X Close

Which way will Germany’s new chancellor go on defence?

German Bundeswehr recruits in Bavaria at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, on November 12, 2021(Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

November 22, 2021 - 11:47am

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on the future German government to ensure that it fully commits to the alliance’s nuclear sharing programme. On a visit to Berlin last Friday, he addressed the country after media reports had speculated that Angela Merkel’s successor might agree to a withdrawal from nuclear deterrence systems.

Negotiations are ongoing for a three-party coalition to replace the Merkel administration. If successful, Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, will become the new chancellor and his party will lead the country in a centre-Left coalition together with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Liberals.

For collective security in Europe this transition bears both chances and risks. The Greens have a long history of anti-nuclear policy. Their roots as a party lie in protests against nuclear reactors that followed accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). These sentiments mingled with the pacifism that arose out of anxieties during the Cold War when both superpowers stationed nuclear weapons on German soil.

The Greens may make it a condition of any bargain with Scholz that American nuclear weapons will be removed from Germany. Up to twenty B61 bombs are estimated to be stationed at the Büchel Air Base in the south west of Germany. The Green’s co-leader and chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock ran on a ticket of anti-nuclear policy during the election. She is tipped to become foreign minister in the coalition government.

But Baerbock also said that Germany cannot “continue with a foreign policy which shies away when in doubt.” Her co-leader Robert Habeck expressed a wish to support Ukraine, even in the form of supplying weaponry to the country — a move for which he was reprimanded by his own party. Olaf Scholz last week called the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko a “very bad dictator” and showed support for Poland in view of escalating tensions at the EU’s eastern borders.

Will the Greens and Olaf Scholz back up these words with action are or follow their old pacifist instincts? Stoltenberg was worried enough to make a personal appearance in the German capital amidst what looks like the final phase of coalition talks. He reminded the country that, “nuclear sharing is important because it is an arrangement where NATO allies go together and provide nuclear deterrence.”

But nuclear sharing does not only require Germany to tolerate US bombs on its soil but take financial and political responsibility for them too. To act as a deterrence, enemies will need to be certain that there is political conviction behind Germany’s expressed willingness to resort to this if need be.

Germany does not fulfil its NATO obligation to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence. Merkel reassured various American presidents that her country was increasing the figure so as to shoulder its share of the financial burden of collective security. But so far, Germany has still only reached a figure of 1.4 per cent.

Stoltenberg pointed out that he cannot force a sovereign state to commit, but he made it clear that Berlin cannot expect to maintain its ‘seat at the table’ while it invests too little to warrant it. He also issued a veiled threat that there are alternatives for NATO’s security systems to be deployed: “we easily end up with nuclear weapons in other countries in Europe, also to the East of Germany.”

The end of Merkel’s tenure as chancellor is an apt time for Germany to readjust its role in the world. Younger politicians will need to jettison 20th century notions of Germany as a nation to be demilitarised in perpetuity for the crimes it committed over 75 years ago. The largest economy in Europe cannot expect the rest of the world to pick up its defence bills while retaining a self-image of a nation important enough to deserve a say in international decisions.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago

Could the editor correct the headline “New German President”. The German President has nearly no power as the Chancellor is the head of the German Government. I guess somebody corrected the headline of this essay.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
2 years ago

If Germany is expected to care for its own defence, Germany will also set the terms. So long as the US’ stated policy objective and best-case scenario is a war between Russia and Germany, don’t expect Germany to be too enthusiastic about supporting that objective.
The Pershing II controversy was about an all too transparent US plan to wage a nuclear war against the Soviet Union on German soil, both sides of the German-German border. Ms. Bärbock’s Greens rose to political prominence on the back of that controversy. Don’t expect the sentiment to have gone away.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
2 years ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

At that time the East/West border state was West Germany. That is no longer the case so I cannot see any way in which that would be the current plan. Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine may have more to be concerned about than Germany. Poland pays its dues to NATO.
Back then where else would you have fought it? Any further south or west would mean that Germany had already been overrun.