What if Germany backs out of NATO’s nuclear sharing?

By Jimmy Horjus
Picture credits: Wikimediacommons

The new German coalition made up of social democrats, greens and liberals (SPD, Die Grünen and FDP) has deployed a smoke screen regarding Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing. All three parties share a history of opposing nuclear weapons on German soil and especially within the SPD and Grünen there are elements vehemently opposed to the nuclear sharing agreement. This begs the question of how realistic a German opt-out is and what this would mean for European security.

With West Germany’s accession to NATO in 1955, it also signed up for nuclear sharing. Under nuclear sharing, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey, Italy and Germany agree to host US nuclear weapons with the US retaining full custody. The weapons can only be used with US and national permission. Except for France, all NATO member states are part of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group. States hosting US nuclear weapons probably have a greater say than other member states, similar to how member states with a significant contribution to allied operations have greater influence on NATO strategy. Consequently Germany is supposed to have a substantial say in the direction of NATO’s nuclear strategy, a view shared by various European security experts.

However, Germany has a complicated history with the nuclear sharing agreement, more so than other member states. Political and public opposition in the 1950s originated in the SPD and, in the 1980s, massive demonstrations erupted all over West Germany following the deployment of American Pershing II nuclear-capable missiles. These demonstrations eventually contributed to the establishment of Die Grünen. Following the end of the Cold War, the SPD and Grünen have continued to resist nuclear weapons on German soil, which has become a part of these parties’ identities. The FDP has also opposed nuclear sharing during various periods of its existence.

Interestingly, the two SPD-Grünen led coalitions between 1998 and 2005 under Gerhard Schröder did not dare to touch the agreement, despite FDP criticism. Although in a different, more geopolitically relaxed constellation, it is telling that a parliamentary majority of staunch opponents of the agreement in election times did not deliver in legislative times. This suggests that external factors such as allied pressure might have persuaded the German leadership to leave the agreement untouched.

Still, despite not delivering on promises made two decades ago, the SPD and Die Grünen this year once again campaigned in favour of opting out of nuclear sharing. A hot topic of debate is the Tornado fighter replacement. These jets capable of conducting nuclear missions are set to be replaced by the non-nuclear-capable Eurofighter and Super Hornet. However, with costly modifications they can be made nuclear-capable. On the likelihood of implementing these modifications, the new German coalition agreement states that the procurement of a Tornado replacement with regards to nuclear sharing will be approached in an “objective and conscientious” way. 

This unclear and ambiguous statement leaves much room for interpretation. Consequently, a fierce political debate is likely to come. One that potentially could see Germany pull out of NATO’s nuclear sharing. Although the military value for NATO of a few, non-strategic nuclear weapons on European soil is contested by some experts, it is more about risk-sharing. Coupled with the unwillingness of successive German governments to meet the 2% pledge, it is likely that the US will not take the pull-out lightly. Especially since it is in the United States’ interest to deter other countries from following in Germany’s footsteps and having doubts raised about NATO unity by Russia, China and the like. 

To this end, various US policymakers have suggested that other, Eastern European member states such as Poland could fill the void. However, stationing nuclear weapons on the Russian border will be seen as an escalation by Russia. Previous eastward NATO deployments have been used by Russia as a pretext for unilateral action. Belarusian President Lukashenko has recently announced the wish to station Russian nuclear weapons in his country if US nuclear weapons are stationed in Poland. So it might also be in Germany and Europe’s interests not to set a counterproductive chain of reactions in motion. 

Therefore, a recent motion in the Dutch House of Representatives from the Socialist Party (SP) on abandoning the Dutch nuclear sharing task should be approached with the same considerations as the German case. More so since the Dutch track record on defence spending is not much better than the German one. Although unlikely to pass, even a narrow rejection could send the wrong signal to both allies and adversaries. This could hardly be the intention of those inclined to vote in favour.  

In conclusion, a German opt-out could have severe consequences for European security. Either the unity and resolve of NATO would be questioned or new nuclear sharing agreements would be signed with Eastern European member states, possibly resulting in a Russian counterreaction. How realistic a German opt-out is, is questionable. Although SPD and Grünen have recently campaigned on taking Germany out of NATO’s nuclear sharing, previous SPD-Grünen coalitions have demonstrated that party politics do not always prevail. 

Furthermore, NATO, and especially US, retaliation could serve as a deterring factor. Whether this is part of the calculation of the current administration remains to be seen. Still, the reason that the coalition agreement does not yet state an opt-out, irrespective of election promises, suggests that the SPD and Grünen are susceptible to external pressures. In the end, Germany is the key player in Europe’s future direction and a clear German commitment to NATO’s nuclear sharing would be an important signal to both allies and adversaries.






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