Germany’s Dangerous Nuclear Flirtation
Opening a debate on German nuclear armament, as some are advocating, would be the geopolitical equivalent of walking into checkmate. Rather than discuss a scenario that would damage the strategic environment in Europe, leaders should instead focus on reinforcing military alliances and strengthening conventional capabilities.
BERLIN – As in a game of chess, there are geopolitical moves through which a country can – unwittingly – checkmate itself. Opening a debate on German nuclear weapons would be such a move. Yet this is exactly what some Germans have recently proposed. Supporters of a nuclear-armed Germany contend that NATO’s nuclear umbrella has lost all credibility because of statements made by US President Donald Trump.
There are at least three good reasons why considering a nuclear option would be foolhardy for Germany. For starters, Germany has repeatedly renounced it, first in 1969 by signing (and later ratifying) the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and then in 1990 by signing the so-called Two Plus Four Treaty, which paved the way for German reunification.
Casting doubt on these commitments would severely damage Germany’s reputation and reliability worldwide. Germany would call into question the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrence, and thus the alliance itself, along with the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime.
It is worth noting that since its creation in 1949, NATO has been one of the world’s most successful instruments of proliferation prevention. Not a single NATO member state – apart from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France – has found it necessary to acquire nuclear weapons of its own.
If Germany were now to break out of its non-nuclear power status, what would keep Turkey or Poland, for instance, from following suit? Germany as a gravedigger of the international non-proliferation regime – who could want that?
Second, a German nuclear bomb would damage the strategic environment in Europe – to Germany’s disadvantage. Russia would interpret German steps toward a nuclear arsenal as a direct threat to its own national security and would likely adopt military countermeasures. That, in turn, would make it even harder to pursue the vision of a pan-European order of peace and security, a core foreign-policy goal of all German governments since that of Konrad Adenauer. Moreover, a German nuclear ambition might jeopardize the delicate balance of power in Europe – including between Germany and France, for example – with incalculable consequences for the long-term cohesion of the European Union.
Finally, it is not hard to predict that the pursuit of nuclear weapons would draw significant public opposition, especially given that such a move would be a complete about-face for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which, just a few years ago, moved to phase out nuclear energy altogether. It is difficult to imagine a greater fiasco for German foreign and security policy than proposing a nuclear strategy and then failing to obtain parliamentary approval.
There are smarter long-term ways to bolster Europe’s nuclear defense than introducing a German bomb. For example, France might be willing to consider playing an extended nuclear-deterrence role, along with the roles of the US and the United Kingdom within NATO. While this would require a fundamental reorientation and Europeanization of France’s nuclear strategy, Germany and other European partners could offer financial contributions to such an initiative, in the context of a future European defense union with a nuclear component. But these are, at best, long-term options.
In short, no matter what Trump says, Germany will remain dependent on the US nuclear umbrella for the foreseeable future.
The best way to maintain NATO’s credibility and be taken seriously by the US is to work seriously toward the alliance’s 2%-of-GDP target for defense spending and to invest more heavily in conventional military capabilities, not to satisfy US demands, but to protect our own security and defense interests. But this is not simply about spending more; it is about spending more intelligently, particularly by pooling and sharing capabilities, and by systematic joint procurement with France and other European partners, including through the recently established EU Defense Fund.
None of this will work if Germany will not start defining military strategy, security, and defense as top political priorities. Only then will the Bundestag be able to give the Bundeswehr – often referred to as a “parliamentary army” – what it needs to do its job. The alternative – considering the development of nuclear weapons – would be a game-losing move.
Trump’s War of Choice
For Donald Trump, the Iran nuclear deal was always an impediment to regime change, rather than a boon to nuclear disarmament. But by scrapping the agreement and reinstating sanctions, Trump risks leaving the Middle East even worse off than George W. Bush's presidency did.
TEL AVIV – President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was not his first departure from a key international agreement. From the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris climate accord, tearing up multilateral frameworks has become a Trump specialty.
But even by Trump’s standards, exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, is a bridge too far. The move is already being compared to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempt to reshape the Middle East through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Bush’s military misadventures, Trump’s approach to the region carries enormous risks, not least because it has buried whatever was left of the transatlantic alliance in the chasm separating America’s power politics and Europe’s emphasis on diplomacy.
Trump’s move is not just about curbing Iran’s weapons of mass destruction. Rather, his objective is regime change, something he apparently hopes to achieve by draining the Islamic Republic’s economic and strategic resources. By reinstating sanctions, Trump is all but begging the Iranian people – who will bear the brunt of the sanctions’ pain – to rise up against their government.
Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA has left Iran with two options, neither of them good. The first is to renegotiate the agreement with the remaining signatories – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already hinted at this possibility, but his ability to deliver could be limited when sanctions return. Forced to choose, European companies would sacrifice business in Iran to maintain access to the American market. And, as Iran’s economy falters, Iranians will seek to apportion blame.
The second option is no better. Iran’s reformists could capitulate to hardliners, scrap the JCPOA altogether, resume nuclear activities, and accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program. This would all but guarantee that Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations – with America’s blessing, if not complicity. At that point, Iran would feel free to redeploy its proxies against Israel, starting with Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. And this could lead to a broader conflagration involving other US allies in the region, including the Saudis and other Sunni Arab powers.
Unfortunately, the outcome to avoid is the very one that Israel’s leadership seems keen to bring about. Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Iran of cheating on the nuclear deal. At the time, Netanyahu’s bizarre presentation – in English, no less – met with derision in the West. Now it looks like a prelude.
In fact, the Netanyahu-Trump tag team – which is largely responsible for the scuttling of the nuclear deal – is an explosive alliance of two narcissists who have allowed dysfunctional domestic politics to dictate their international behavior. In Trump’s case, the goal seems to be systematic deconstruction of President Barack Obama’s legacy, for no other reason than to be true to his electoral campaign (which, in a sense, has never ended).
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is enamored of his carefully honed image as the savior of the Jewish people from a second Holocaust. With his own political fortunes clouded by legal troubles that could lead to his indictment, warmongering has become a strategy to win reelection. In fact, support for Trump in Israel reached a record high after his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, and following Israel’s massive military strike against Iranian targets in Syria. Netanyahu’s tactics also conveniently distract international attention from the Palestinian problem, which is coming to a head again.
Israel has the strongest military in the Middle East, but Netanyahu must not be allowed to use it for his own political gain. Israel last fought an interstate war in 1973, and the trauma of that fight still lingers. Moreover, military strength alone has done little to safeguard the country’s borders. The “Begin Doctrine,” Israel’s preventive-strike strategy for maintaining a regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, has not led to fewer rocket attacks from Israel’s Iranian-backed foes.
Only robust international diplomacy can halt the Middle East’s slide toward nuclear proliferation. Even without the US, the JCPOA’s remaining signatories can salvage the agreement’s central tenets by supporting Iran’s moderate leaders in mitigating the effects of new sanctions. The deal’s remaining supporters can also help defuse the crisis on Israel’s northern border, where Israeli and Iranian forces are already engaging each other directly.
In order to reach a new deal that ensures Iran’s continued denuclearization, puts its ballistic missile program under surveillance, and encourages a less hostile foreign policy, both sanctions and regime change must be taken off the table. Trump will most likely hear the same message from his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, ahead of the two leaders’ planned summit in June.
The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the type of “grand bargain” Iran proposed to the Bush administration in May 2003. Bush rejected the offer, vowing never to talk with a member of the “axis of evil.” As Vice President Dick Cheney put it in reference to North Korea – another member of that fanciful “axis” – Americans “don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”
But by trading diplomacy for saber-rattling, the Bush administration slammed the door on a solution with Iran. Today, as Trump embraces the same tactics, it’s hard to fathom how the outcome will be any different.
A New Era of Nuclear Uncertainty
After weeks of positive diplomatic developments on the Korean Peninsula, Donald Trump has followed through on his longstanding vow to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The decision threatens to deepen the chaos in the Middle East and undermine nuclear-nonproliferation efforts worldwide.
AACHEN – With the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – US President Donald Trump’s administration has demonstrated, yet again, that it is determined to destroy major global structures and agreements. The decision will be a massive blow to the 2015 deal, putting the entire world at risk.
The JCPOA – the result of years of difficult negotiations – was agreed by seven countries and the European Union, and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Yet Trump has decided unilaterally to impose “the highest level of economic sanction” on Iran and on “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons.”
Now, companies and banks from countries that have lived up to their commitments under the JCPOA stand to suffer considerably, as a result of their legitimate business ties with Iran. In other words, the country that is breaking its promises has decided to punish those that have kept theirs.
The JCPOA can still be salvaged. All of the other parties to the agreement have already reaffirmed their commitment to it. But the EU, in particular, must step up to take responsibility for ensuring that the JCPOA survives. While transatlantic relations are a high priority, so is defending multilateralism – and all of its milestones – from reckless and unjustifiable attacks. This is all the more true when those attacks aim not to put “America First,” but to put Trump first.
Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has come at a particularly sensitive moment for international relations. For one thing, nuclear proliferation remains at the top of the agenda on the Korean Peninsula. While some positive steps have lately been taken, the Trump administration, with its incoherent policy approach, may yet squander this opportunity.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss a formal peace agreement to end the Korean War. The Moon-Kim meeting was a prelude to another extraordinary summit, between Kim and Trump, which will take place on June 12.
The first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president reflects the significant progress that has been made in the space of just a few months. Lest we forget, 2018 began with Kim and Trump exchanging threats for the umpteenth time, and with Trump going so far as to boast about the size of his “nuclear button.”
Since then, however, the US has relied on diplomacy rather than bombast in handling the North Korean nuclear threat – an approach that has enabled recent progress. And yet, just as newly confirmed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was flying to North Korea to meet Kim for a second time, Trump reverted to his antagonistic modus operandi with regard to Iran.
Negotiating with Kim was always going to be extremely challenging, especially given that North Korea, unlike Iran, already possesses nuclear weapons. With America’s diplomatic credibility now undermined by Trump’s violation of the JCPOA, that job will be all the more difficult.
Trump tends to express himself in terms of national interests, sovereignty, military capacities, and economic supremacy. Yet his fixation with Iran has little to do with realpolitik. Rather, it is in keeping with his systematic rejection of all policies associated with his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Beyond that, his JCPOA withdrawal is meant to please Trump’s two favorite allies in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Israel – the first two countries he visited as president.
Indeed, when Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, visited the White House in March, Trump quickly dispensed with the thorny question of the Saudi-led war in Yemen by denouncing Iranian support for the Houthi rebels. Rather than take the diplomatic initiative to end the fighting and restore stability in Yemen, the Trump administration has continued to fan the flames of an ongoing Saudi-Iranian proxy war that is causing untold suffering and roiling the region.
Similarly, next week the US will move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump’s announcement of the move in December already generated great unease in the Muslim world (though Iran’s protests were more aggressive than Saudi Arabia’s). The fact that the embassy will be opened precisely on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence will only intensify the controversy. On the following day, Palestinians will mark the Nakba (“catastrophe”), commemorating the mass displacement of the Palestinian population that resulted from the establishment of the State of Israel.
To be sure, the US’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel are not new. But Trump has abandoned the previous administration’s more moderate approach, and thus risks opening a Pandora’s box in the Middle East. Hawks in both countries are now emboldened, as evidenced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eccentric attempt to discredit the JCPOA. The same holds true for Iran, where Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA plays directly into the hands of hardliners.
The current state of affairs does not bode well for the situation in Syria, where all of the region’s powers have a stake. Israeli and Iranian forces have already clashed in southern Syria, and Netanyahu’s government is now threatening further action in response to reports that Russia may furnish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA will almost certainly fuel the downward spiral of confrontation in the Middle East, while further complicating matters on the Korean Peninsula. More broadly, Trump’s decision could have serious implications for global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, which now face the prospect of backsliding. The stakes in the weeks and months to come could not be higher.
Trump Is in Denial About North Korea
US President Donald Trump's insistence that negotiations with North Korea are "going well" is directly contradicted by US intelligence findings about the country's nuclear program. Trump needs to put substance ahead of spectacle – and US allies ahead of his own fragile ego – before it is too late.
ATLANTA – No one yet knows what deals US President Donald Trump may have struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their private two-hour meeting in Helsinki. But it is already clear that Trump’s self-congratulations for striking a deal to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula during his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un are ringing hollow. In addition to backsliding in its working-level negotiations with the United States, the Kim regime has continued to solidify its position as a nuclear-weapons state. The master of the Kremlin is sure to have taken note of this.
North Korea specialists have long been skeptical that Kim would ever give up his nuclear arsenal, and recent evidence supports their judgment. Reports citing US intelligence officials indicate that the North is pressing ahead with its nuclear-weapons program, by ramping up missile and enriched-uranium production and concealing the size of its nuclear inventory.
Anyone who has followed affairs on the Korean Peninsula has seen this movie before. After all, Kim’s father and grandfather wrote the script decades ago. Since the 1970s, the Kims’ regime has repeatedly expressed its desire for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, signed non-proliferation agreements, and negotiated with the US and South Korea – all while pursuing its nuclear-weapons program. In this latest rerun, Kim has even reused his father’s special effects. In May, he blew up a nuclear test site with the same cinematic flair that Kim Jong-il displayed when he dynamited a nuclear reactor’s cooling tower ten years ago.
Compared to Kim’s well-rehearsed theatrics, the Trump administration’s performance has been a flop. After threatening North Korea with total destruction last year, Trump made a major concession to Kim by agreeing to attend the summit in June. While there, he demonstrated that neither he nor his administration had a strategy for getting Kim to make good on any deal. Making matters worse, Trump has continued to insist that follow-up talks with the North are “going well,” even though US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last visit to Pyongyang ended with a round of mutual recrimination.
Behind the crumbling façade of Trump’s misrepresentations is an administration that remains divided on its primary policy goals. In light of the intelligence community’s latest assessment about the North’s continued enrichment activities, those divisions are likely to have deepened. For his part, Pompeo has already backpedaled on earlier US demands, by softening his language on the fraught issue of inspections and verification. And US officials have hinted that a further softening in the administration’s position is on the way.
Meanwhile, other White House officials have taken a harder line. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has called for not only denuclearization, but also rapid disarmament of all of North Korea’s unconventional weapons. This month, Bolton even claimed to have a plan for dismantling all of North Korea’s nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons programs within a year.
Trump prefers top-down decision-making, so it remains to be seen how he will respond to intelligence reports about the North’s duplicity. At any rate, now that the US has shared its intelligence with Japan, South Korea, and other allies, political leaders and military officials in those countries have reason to be anxious. For Japan and South Korea, in particular, the contradictions between Trump’s rhetoric and his own intelligence services’ findings are becoming a source of serious concern.
Equally worrying is Trump’s unpredictable behavior toward US allies. Officials in Tokyo and Seoul closely followed Trump’s blustering appearance at a NATO meeting this month, because they, too, have been on the receiving end of his attacks over military spending. Trump has pushed both governments to boost their military budgets, and he has long mused about withdrawing US forces from South Korea. At the Singapore summit, he even agreed to suspend US military exercises with South Korea – another major concession to the North – further unsettling America’s Asian allies.
Trump’s silence on the latest North Korea intelligence – to say nothing of his siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies on charges of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election – will further deepen allies’ anxieties. Ignoring North Korea’s deceptions directly undermines the security of Japan and South Korea. Though the Kim regime is still working toward nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental US, it already has fully operational medium-range missiles that can strike its neighbors. And, because Japan and South Korea both host US military bases, they are at the top of the North’s nuclear target list.
Trump may not like it, but he must call out Kim’s duplicity, especially given the latest intelligence. Among other things, the North is accelerating production of solid-fuel rocket engines and an ICBM-armed submarine. Both technologies would bolster the North’s ability to launch a surprise attack, by making its nuclear arsenal more durable, mobile, and easily concealed. The Kim regime’s ongoing efforts in this area make clear that it has no intention of scrapping its nuclear program.
White House officials are now suggesting that Trump could use the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September to hold another meeting with Kim, as if rekindling the two leaders’ “bromance” will lead to serious negotiations. It won’t. Instead, Trump needs to put substance before spectacle, above all by confronting Kim with the latest intelligence findings. Platitudes about denuclearization are one thing; serious arms-control efforts to reduce the risks on the Korean Peninsula are quite another. The Trump administration must think very carefully about its next steps.