Nukes out of Germany: Countering the backlash

Two former German security officials have responded, not entirely helpfully, to former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson’s sharp rebuke of the German Government’s call for the removal of US nuclear weapons from its territory.[i]

Accusing Robertson of relying on “outdated perceptions” that are rooted in the Cold War, Wolfgang Ischinger and Ulrich Weisser make some good points.[ii]

First, they say it “would be a grave mistake for NATO and its members to cling to the Cold War perception that Russia is a potential aggressor…” Russia must be a strategic partner they say, that being essential to long-term stability in Europe.

Second, they reject the argument that there must be US nuclear weapons on German soil (tactical gravity bombs) to keep Germany under the American nuclear umbrella – a point, they say, clarified 15 years ago by then US Defence Secretary William Perry.

Third, they say the role of nuclear weapons has “changed fundamentally” and that “any residual benefits of nuclear arsenals are now overshadowed by the growing risks of proliferation and terrorism.”

But when they set out the way forward, the argument goes somewhat awry.

First and foremost, they call on the alliance as a whole to “reaffirm its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella and on extended deterrence.” Really? So they claim that NATO countries, which represent virtually two-thirds of global conventional military might, are so threatened, so vulnerable are they in the most politically stable geography on the planet, that they must have the cover of American weapons of mass destruction and the threat of annihilation for them to feel safe? As for those states that really do live in threatening neighborhoods – say, in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, or South Asia – they are presumably expected to be the real pioneers in the drive for zero global nuclear weapons while Europeans and North Americans continue to cling to them.

Second, they call for negotiated reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, “based on the principle of reciprocity.” Again, they’re not paying attention Michael Quinlan’s rejection of reciprocity (discussed here last week). Quinlan argued instead that the unilateral removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe would “have the effect of depriving Russia of a pretext she has sometimes sought to exploit both for opposing NATO’s wider development and for evading the question of whether and why Russia herself need continue to maintain a non-strategic nuclear armoury that is now far larger than that of anyone else.”[iii]

Finally, they say if tactical nuclear weapons cannot be immediately eliminated, which they say would be the most easily verifiable approach, “a good alternative would be to move all tactical nuclear weapons from their forward bases for centralized storage deep inside national territory.” That would indeed be a sensible interim step toward zero tactical nuclear weapons, provided of course, they mean the “national territory” of the nuclear weapon states that own those weapons Russia and the US) – and not the “national territory” of the non-nuclear weapons states that now host them (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey).

Ischinger and Weisser offer some effective counterpoints to George Robertson’s Cold War call to preserving NATO’s nuclear strategy and weapons, but they end up with some Cold War assumptions of their own.


[i] See last week’s post on “Nukes out of Europe: Now the Backlash.”

[ii] Ischinger was formerly deputy foreign minister, and Weisser was director of the policy planning staff  of the German defence minister. Their response to Robertson appeared in the New York Times, “NATO and the Nuclear Umbrella,” 15 February 2010.

[iii] Michael Quinlan, “The Nuclear Proliferation Scene: Implications for NATO,” in Joseph F. Pilat and David S. Yost, eds. NATO and the Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NATO Defense College, Academic Research Branch, Rome, May 2007),

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