Germans Debate the Once-Unthinkable: Do We Need Nuclear Weapons?

U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump indicating that if he is re-elected Washington wouldn’t come to the aid of NATO allies who weren’t spending enough on defense.
U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump indicating that if he is re-elected Washington wouldn’t come to the aid of NATO allies who weren’t spending enough on defense.

Summary

Russian expansionism and fears about U.S. disengagement from Europe are causing such alarm that Germany is beginning to ponder whether it needs its own nuclear arsenal.

BERLIN—Russian expansionism and fears about American disengagement from Europe are causing such alarm here that Germany is beginning to ponder a question once considered unthinkable: Does it need to have its own nuclear weapons?

In recent weeks, German officials have called on France and the U.K.—Europe’s two nuclear powers—to work with Berlin to develop a fallback plan for nuclear deterrence for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, should the U.S. no longer be willing to fulfill that role.

Some politicians and academics are going even further, asking whether Germany could someday need its own atomic arsenal.

Germany isn’t the only country where policymakers are contemplating the consequences of proliferation, as some established nuclear powers expand their arsenals, new members join the atomic club and others, such as Iran, appear to be taking steps in that direction.

But in Germany, which has embraced pacifism since its World War II defeat, and has renounced both nuclear energy and the atomic bomb, the debate is especially fraught.

The discussion burst into public view earlier this month when the finance minister, Christian Lindner, reacted to comments from U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump indicating that if he is re-elected Washington wouldn’t come to the aid of NATO allies who weren’t spending enough on defense.

In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Lindner asked: “Under which political and financial conditions would Paris and London be willing to maintain and expand their own strategic capacities for our collective security? And conversely, how much are we ready to contribute?"

Other politicians, including Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s largest opposition party, the conservative CDU, and Katarina Barley, the center-left SPD‘s candidate for the European election, have also called for Germany to seek a European nuclear deterrent independent from the U.S.

Senior government officials say that Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as well as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, remain skeptical about the prospects for enhanced nuclear cooperation with France and the U.K. and the usefulness of such an approach.

The shared view of these top leaders, the officials say, is that while the potential nuclear threat from Russia has grown, relying on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s present nuclear deterrence strategy and investing massively in better air defense systems is the best response for now.

Still, the tenor of discussions in Berlin is a sharp departure from four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron invited Germany and other European governments to talk about how Paris could extend its nuclear umbrella to cover all of NATO in exchange for helping to pay for the weapons.

While Germany doesn’t have nuclear weapons, under NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements, German warplanes are equipped to launch U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. But the decision to use the weapons would lie solely with the U.S.

Germany has long held the position that NATO’s nuclear deterrent should center on those U.S. weapons, fearing that any move to bring Germany under France’s nuclear umbrella could encourage the U.S. to reduce its military presence in Europe.

With Trump questioning NATO’s founding tenet that any attack on one member is an attack on all, German policymakers say their country is more vulnerable than France or the U.K. Whether or not Trump is re-elected, some fear U.S. disengagement from Europe is inevitable.

Lindner and others say Germany should break its nuclear taboo before it is too late. They worry Russian President Vladimir Putin, emboldened by advances in Ukraine and Trump’s comments, could soon test the alliance, perhaps through an attack on a member state that shares a border with Russia.

A French official said Germany hadn’t been in contact about extending France’s nuclear umbrella. A U.K. Defense Ministry spokesman said: “We have declared our independent nuclear deterrent to the defense of NATO for over 60 years and all NATO Allies benefit from the protection it provides."

German political scientist Maximilian Terhalle, one of the most outspoken voices in his country’s nuclear debate, argues that Germany should offer to purchase some 1,000 currently nonactive strategic nuclear warheads from the U.S.

Those weapons would then be combined with the arsenals of France and the U.K. to assemble a stockpile of around 1,550 warheads—considerably more than France and Britain currently have. That force would be deployed across NATO territory with an agreed plan for use if Russia attacks.

“You can have 15 divisions and modern battle tanks, but if you don’t have a nuclear deterrent and you’re facing an enemy who not only has one but is also willing to threaten you with it, then these divisions won’t do any good," said Terhalle.

Asked about Terhalle’s suggestions, a senior German official said Germany’s having its own weapons wasn’t being considered for now, but he acknowledged that it might someday become necessary for Berlin to credibly deter an aggressive Russia.

Relying on other European powers, the official said, wasn’t that different than relying on the U.S. France could be “one election away" from electing a pro-Russian President, he noted, referring to the far-right Rassemblement National, currently leading in opinion polls.

Some critics of Lindner’s proposal agree with Terhalle’s argument that a purely European nuclear deterrent for NATO wouldn’t be credible without Germany joining others in developing the weapons, deploying them and participating in the command structure that would decide on their use.

But they say pursuing such a goal is unrealistic and counterproductive as it wouldn’t just consume resources Germany doesn’t have but also undermine the credibility of the U.S. commitment to defending the alliance.

“There is no better deterrent than the one we have," said Norbert Röttgen, a German opposition conservative lawmaker and former foreign affairs committee chairman. “Building our own nuclear deterrent would take 15 years and cost untold billions of euros."

Lindner has faced some vigorous pushback. Asked about his proposal, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week the current nuclear arrangements were a powerful deterrent and that nothing should be done to undermine their credibility.

There are some formidable legal, practical and political obstacles to Germany becoming a nuclear power. Berlin renounced nuclear weapons under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a commitment it reaffirmed in the September 1990 agreement with the U.S., the U.K., France and the Soviet Union that paved the way for Germany’s reunification.

Still, with or without their own nuclear umbrellas, Europe and Germany have little choice but to rapidly grow their defense capabilities. When Donald Tusk, the recently elected Polish premier, visited Paris and Berlin last week, he, Scholz and Macron all called for stronger security ties between their countries as they face what they described as a growing Russian threat.

The European Union, Tusk said, should be “not only a civilizational, economic and scientific power but also a military one."

Max Colchester in London and Stacy Meichtry in Paris contributed to this article.

Write to Bertrand Benoit at bertrand.benoit@wsj.com and Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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