Among its other fallouts, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has energized the Atlantic Alliance (Europe on one side of the Ocean and the US on the other) like never before in the post–Cold War era. Some pundits say that the alliance under the United States’ leadership may have reached its peak.
But at the same time, the two foremost powers of Europe – France and Germany – seem very particular about the importance of “strategic autonomy” and lessening Europe’s dependence on the US for its security by building the prowess of their militaries.
And here, the significant trend is the growing recognition of the need to develop and strengthen “European Nuclear Weapons.”
The capture of the US House of Representatives by the Republicans and the announcement of former President Donald Trump for the Presidency in 2024 have further strengthened this trend of ‘autonomy’ in both Germany and France.
They are mindful of the Trump Presidency’s repeated admonishment to European countries for not sharing enough for their security at the cost of American taxpayers.
As Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, apprehends, the Republicans will again ask why Americans should pay more than Ukraine’s neighbors.
All told, while the US has already spent billions of dollars and is committed to more than $40 billion in military aid for Ukraine, Europe has pledged only half that.
French President Macron’s Stance For The Nation’s Future
Against this backdrop, one may see the timing of French President Emmanuel Macron’s unveiling on November 9 of France’s “national strategic review,” meant to define how the country’s defense will look in 2030.
Macron said France wants to be an “independent, respected, agile power at the heart of European strategic autonomy” with strong links to the Atlantic alliance.
He added that France wanted to focus on boosting the European Union’s defense capacity building, lessening the dependence of the bloc of 27 nations’ security dependence on the US and NATO.
Of course, Macron has consistently argued the above theme of Europe building its strength. After interviewing him, the Economist magazine wrote, “Europe has become dependent on others for too much—from its ability to innovate to military heft and even food.
In a world led by unreliable folk like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, that set his nerves jangling. Europe, in Mr. Macron’s jargon, needs strategic autonomy. That pitch for greater sovereignty encompasses everything from more defense spending to Europe coming up with its tech giants and much else besides.”
Importantly, in his “national strategic review,” the French President has insisted that a “credible, modern” nuclear deterrence is the key. After BREXIT, France became the only EU country with nuclear weapons. “Our nuclear forces contribute through their existence to the security of France and Europe,” he said.
But, and it is exceptionally significant, Macron also made it clear that “a potential nuclear ballistic attack from Russia in the region would not bring any nuclear response from Paris.” He said that France’s doctrine “is based on what we call the fundamental interests of the nation. They would not at all be at stake” in such a situation.
In other words, Macron says that the French nuclear weapons are for France only. And this, in turn, seems to have revived a debate in Germany about developing a nuclear deterrent of its own.
This is an issue that few in Germany wanted to discuss until recently, given its history and aversion to all things nuclear. All the more so after the 2021 general elections that ended a 16-year-long streak of conservative governments under Angela Merkel.
The country today has a government of a broad coalition of three parties from the left and the right – the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens. Both the SPD and the Left Greens, particularly the latter, are big-time votaries of nuclear disarmament and the closure of even civilian nuclear plants.
The last time it was in the government (1988), the Greens party had argued strongly to replace NATO with a European peace order. Even during election campaigns last year, the Greens had proposed a Germany free of nuclear weapons.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed all that. The German government, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), has not only pledged to spend at least two percent of a country’s gross domestic product for defense purposes but also supported the sharing of NATO’s nuclear weaponry on German soil.
Germany Leans Toward Nuclear Weapons
Reportedly, the German government is now drafting a first-ever national security strategy, which is expected to be made public early next year, and will talk of retaining a credible nuclear deterrence through Germany’s NATO membership.
The public debate at present in Germany also shows that as the international security environment deteriorates, military options and new nuclear armaments are becoming more attractive among political leaders.
Even otherwise, in a June 2022 poll, most interviewees supported hosting US nuclear weapons in Germany. This starkly contrasted with previous years when many Germans in polls favored removing these weapons from the country.
Of course, under the previous German government of Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), there were calls for a “Euro-deterrent” (independent of US nuclear weapons through NATO).
The leading defense expert of the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, Roderich Kiesewetter, made this case. And Roderich Kiesewetter, a lawmaker and foreign policy spokesman with then Germany’s ruling party, had elaborated this line of thinking.
This “Euro deterrent” by its advocates did not necessarily mean that Germany would make nuclear weapons in violation of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). It meant supporting and financing those European countries that already had nuclear weapons – France and the United Kingdom.
“My idea is to build on the existing weapons in Great Britain and France,” Kiesewetter argued while acknowledging that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union could preclude its participation.
Kiesewetter’s thesis had four ingredients: “a French pledge to commit its weapons to a common European defense, German financing to demonstrate the program’s collective nature, a joint command, and a plan to place French warheads in other European countries.”
This thesis of a “Euro-deterrent,” provided by the French strategic forces, is being reasserted today by Friedrich Merz, the leader of the CDU. His party colleague and head of the conservative European People’s Party in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, has even proposed that Germany fund the French “force de frappe.”
However, the problem with the German idea of a “Euro-deterrent” has met a significant setback, and that is the irony, with the latest French national strategic review and President Macron’s announcement that the French deterrent is there to protect and defend French territory, and does not extend to its European partners.
And this, in turn, may lead to the revival of the public demand that the country should have its nuclear weapons. Germany had a discussion in the late 1960s about whether it should have a nuclear force, something that then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss had strongly advocated.
As Stephen F Szabo, Adjunct Professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University, and author of “Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-economics,” writes, “A nuclear North Korea, a nuclear-curious Iran, and the prospect of Japan and South Korea becoming nuclear powers begs the question: Why should Germany stay behind given its power and centrality to European security?”
A pertinent question, indeed!
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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