New arms race As nuclear treaties dissolve, Germany wakes up to new responsibilities

Russia and the US have announced plans to abandon a nuclear weapons treaty and the Germans are fretting – and calling yet again for closer European cooperation on defense.
Source: Imago
Who's the boss?

Source: Imago

The announcement by the United States and Russia that they both plan to abandon a key nuclear arms limitation agreement has stoked German fears of a revived nuclear arms race. In a weekend newspaper interview, foreign minister Heiko Maas said both sides should urgently renegotiate new upper limits on strategic nuclear weapons: “Otherwise we could see a domino effect.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on both countries to use the time before the agreement – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, more commonly known as the INF pact - expires to find a new way forward. Merkel has also called for closer European cooperation on defense issues recently.

Her call was echoed by Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee: “The six month window must be used to stop the slide from disarmament to an arms race between the nuclear powers,” he said.

Additionally senior parliamentarians from the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats issued a joint statement in which they called for Russia to station any new missiles out of range of Europe. In return, they suggested, the Americans could open missile defense stations for Russian inspections.

Russia and the US have already accused each other of breaching the arms control treaty. The INF pact, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, bans the deployment of medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. The US says Russia is developing new missiles in breach of the agreement, while Russia says US missile defense systems are a violation. Now both countries say they will abandon the accord.

The crisis comes just two weeks before the opening of the annual Munich Security Conference, the world’s most important gathering of security experts and policy makers. The collapse of the INF is certain to dominate discussion, not least because of European anxieties set off by the US and Russian decision.

Germany could stop 'downward spiral'

Speaking to Handelsblatt, Wolfgang Ischinger, the chair of the conference and a former German ambassador to Washington, said Europe should engage in a two-pronged strategy. It should bolster its conventional defenses while also supporting negotiations to reduce the risk of a nuclear arms race: “There is a downward spiral here and someone has to try to stop it,” he said.

Ischinger believes that Europeans have been too complacent about the risks of escalating tensions. “A lot of people haven’t noticed, or they have underestimated the risks. Even in Berlin there are a few people who don’t see the seriousness of the situation… in the face of so many crises and risks the calmness that Angela Merkel is radiating, as if there’s nothing unusual really going on, is particularly noticeable.”

Just holding speeches doesn’t mean anything will get done, Ischinger argued. Germany has to face up to the reality of the dangerous security situation now facing the world. “I’m no pessimist, but we have to face facts. We are facing an incurable political disease: the collapse of the existing international order.”

This did not mean Germany or Europe were powerless, he added. But Europe needed a more coherent policy-making environment. This should begin with majority voting on defense and foreign policy issues in the European Union: Germany should take the lead on this, he suggested. A recent case where Germany acted unilaterally to deny further arms experts to Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a good example of how not to do this, Ischinger explained. EU rules currently require unanimous agreement on these kinds of issues. “I wished that the German government had kept negotiating in Brussels long enough to formulate a common European line on this, one that would be enacted with a majority decision,” the former diplomat argues.  

In recent months, the German government has called for a revision of EU treaties to allow security decisions to be taken by qualified majority. Chancellor Merkel has also suggested the establishment of a European Security Council, which would allow for quicker decision-making.

Ischinger said Germany and France should coordinate their policies in order to push through these measures. He also welcomed the German foreign minister’s recent proposal for wider security affiliations with friendly nations, like Canada and Japan.

With US-European relations worse than at any time in decades, the Munich Security Council chair said he hoped this year’s security conference could make a difference in repairing the friendship. He said he welcomed the large Congressional delegation which will attend, and looked forward to “intensive dialogue” to improve the trans-Atlantic atmosphere.

The interview with Wolfgang Ischinger was conducted by Torsten Riecke, who covers international economics and politics for Handelsblatt. To contact him:  [email protected]