Anyone who stumbled upon the online editions of the esteemed German news outlet Die Welt from yesterday and the day before were shocked – to say the least. First, the reader would have come across an article – featured for a few short hours – which considered the possibility of nuclearizing Germany, and called attention to uncertainties in Donald Trump’s defense alliance policy. Following that – certainly with less astonishment – the reader would have run into an editorial that considered the idea of a nuclear Germany as tragic and disastrous. Finally, elsewhere among the articles about history, another story had the following title: “Adenauer, However, Wanted Atomic Weaponry for the Federal Army.”
This issue is not new and it has been a recurrent theme in the international press (both in the German and English press), especially since Trump’s election. In any case, the mere mention of such a matter was obviously unexpected since, in 2011, after the disaster in Fukushima, Germany announced it would phase out nuclear power by 2022. That decision came from Angela Merkel, a professional physicist and Environment and Nuclear Safety minister during the final years of Helmut Kohl’s term in office. To those familiar with German society and who recognize the importance of "ecological” movements and the sensitivity of the eastern environmental issue, the decision to phase-out nuclear power plants does not come as a surprise. Actually, it is shocking, for those and for many other historical and political reasons, that there could be a discussion – even if only hypothetically – about creating a nuclear-based military power. It would certainly be rejected by a majority of the population, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons forbids it. One thing is certain: Germany has the scientific, technical and financial means to quickly assemble a successful nuclear weapons program. Not to mention that the “creators” of the first atomic bomb were, for the most part, German scientists living in America.
The way that this issue is being dealt with seems – and will almost certainly be – implausible. However, it does confront us with a useful and convenient exercise, especially if we consider Trump’s position regarding NATO and European defense, the emergence of Brexit and the European Union’s recent developments regarding defense.
Trump, following in the steps of his predecessors – but in a much more assertive and uncompromising way – has been emphasizing the increase in defense spending by the European allies. Although he speaks erratically, Trump has gone further than his predecessors by suggesting that Europe should defend itself, and, with respect to certain cases (i.e., Montenegro and the Baltics), the U.S. may not be able to comply with the obligation of solidarity under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. This position, combined with a hostility toward the EU and Germany, in particular, has led Europeans to believe they cannot count on U.S. military protection anymore. During the opening speech for the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament in Munich at the beginning of June, Merkel said it loud and clear: “Home alone.” Overall, during the usual press conference that precedes vacation, she was very clear when she stated that there is a new geopolitical context in which Europe can no longer count on American protection, which has resulted in further development of Germany’s self-defense.
The point here is to find out whether the American president’s strategy will have counterproductive effects. Even setting aside the nuclear power issue, at least for now, the question we must ask is this: Is America really interested in having European states, especially Germany, taking responsibility for their defense? Won’t Trump’s rhetoric that each state should pay its own bill and the consequences of each state looking out for themselves make room for the rearmament of medium to large European countries? Wouldn’t it be more convenient to make it clear that the inevitable increase in financial contribution will never exempt a normal operational framework? Wouldn’t Germany, with defense spending of 2 percent or more, being fully rearmed (even considering only conventional methods), seriously alter the European political balance? Wouldn’t that alter Germany’s absolute economic supremacy and particularly its disproportional commercial surplus more than it already does? By leaving Europe to its own devices under pressure from the potential Russian threat, isn’t Trump providing an argument for the resurgence of European military polarization?
Still, with regard to setting the EU's defense policy according to its Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defense and Security framework, these questions may arise. The creation of a true defense union – which is an old and never achieved ambition – has always had, as one of its motivations, a “transnational” framework with respect to Germany's rearmament. Progress in the area of defense cannot, and should never, overlook this motivation, for there is a risk that shifts in balance may be harder to compensate for in a new geopolitical context. It is not for nothing that Germany supports the creation of a seat for the EU on the United Nations Security Council. It is precisely because that would be the fastest path to creating a Teutonic position inside the Council.
The idea of a nuclear Germany seems odd. However, simply considering it makes us realize we are at the mercy of a transition. If America were to consider a nuclear Germany, it could reduce and correct some of its most recent isolationist impulses, to the benefit of everyone, Germans, Europeans and Americans included.