With or Without You: Germany and NATO


“I can’t live with or without you,” crooned Bono in U2’s 1987 smash hit. The band surely did not mean to anticipate Germany’s complicated relationship with NATO nearly 30 years later, but they did. Facing a newly aggressive Russia, Germans are torn. On one hand, we have Germany’s cultural attachment to the West, alliance commitments, and a friendship with the United States. On the other, we have Germany’s traditional post-war pacifism, fear of what Vladimir Putin is capable of, and largely good (and mostly economic) relations with Moscow. And as everyone knows, Germany’s friendship with America is not what it used to be.

Germans know they need NATO — and therewith America — but they don’t always like that fact. This is obvious when dealing with Putin’s Russia, the war in Ukraine, and NATO’s nuclear weapons policy.

A Problematic Past

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, memories of military standoff with the Warsaw Pact are fading. Most Germans today associate NATO with the failed war in Afghanistan and the flawed interventionism of the George W. Bush years rather than long-standing alliance commitments to secure German freedom and prosperity.

In Germany, pacifism, anti-Americanism, and anti-nuclear sentiments often go hand-in-hand. Leftist criticisms of NATO and the United States have a long legacy that dates back at least to the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Under the umbrella of the peace movement, a new generation of NATO skeptics protested the dual-track decision of the early 1980s to station additional U.S. nuclear weapons on West German soil. That generation’s younger political figures are still influential today, particularly among the senior ranks of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party.

While the post-Cold War world saw Germans struggling to come to terms with the huge economic costs of reunification, the new millennium and America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq left many Germans wondering whether Uncle Sam was capable of anything besides deploying “boots on the ground.” In the same vein, Germans proudly recall the German “Nein” to the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD and his Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party.

When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama referred to “the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right” in his 2008 speech at the Berlin Brandenburg Gate, some 200,000 Germans applauded in approval. Hopes were high in Germany that this new president would enact changes to U.S. foreign and security policy and therewith NATO.

Yet these Germans were to be disappointed, particularly once the revelations of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks came to light. Today, we find anti-Americanism and anti-NATO sentiments en vogue again. Two recent polls illustrate these negative trends: 70 percent of Germans view the United States as “greedy for power” and only 55 percent of Germans still hold a favorable view of NATO (down from 73 percent in 2009).

Squaring the Circle on Ukraine

With the war in Ukraine and relations between Washington and Moscow quickly deteriorated from partnership to open enmity, Germans are now facing the difficult task of recalibrating their stance towards the United States, NATO, and Russia.

Germans prefer a balancing middle-position between the West and Russia more than a strong position within NATO (49 to 45 percent according to a survey from April 2014). Yet polls suggest that 81 percent of Germans do not trust Russia and 68 percent of Germans believe that Washington would come to the defense of NATO allies if push came to shove. These conflicting viewpoints find their echo also in Germany’s official positions.

The Obama administration’s policy of retrenchment has given Angela Merkel and her foreign policy team additional room for maneuver to search for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine, a policy in line with Berlin’s self-image as a conflict mediator. While the German chancellor received almost equal praise and criticism for her efforts to secure an extremely shaky ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, foreign policy pundits often overlook the fact that the conflict itself creates a completely new challenge for German diplomacy — one where Germany must assume a leadership role.

So far, Germans reward their foreign policy executives with high approval rates for their silent crisis diplomacy. The current German government and the German public reject calls by some U.S. foreign and security policy experts for arming Ukraine. However, the question looms large how Germany would react if the next occupant of the White House displays a more muscular policy towards the Kremlin or if Putin were crazy enough to make moves against the Baltic States. Would Germany be ready to defend its Baltic allies? This is a question that particularly NATO’s easternmost members are asking.

German politicians have been resolute in issuing verbal and operational assurances aimed at dispelling any possible doubts. At the NATO Summit in Wales, Germany took on the role of one of the Framework Nations, essentially setting up the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which will function as a “Spearhead Force” in case of a Russian aggression against an ally. In addition, Germany committed to modernize the German–Polish–Danish Multinational Corps Northeast and help set up military bases on NATO’s eastern and southern periphery.

Germany’s grand coalition (Christian Democrats and the SPD) is thus carefully trying to satisfy the public majority’s wish for a peaceful solution to the conflict while, at the same time, living up to its alliance commitments. But the real tricky issue will be NATO’s future nuclear posture.

Germany’s Nuclear Quagmire

Against the background of Putin’s continued nuclear saber-rattling and the Russian doctrine of “de-escalating nuclear strikes” (meaning a limited number of smaller nuclear strikes to deter an adversary in case of an overwhelming conventional threat to the Russian territory), a small number of U.S. experts have pleaded for adjusting NATO’s nuclear strategy, perhaps by deploying new nuclear weapons to Europe.

Recalling the massive anti-NATO protests of the early 1980s in Germany, it does not take much imagination to see the current Merkel government terrified of such a scenario becoming reality. Germany’s already ambiguous stance towards nuclear weapons adds to the problem.

Germany has signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition, Berlin is a long-time advocate of nuclear arms control and supports calls for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the country takes part in NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements and roughly 20 U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bombs are still stationed at the German airbase of Büchel (approximately 180 more of these U.S. weapons are deployed in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). These weapons are under the full authority of the United States. In case of an Article V declaration by NATO, however, it would be German pilots and German Tornado fighter aircraft delivering the bombs.

Clearly, the lines between nuclear-sharing commitments and nuclear disarmament advocacy are blurred. The discussion in the German defense and foreign policy community reflects this uneasy dichotomy. Former Head of Planning Staff in the Federal Foreign Office, Frank Elbe, warned in 2014 of the nuclear risks associated with the new West–Russian clash, arguing for diplomatic efforts to strengthen nuclear arms control and asserting that NATO contributed to the escalation of the crisis. In contrast, the current Head of Energy Security at NATO, Michael Rühle, in a recent op-ed called for “rediscovering the concept of nuclear deterrence” and pointed out that “almost no one in Washington speaks of ‘global zero’ anymore.”

These internal German extremes are only exceeded by the different positions of NATO allies. The most obvious case is the future of the B-61. Given the outdated military value of these weapons and the 64-percent majority of Germans supporting withdrawal, different German governments have lobbied in Washington and Brussels for withdrawing the bomb. They have all failed, mostly due to the concerns of NATO’s easternmost allies who attach a highly symbolic/political value to the only American nuclear weapons currently stationed in Europe. As a result of NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, allies decided that the bombs remain in place. Even more sobering for German politicians, in January 2014, Congress agreed to fully fund an expensive, $10-billion upgrade for the bomb, with the new bombs (the B-61 mod. 12) being fielded in 2020.

Trouble on the Horizon

For Russia the U.S. modernization plans and the failed German calls for withdrawal are pure PR gold. “This could alter the balance of power in Europe,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned. “It would demand that Russia take necessary countermeasures to restore the strategic balance and parity.” With relish, Russian state-owned media outlet “Sputnik News” quoted from a 2010 Bundestag Resolution calling on the Federal Government to “urge American allies to withdraw nuclear weapons from Germany.”

While German politicians are trying to duck and cover, the next wave of U.S. modernization plans is already on the horizon. In Washington, the discussion about 1,000 to 1,100 new nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles is only unfolding.

If the Kremlin plays it well the dynamics between U.S. modernization plans and continued Russian nuclear intimidations could cause a lot of trouble for Germany and NATO in the upcoming years. The author of this article has therefore elsewhere argued for a NATO policy of “nuclear patience.” The real value of such a policy would be twofold: preventing Mr. Putin from employing his well-known divide-and rule tactics and avoiding a new all-time low in the complicated German–NATO relationship.


Ulrich Kühn is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (Germany). He coordinates the trilateral U.S.–Russian–German Deep Cuts Commissionand has been working for the German Federal Foreign Office. The views expressed here are his own. Twitter: @UliTKuehn.


Photo credit: Bundesregierung/Bergmann