Germany faces its worst security dilemma since the 1950s

By Constanze Stelzenmüller

“First we got the bomb and that was good/’Cause we love peace and motherhood/Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s OK/’Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way!/Who’s next?”

So begins an immortal song about nuclear proliferation written in the early 1960s by the now 90-year-old American satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer. Answering his own question, he ticked off France, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Egypt and Israel, ending with the happy warble: “We’ll try to stay serene and calm/When Alabama gets the bomb!” The Deep South never did get the bomb, as far as we know. But could the next candidate be Germany?

You might think so, given the excitement triggered by a recent front-page essay in a German weekend paper, headlined “Do We Need the Bomb?” and accompanied by an image of the U.S. Fat Man bomb, which destroyed Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, overlaid with the colors of the German flag.

It is an apt illustration of German security angst in the era of Donald Trump. Given the U.S. president’s increasingly ambivalent attitude to NATO, the debate over nuclear deterrence in Europe has been simmering in Berlin for two years. This, in a country that struggles to invest 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense and has an abiding dislike of all things nuclear.

With good reason: Germany was a front-line state during the cold war, living with the dread of becoming a radioactive ash heap should the superpower stand-off ever turn into a full-blown war. In the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and the Two Plus Four Agreement of 1990, it pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons. It hosts U.S. nuclear bombs on a German air base as part of NATO’s extended deterrence, but they are firmly under American control. Chancellor Angela Merkel even announced a plan to scrap the use of civilian nuclear power by 2022, after the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011.

Yet today’s debate is not about Germany acquiring a bomb. When the author of the aforementioned essay suggested this, experts swiftly denounced the idea as “reckless, foolish and incendiary,” in the words of a former deputy director of the Federal Intelligence Service. For a country so sensitive about finding itself isolated in Europe, such a step would be strategic suicide. No mainstream party would endorse it.

All this does not mean the debate is not serious. A more viable proposal argues that Germany should convince nuclear powers France and Britain to provide a nuclear security guarantee for all of Europe by offering to co-finance it. A 2017 advisory assessment by the national legislature’s research service concluded this was legally feasible—and showed how far discussions had progressed among policymakers.

Still, huge political, technological and financial obstacles would remain. A euro nuclear group in NATO, much less a nuclear-based European defense union, is a long way off. The notion that Europeans together might replace the U.S. nuclear deterrent is fanciful.

Germany now finds itself in the worst security dilemma since it rejoined the west in the 1950s by becoming a member of NATO and the EU. Its hoped-for strategic partners, Russia and China, are increasingly aggressive players in Europe. Within the EU, populists and authoritarians are challenging the liberal, postwar consensus. Even countries that share that ideal, such as France, Spain and the Baltic states, disagree about the future of the European project. America’s elites stand firm in defense of U.S. security guarantees for Europe—but their president misses no opportunity to side with autocrats and show contempt for a rules-based order.

Ms. Merkel acknowledged as much when she said in a speech that Germany would have to “take its fate into its own hands more.” Foreign minister Heiko Maas is championing a global alliance of like-minded middle powers. Fine. But if Germany wants to be taken seriously by the U.S. and trusted in Europe, its leaders also need to get serious about conventional defense—and convince skeptical voters that this is necessary, and urgent.

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