BERLIN — Just days before Germany is set to celebrate the anniversary of its “liberation” from Nazi rule, leading members of the governing Social Democrats are demanding that the country be freed from what they consider another scourge — American nuclear weapons.
“Nuclear weapons on German territory do not heighten our security, just the opposite,” Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the German parliament said in an interview with newspaper Tagesspiegel published on Sunday. “The time has come for Germany to rule out a future stationing.”
Though not everyone in the SPD’s top ranks shares his views, Mützenich quickly won backing from co-SPD leader Saskia Esken.
“Whoever thinks that glasnost and perestroika were made possible by the West’s nuclear deterrent missed something,” she tweeted. “Atomic weaponry on German soil, on German airplanes, is neither an end to itself nor desirable, not to mention very expensive.”
The SPD leadership’s demands reopen an old debate in Germany about whether to remain under the protective nuclear umbrella the U.S. has held over the country since the 1950s. On the left, many see the weapons as an unnecessary provocation toward Russia. Those tensions went on the boil in the early 1980s, when a U.S. plan to counter the threat posed by mid-range Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Eastern Europe by placing similar weapons in Germany sparked a wave of intense street protests that became the defining moment for a generation of leftist politicians.
As long as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats remain the major power in the governing coalition with the SPD, the Social Democrats’ wish for an American withdrawal won’t be realized.
Many in the SPD have long favored closer ties to Russia, a country they feel more cultural kinship to than the U.S. In their view, the late SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of détente toward Moscow in the 1970s, the so-called Ostpolitik, laid the foundation to end the Cold War. They see the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany as a major hurdle toward improving relations with Moscow.
But as long as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats remain the major power in the governing coalition with the SPD, the Social Democrats’ wish for an American withdrawal won’t be realized. Germany’s center-right views the U.S. nuclear shield as the key to the country’s decades of peace and prosperity. Nonetheless, as Merkel’s junior partner, the SPD’s stance can’t be ignored. It’s also a reminder that if a left-wing alliance (a coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the Left party) were to gain power in Germany in the coming years, it would almost certainly demand a withdrawal of the American weapons.
The timing of Mützenich’s intervention was no accident. Germany is in the process of phasing out its aging fleet of Tornado fighter jets, the planes it relies on to fulfill its nuclear sharing obligations with the U.S. Under the deal, Germany has agreed to deliver warheads supplied by the U.S. in the event of a nuclear war.
The pact has been a pillar of NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy for decades. While Washington has similar agreements with other NATO members, the arrangement has proved to be particularly controversial in Germany, even as the U.S. has dramatically pared down its stockpile of nuclear warheads in the country.
What appears to have triggered Mützenich’s demand was an announcement two weeks ago by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer that she supported purchasing U.S.-made F-18 aircraft to replace the Tornados in order to ensure that Germany could continue to meet its alliance obligations.
Germany would require dozens of the aircraft, which would cost billions. Many in the SPD oppose increasing the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP — the spending goal Germany and other NATO members agreed to years ago in an effort to place less of a financial burden on the U.S.
Germany, despite recent progress, remains far away from the spending target, a failure U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly used to cast the country as a freeloader.
The vast majority of Germans don’t trust Trump, however. Mützenich cited the perceived unreliability of the U.S. president as a central reason why Germany should insist on an American nuclear withdrawal. The original justification for the nuclear-sharing arrangement was that it would give Germany at least some influence over the weapons’ use, a hope that is no longer realistic, he said.
“Does anyone really think that if Donald Trump were planning a nuclear assault that he would be held back by Germany just because we’re transporting a few warheads?” he asked.
Though a U.S. withdrawal appears unlikely in the short term, it’s not unrealistic. The U.S. could easily find another home for the weapons, be it in Poland or on the territory of another NATO ally. That said, such a redeployment could have serious consequences for Europe’s security. Russia would view any deployment of the weapons in Eastern Europe as a provocation and look for ways to retaliate, an outcome that could destabilize the whole region.
More generally, the move could backfire on Germany if it is viewed as an unreliable ally. Many in the Trump administration already regard it as such. Given his past criticism of Germany, Trump might see the SPD’s latest demand as further evidence that Germany can’t be trusted and make good on threats to relocate U.S. forces stationed in the country. Given the budgetary demands the U.S. faces to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the president may not need much convincing to reduce the U.S. presence in Germany.
Such a move would inevitably renew fears elsewhere in Europe of NATO’s collapse.
Put another way, the SPD should be careful what it wishes for.