement will also have to make clear that they take seriously the valid points made by those concerned with the very real risks that come with nuclear weapons. For large parts of the Western public, it is far from self-evident today that relying on nuclear deterrence is indeed the best strategy to deal with a deteriorating security environment. Consequently, NATO leaders should engage with critics’ concerns that the alliance is just sticking with a dangerous relic from the Cold War because it does not know what else to do. They should also be open to thinking through potential alternatives to the current arrangement (which dates back to the 1960s) that would be able to fulfill the same role (i.e., serving as a link between U.S. and European security). And they need to find ways to combine efforts to maintain a necessary level of deterrence with a sincere commitment to nuclear risk reduction, arms control, and disarmament.
For instance, NATO leaders should be open to discussing proposals such as a five-year moratorium, during which neither Russia nor NATO would deploy new “destabilizing weapons to Europe until 2025,” giving NATO time to reassess the nuclear status quo and test Russia’s willingness to seriously consider mutual arms reductions. Likewise, following in the footsteps of NATO’s traditional dual-track strategy, they should also be open to adapting their capabilities if the security environment continues to erode further. Germany, in any case, would do well to discuss the difficult questions relating to the future of nuclear security within NATO, instead of incrementally phasing out its participation in the nuclear sharing arrangement.
After all, without NATO cohesion, neither deterrence nor security will be achieved. Alliance management and balancing different assurance and deterrence needs within NATO will be major challenges for the coming years. Given the very heterogeneous threat perceptions and policy preferences within the alliance, discussions on the nuclear components of NATO’s next strategic concept and on a potential update of the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review of 2012 will be difficult.
For a complete denial of deterrence, however, the transatlantic alliance will very likely be punished. A metaphor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once used in a completely different case may also apply to the nuclear umbrella: “throwing out [something] when it has worked and is continuing to work … is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”Become a Member
Tobias Bunde is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin. He also serves as the director of research and policy at the Munich Security Conference.
This article was drafted for a workshop titled “Transatlantic Disruption” at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s global affairs hub. The workshop was made possible by the Shapiro Global Workshop on Geopolitics Fund and Carnegie Corporation of New York. The author would like to thank the workshop participants as well as Christian Ruhl, Megan Oprea, and Freddy Ludtke for very helpful comments on a previous version of this article. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author