German Atomwaffen and the Superweapon Trap

German Atomwaffen Image

Can nuclear weapons fix Germany’s or Europe’s complex security problems? That is what some German politicians across the political spectrum have proposed in the past few months. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, eminence grise of the Green Party, called for a European bomb in December of last year. The head of the liberal Free Democratic Party and current finance minister has proposed Germany contribute to a revised “Eurodeterrent.” Leading candidates for European Parliament from the Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats have joined in too.

In pitching nuclear weapons as a quick security fix-all, Germany’s foreign policy elites fall for what we call the superweapon trap: the seductive idea that a single weapons technology can resolve a country’s security dilemma. As international relations scholars have documented, the idea that superweapons can swiftly win wars or even secure perpetual peace has a long history of seduction. By acting as a powerful deterrent against enemies, this thinking goes, German (or “European”) Atomwaffen would simply shortcut the complicated business of security and defense policy.

Berlin should not fall for the bait. To develop and deploy a nuclear deterrent, even within a European institutional framework yet to be developed, German politicians would have to overcome their population’s misgivings about atomic bombs and legal commitments to the nonproliferation regime, including the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany that made reunification possible. Even then, a nuclear weapons program would be difficult to operate, flout international norms, and potentially worsen rather than improve German security. A German contribution to a French-led Eurodeterrent, though it might spare Berlin some of these difficulties, would face many of them nonetheless — in addition to credibility and control problems of its own.

A frank conversation about Germany’s status amidst today’s geopolitical change is long overdue. But a German nuclear weapons program (or a leading contribution to a European one) that does not carefully weigh the weapons’ complexities and dangers would be a regrettable way to start it.



Euro-Deterrence Revisited

European leaders have discussed German participation in a nuclear Eurodeterrent since the early Cold War. Charles de Gaulle quashed a late 1950s plan that offered Italy and Germany access to France’s then under development nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, French overtures and German replies to rethink the force de dissuasion’s role in common European security came to nothing, with either French or German leaders losing interest in turn. (In their review of the Eurodeterrent idea, researchers Benoît Pelopidas and Kyølv Egeland note these discussions were stymied by contradictions about who would control Franco-European nukes — Paris or? — in a confederated Europe that struggles with integrated common security.)

The presidency of Donald Trump kicked off another round of the debate, seconded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Citing Moscow’s aggression and Paris and London’s supposedly circumspect commitments to European security, influential political scientist Herfried Münkler launched the second strike last November by suggesting that Europeans develop their own nuclear weapons program. (Münkler’s plan would see a collective nuclear football passed from European capital to capital.) Fischer soon joined the call, adding to Münkler’s concerns that a re-elected Trump would withdraw or undermine America’s nuclear umbrella. In February, Liberal Party head and current German Finance Minister Christian Lindner wrote that French and British nuclear contributions to European security should indeed be “thought about more” — and Germany should consider its own contribution. European Parliament Spitzenkandidatinfor the Social Democrats Katarina Barley agreed that a Eurodeterrent should be explored, as did her opponent, the European People’s Party’s Manfred Weber.

Most arguments for a German Eurodeterrent, including those above, come in one of three forms. In the first, Germany develops its own nuclear weapons program, extending nuclear deterrence to all or some part of Europe. In a second, Germany adopts a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” developing only a latent nuclear weapons capacity. In the third, Germany finances a Eurodeterrent that uses non-German nuclear weapons (in most discussions, French or British), participating in or leading a European nuclear command and control. Although backlash has quickly emerged, a considerable swath of Germany’s mainstream elite appears to currently support one version or another of the idea, all the while its specifics — including how much Germany would contribute — remain murky.

These arguments also come at a time when German security and defense policy is increasingly vexed. For decades, Germany’s leaders have walked a tight, even tangled, line between nuclear disarmament and deterrence. Facing two competing pressures — public distaste for all things nuclear versus elite enthusiasm for NATO — Berlin has traditionally supported European arms control while participating, if rather quietly, in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. (This attempt to square the circle is sometimes called sowohl als auch — literally, “as well as,” but meaning “have it all ways.”) Berlin’s reliance on America’s extended deterrence also means, as Michal Onderco writes, that “German public opinion is, as a matter of fact, at odds with German policy.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned all that on its head, bringing German public opinion closer to the elites’ increasingly pro-nuclear policy preferences. In his Zeitenwende speech and elsewhere, Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that Germany must rely on its European partners and its own Bundeswehr for deterrence in an increasingly multipolar world. Scholz’s coalition pledged to increase Germany’s defense budget to meet NATO targets, and announced it would replace Germany’s old Tornado fighter jets with nuclear-capable F-35s. Recent opinion polling shows that, at least for the moment, a majority of Germans support Berlin’s continued participation in the American nuclear umbrella.

Two years after Scholz’s speech and despite a new defense minister widely judged as both affable and competent, however, conventional military reforms have proven costly, difficult, and contentious. Amidst this sobriety about Zeitenwende, a Eurodeterrent has made its way back onto the German policy menu. Could nuclear weapons provide a cheaper, quicker alternative to deterring aggression than slowly renovating an ailing Bundeswehr? What else could better secure Germany — or Europe — against Russian aggression than a homegrown atomic arsenal?

Why German Atomics Could Be Good

At first glance, the logic for German participation in an independent European nuclear deterrent is compelling. With its own nuclear weapons or shared control of European ones, Berlin could secure itself and its European partners against existential military threats. It could guard against the fallout from a second Trump presidency. It could project power and leadership in Europe and the European Union —either by jump-starting the stalling French-German “engine” of European integration, or, in the case of an independent German bomb, without the help of what many German elites perceive as an increasingly unpredictable, grandstanding partner in Paris. And it could do all this while shortcutting the long, hard path toward a sounder security strategy — the need for which the Zeitenwende has made clear to both outside observers and Germany’s leadership.

Following the above logic, we argue, means falling for the superweapon trap. Victims of the trap become convinced that a single weapons technology can save them from their problems. (Think of the “this one weird trick” ads — the simple solution nine out of 10 defense intellectuals don’t want you to know about.)

The superweapon trap is a subspecies of techno-utopian (or techno-optimist) thinking. If all human problems admit of technological solutions, technology can save us. Perhaps only technology can save us. Either way, the more technology, the merrier. And wherever warmaking and technology have been bedfellows, the superweapon trap has followed.

Falling for Superweapons

Articulations of quick-fix war technologies reach back to classical Greece. Niccolo Machiavelli expressed skepticismthat fortresses alone could protect a prince. The industrial revolution vastly increased weapons’ destructive power and range, spurring on the progressive idea that superweapons could, by virtue of their warmaking power, end all wars forever. Neil Renic calls this the “superweapon peace”: the “enduring idea that weapons of radical destructiveness can be harnessed as instruments for peace.” Everything from chemical weapons to submarines to airplanes have been candidates for the superweapon throne. (Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams argue that America’s fondness for war technologies makes it susceptible to superweapon thinking.)

But nuclear weapons stand alone, as of yet, in the extent of their promise. Bernard Brodie called them the “absolute weapon.” Prominent intellectuals like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Morgenthau argued that the bomb’s unprecedented destructiveness would bring about the end to all war in the form of a world state. Defense intellectuals developed the theory of rational deterrence to argue that planning for nuclear war could ensure one need never be fought. Associated ideas about how nuclear weapons produce peace, like the nuclear peace hypothesis or the nuclear revolution, are more nuanced versions of this thinking.

Nuclear weapons stand out as superweapons for understandable reasons. Tapping the “strong force” for explosive power, no conventional weapon can compete. All but the smallest nuclear devices are thousands of times more destructive than the largest conventional weapons.

The destructive efficiency of nuclear weapons means they promise value-for-money deterrence compared to the demands of conventional forces. In the United States, post-war policymakers saw nuclear weapons as a way to deter the Soviet Union at comparatively low financial and political cost. As Fred Kaplan notes in a recent book, President Dwight Eisenhower’s answer to the “great equation” — how to secure America’s post-war global presence without breaking the bank — was to invest in nuclear weapons. This logic underpinned NATO’s Cold War deterrence strategy, which saw the Soviet Union as a conventionally superior adversary deterrable only by the greater might of nuclear weapons. It can also explain Russia’s post-Cold War nuclear posture, which seeks to redress Russia’s conventional inferiority to NATO. And it gives a compelling explanation of why some outlier nuclear weapons states, such as Pakistan or North Korea, sought the bomb. Lacking the resources of their great-power rivals, they developed the only solution to their predicament: a credible nuclear deterrent. Pakistan’s former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto captured this logic by saying there is “no conventional alternative” to the atomic bomb.

Deterrence is at the core of current German discussions, which are oriented around Russian aggression and European security independence. The logic of NATO’s Cold War deterrence is what is attractive to a Eurodeterrent today: Nuclear deterrence would compensate for European or German conventional weakness. A compelling case can be made that nuclear deterrence has so far constrained both Russian and American actions in Ukraine. It may have also prevented Russia’s invasion from breaking out into a wider regional, or even great-power, war.

But nuclear weapons promise added benefits to atomic aspirants beyond Russian containment. Nuclear weapons could be used to coerce or compel other states. Their development and administration present governments with the opportunity to exert civilian control over the ultimate military asset. Investing in nuclear weapons as the centerpiece of a reworked national security strategy could keep Berlin firmly in the driver’s seat of a remilitarization program while giving it leverage abroad.

Some scholars note nuclear weapons also bring “symbolic” power. Like aircraft carriers or space programs, governments may build nuclear weapons because they confer prestige and status. On this account, the atomic bomb is something like the international system’s Birkin bag: irresistible to the status-seeker precisely because it is tough, even dangerous, to get. The historical record shows that France’s concerns over its declining grandeur drove its decision to nuclearize, and status concerns likewise played a role in the United Kingdom’s equivalent.

German participation in a Eurodeterrent, let alone an independent German nuclear program, would almost certainly affect Germany’s international status. It might regain parity with France and the United Kingdom under the auspices of defense in one fell swoop. Berlin could possibly assuage concerns about its remilitarization (understandable given Germany’s history) by taking a more assertive role in collective European security and helping extend nuclear deterrence to other European nations — alongside, or instead of, France.

Why German Atomics Would Be Bad

We believe the above, as seductive as it may be, is wishful thinking. Falling for the superweapon trap, Berlin’s decision-makers risk overlooking the uncertainties of nuclear deterrence, the operational and political costs of nuclear weapons programs, and wide-spread antinuclear sentiment among both political elites and the German public. As political scientists have repeatedly pointed out, the rational deterrence theory that underpins nuclear policy today abstracts from how people actually think. Humans are prone to a litany of cognitive biases that distort how they perceive information, weigh risks, and make decisions, especially under stress. Rational deterrence may also paradoxically rely on uncertainty or the “irrational” passions such as fear and revenge to work.

The historical record confirms this psychological critique. A problem with nuclear deterrence is that it occurs in messy, real-world contexts, not lab experiments or payoff matrices. Because deterrence always happens in a context, successful deterrence requires the right context, a “common frame of reference” where red lines and signals are mutually understood by all parties. Without that context, signals are misinterpreted, red lines misunderstood or discounted. In crisis after crisis, moves understood by one party to deter aggression were perceived as aggressive by the other. Summarizing the Cold War record, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein argue deterrence “is like a powerful but very dangerous medicine”: administer the wrong dose, and you might kill the patient. In a recent critique, Matthew Evangelista pushes this argument further: Nuclear deterrence then and now did not “work” as intended, but rather “heightened the danger of inadvertent war. That danger persists.” Other recent reviews agree.

These criticisms should give Germany’s policymakers pause. Our argument is not that deterrence, or even nuclear deterrence, never works. Rather, deterrence is far from automatic. Even the two most experienced nuclear weapons states, the United States and Soviet Union, misinterpreted deterrence practices in ways that often brought them closer to nuclear war, not away from it. While deterrence may be working in Ukraine, luck is likely playing a role, too. There’s room for trial and error in conventional deterrence. Nuclear deterrence’s margin of error is as small as they come. Can Berlin be sure it will always be operating in such a clear context, or get the dosage right?

Credibility Is Complicated

Berlin could still push ahead despite this mixed record. The possible benefits of security independence and an insurance policy against Russian aggression, the ruling coalition might say, are worth the risks. At this stage Berlin will encounter obstacles of a more administrative nature: the hard task of building, maintaining, and operating a nuclear weapons program in the complex European security context. Credible nuclear deterrence is not as simple as manufacturing a warhead (or even a dozen) and calling it a day. To be credible, nuclear weapons programs require organizations and operations that are costly, complicated, and difficult to maintain. This is the enriched fuel that keeps many nuclear weapons wonks spinning: From nuclear command and control and civilian oversight to posture, targeting, and planning, nuclear weapons operations are far from straightforward. The organizations responsible for nuclear weapons are furthermore prone to error, accident, inflexible routines, bureaucratic infighting, and interservice competition, supplying outcomes to leaders that serve organizational interests but may endanger national security.

Concurrently, Germany lacks the force structure, technology, expertise, and infrastructure needed for developing and maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent of its own. Berlin would have to revamp its native nuclear industry or acquire the needed material, know-how, and technology from elsewhere. Berlin may want to test its nuclear warheads for operational and credibility reasons, raising the issue of where it tests them and who they will impact. It would have to develop nuclear command and control, communications, and posture from scratch, integrating its proposed arsenals into retooled security, defense, and war plans. Although current discussions suggest a nuclear deterrent is a substitute for conventional one, the two will have to be reconciled so they do not work against one another. The kind of nuclear arsenal Germany develops — from warhead yield to delivery vehicles to what it targets — would have to synch with force posture and conventional defense strategy choices, such as confidence-building defense or forward deployment. Germany’s civilian and military leaders would have to plan, and therefore think carefully about, what it means to potentially wage nuclear war. These plans would be all the more complex under a European nuclear sharing or umbrella arrangement. Put simply, Germany’s security and defense thinking would be wholly remade — a Herculean task given Germany is currently struggling to overhaul even its conventional forces. (High profile articles last year described the Bundeswehr as somewhere between “dire,” “dismal,” and “has a long way to go.”)

Many of these technical issues admit technical solutions, up to a point. But Berlin would also face political hurdles, at home and abroad, that are difficult to manage away. The German government would have to renegotiate its security strategy within Europe, within NATO, and vis-a-vis France, all of whom may be reluctant or indeed hostile to the idea of a nuclear-armed Germany — even if it were constrained within European institutions.

Facing operational difficulties or taking its cue from Israel, Berlin could forgo a fully-fledged nuclear weapons program by pursuing one of the other two options often discussed: deliberate nuclear ambiguity or a German-led extended deterrence arrangement using French nuclear weapons. Nuclear ambiguity would likely be difficult given the dense institutionalized network of cooperation — the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — that Germany is committed to. And even nuclear latency, and the costs associated with it, would anger powerful domestic constituencies: not just the Greens but large majorities of German citizens. If German public opinion remains antinuclear, such a move would almost certainly spell the doom of the government coalition that sponsored it.

A French Eurodeterrent financed by Berlin presents an easier path to nuclear deterrence than an indigenous German nuclear program. It would spare German leaders many of the difficulties above, while substituting Paris’ nuclear arsenal for Washington’s potentially unreliable one. Barring dramatic geopolitical changes beyond Russia’s invasion or a Trump reelection, however, we believe there is little reason France (let alone the United Kingdom) would “donate” this strategic, organizational, and technological infrastructure to a shared European nuclear deterrent. Like some previous French presidents, Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly invited partners to join a strategic dialogue about the interlinkage between European security and French nuclear weapons (the latter could, he says, contribute to protecting the former). But his advisers also made clear these would be sensitive and lengthy discussions — and that France would not share command and control. Germany has so far not acceded to these talks. As in past discussions, the Franco-Eurodeterrent idea runs into the complications of nuclear sharing: with whom, under what conditions, and how.

Even if a Franco-German nuclear umbrella could be organized, it would suffer the same credibility uncertainties as all extended nuclear deterrence. It would ask, in effect, whether French leaders would be willing to trade Berlin for Paris(let alone Narva) in the face of a Russian attack. According to German researcher Ulrich Kühn, speaking as a guest on Thinking the Unthinkable, “that’s just not what the French are thinking on this issue, since decades. They do not think in terms of extended deterrence.” Such a French-led Eurodeterrent would also still require some kind of German contribution — certainly to its budget, but perhaps also to its infrastructure, delivery systems, command and control, and even underlying doctrine, which would have to be redeveloped within a European framework.

To pursue any of these options, German leaders would have to substantially reshape their country’s post-war anti-nuclear public so that a nuclear weapons program can be sustained once the fighting in Ukraine stops. We wonder if Russia’s invasion, or even a hypothetical U.S. withdrawal from nuclear security guarantees, is a sufficient driver for such reshaping. An unpopular, elite-driven policy might also deepen the democratic deficit that splits European voters from their elites and which has fueled reactionary populism across the continent, as Pelopidas and Egeland suggest.

Last but not least, Berlin would likely violate international nonproliferation norms in which it has played a leading role. Even in the case of a shared Eurodeterrent, Germany’s policymakers would need to reformulate, repeal, or simply sit in violation of the Nonproliferation and Two Plus Four treaties, both of which commit Germany to non-nuclear weapons status. When Ukraine and Kazakhstan inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union, they normalized relations with the West and pursued national paths and identities centered on nonproliferation. Germany would in effect be doing the reverse: abandoning a half-century old nonproliferation identity and, in the case of an independent nuclear weapons program, even moving toward pariah status.

The Difficult Way Ahead

None of the above is a hardened target. Current events — the Zeitenwende, even — remind us that geopolitics, alliances, public opinion, and even national identities are malleable. Enterprising individuals may take advantage of fluid, uncertain times such as ours to introduce new modes and orders. Of course, enterprising politicians or public intellectuals may well choose to propose nuclear armament regardless of the associated costs and constraints — not because they are ignorant of them, but because they view doing so as a quick way to elevate their public profiles and security chops ahead of European and domestic elections.

But there is nothing more difficult, Machiavelli reminds us in The Prince, than putting oneself at the head of introducing such new orders. In politics then as now, innovation does not come easy to the innovator.

They are right in one key way, though: Berlin now faces an opportunity to reimagine its national security. Should Germany’s leaders be willing to grasp it — and mounting evidence indicates they may not — we implore them to weigh dearly whether the high costs of a nuclear program are worth its supposed benefits. The atomic option may seem a seductive, because straightforward, way ahead. But Germany may be better served if its elites focus on reforming its conventional security strategy, not wishfully thinking about quick fixes and superweapon dreams.



Gustav Meibauer is an assistant professor at Radboud University Nijmegen. He studies foreign and security policy decision-making, with a particular focus on quick fixes, shortcuts, and heuristics. He has written about the politics of security policy for outlets such as LSE US American Politics and Policy, the RUSI-Newsbrief or the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, as well as in a recent popular science volume on Deutschlands Verteidigungspolitik: Nationale Sicherheit nach der Zeitenwende (2023, Kohlhammer).

Christopher David LaRoche is an assistant professor at Central European University and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He studies international security architecture and institutions, and has written on nuclear weapons at, among others, Foreign Policy and the Duck of Minerva.

Image: Midjourney