After being ruled by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its junior coalition partners since 2005, Germany is set for Vice-Chancellor and Finance minister Olaf Scholz to become its first Social Democratic Chancellor in 16 years. As the Social Democrats (SPD), the Green and the FDP came out of the 2021 federal election with enough seats in the Bundestag to form a new cabinet, they have announced a “traffic light” coalition, with Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock in the position of Foreign minister. Even though the SPD and the FDP have at various times been members of some of Merkel’s cabinets, they will now be able to set Germany’s foreign policy without being constrained by the CDU’s strong and inflexible commitment to NATO. As the three future governing parties have concluded their negotiations for the terms of their coalition, they seem bound to change some elements of what had previously been Merkel’s careful and stable security strategy. But could they really go as far as impacting NATO’s—and Canada’s—security?
Since the SPD wishes for a more independent European Union in regard to security and the Greens desire an “overhaul of NATO,” this hot take aims to review the potential changes that could or will be introduced by the “traffic light” coalition to Germany’s foreign policy and how they could impact NATO’s cohesion on issues such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), nuclear sharing, and the 2% NATO defence-spending goal. In doing so, it argues that the main impact Scholz’s incoming cabinet will have on Canada’s security could be to initiate new rifts within the trans-Atlantic alliance. The FDP’s presence in the coalition, and internal disagreements within the SPD, however, force the two main partners toward moderation and the status quo, by preventing the implementation of their more radical campaign diplomatic proposals.
The Looming Rift Over the TPNW
The TPNW is the first legally binding agreement that bans nuclear weapons and seeks their total elimination. Adopted on July 7th, 2017, by the United Nations General Assembly, it became effective on January 22nd, 2021, and currently has 86 signatories and 56 states that are considered parties. While it is backed by a significant portion of the international community, the treaty has yet to receive support from members of NATO: indeed, it is considered by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and German’s outgoing government as being “a distraction from arms control talks that actually include nuclear powers.” The trans-Atlantic alliance has so far completely rejected the treaty as “it does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture” and it considers itself, as long as nuclear weapons exist, to be a nuclear alliance. NATO’s “corporate line” is straightforward: the TPNW is not productive and should not be signed. The “traffic light” coalition will, however, choose to ignore this and join the treaty as an observer. Joining the TPNW was part of both the SDP and the Greens’ election platforms; the Greens have even previously introduced in the Bundestag a motion to call on the government to do exactly that. This was in sharp contrast with the outgoing CDU-dominated government, which criticized “the ban treaty’s inherent weaknesses” and its “alleged incompatibility with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”
For this reason, the incoming coalition’s agreement on joining the TPNW as an observer is set to initiate a new rift within NATO. To start, as an observer of the prohibition treaty, the country’s “nuclear deterrent role would seem to be precluded” at least in principle, which could in the future impact nuclear sharing. As NATO works by consensus, it might also immobilize the alliance on this issue, while giving cover for other members to follow suit, such as Norway and even, potentially, the Netherlands, which had voted against the treaty. Those countries have strong anti-nuclear domestic sentiments that have so far been ignored by their ruling governments. It follows that a German signature will also significantly increase the treaty’s value and influence, which were previously “diminished by the fact that the nine nuclear states — and all Washington’s European allies — have refused to endorse it.” In any case, beyond the Western split it will initiate within NATO, it will also considerably increase the pressure on Canada both to follow suit or to stay the course. Canada has so far called the treaty “premature,” even with a poll indicating that 73% of Canadians believe their country should join the treaty despite U.S. opposition. Conceivably, this could be an occasion for Canada to strengthen its commitment to its American ally. NATO unity is one of the Liberal government’s main objectives in the face of authoritarianism. The loss in cohesion within the trans-Atlantic alliance, and the associated weakening of its deterrent power and its members’ security, mean that there would be significant consequences for Canada’s security if the new German government does go forward on this issue.
Will Germany Eventually Abandon NATO’s Nuclear Sharing?
Germany, along with Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, is part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement and hosts up to 20 of the United States’ B-61 nuclear gravity bombs at Büchel Air Base. Those can be carried by German Tornado IDS dual-capable aircrafts in case of a crisis and are considered to be an integral part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture. This posture is, fundamentally, the “supreme guarantee” of security for the alliance’s members. Repeatedly, allies and NATO members have stressed the importance of Germany’s participation in this defence compact, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg published an opinion piece affirming that its “support for nuclear sharing is vital to protect peace and freedom,” and “for the security of the whole alliance, for Germany, its neighbours, friends and Allies, who all have legitimate security concerns and who are all protected by NATO’s nuclear deterrent.” More recently, he has affirmed that nuclear sharing also “gives also a country like Germany a seat at the table.”
This public relations campaign is directly linked to the incoming government’s nuclear policies. While the result of the coalition talks was a new commitment to preserving nuclear sharing, it remains questionable whether or not this will hold in the future. In 2010, the Bundestag passed a nonpartisan resolution requesting that the government work toward removing all nuclear weapons from the country’s territory. Since then, Russian hostility and the CDU’s hold on power—and commitment to nuclear sharing—had previously prevented such a move from being a serious possibility. The Greens and the SPD’s 2021 election platforms, however, did call for the “removal of the U.S. bombs from German soil.” This had led to growing concerns from Germany’s allies. These concerns might be momentarily appeased by the coalition’s decision to maintain the status quo, but they will only be reignited by Germany’s accession to the TPNW, as it bans countries from stationing foreign nuclear weapons on their countries. It thus creates a fundamental tension within Germany’s foreign policy that will eventually have to be resolved. Furthermore, the rejection of nuclear sharing is embraced by a growing number of politicians in Germany, such as Rolf Mützenich, chairman of the SPD in the Bundestag, and many others, meaning that its potential consequences need to be assessed as domestic support increases. A state withdrawing from nuclear sharing is not without precedent: the last American warheads were removed from Canada in 1984. The current context in the case of Germany, however, is different. NATO’s nuclear sharing serves two twin goals: the “protection of allies” and the “projection of military power.” As it has become perceived as being key in deterring aggression from Russia due to the importance of nuclear weapons in Russian strategic thinking, the abandonment of nuclear sharing could seriously harm Germany’s standing within the coalition, incite divisions between countries that are perceived to contribute to the shared defence and those who are accused of not contributing enough, and diminish its influence.
Three great concerns trump all others. First, there is a fear that it could lead to other nuclear sharing countries also requesting the weapons’ removal as the arrangement was in great part due to Germany’s role in NATO. This would cripple the trans-Atlantic alliance’s capabilities. Second, in reaction to the potential pursuit of this policy by the incoming coalition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also declared that “U.S. nuclear weapons may end up in Eastern Europe if Germany rejects them.” The extension of the nuclear sharing to states such as Poland and the Baltic countries would antagonize Russia even more by bringing more nuclear weapons to its doorstep. Third, it would mean that the alliance is divided and weakened due to resentment against Germany for not doing enough. Within that context, such a possibility would have significant security implications for Canada. As a member of NATO, the alliance’s relationship with Russia and other neighbours directly affects its foreign policy. As an ally of the United States, secured by its nuclear umbrella, Canada has a direct stake in ensuring that NATO remains a unified and stable partnership—for its own good. While the result of the coalition talks means that Germany will remain, for now, in nuclear sharing, a future hypothetical exit remains of great potential consequence for NATO’s cohesion as it would certainly be perceived by Washington—and a hypothetical second Trump White House—as a betrayal. Thus, the coalition agreement’s recommitment to nuclear deterrence, designed to dissipate allies’ concerns, is significant in itself as a positive development for Canada’s security.
Giving Up the 2% Defence-Spending Goal
Since 2014, NATO members are committed to a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in spending being dedicated to defence costs “to ensure the Alliance’s military readiness.” It is said that the guideline “serves as an indicator of a country’s political will to contribute to NATO’s common defence efforts.” Germany has yet to meet this target, but the previous Merkel cabinets had all reaffirmed their commitment to reaching that goal by 2031. Likewise, Canada has not met the target yet, while the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Romania, Estonia, Slovakia Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, France, and Norway are all in compliance. During the previous Republican administration, President Trump had repeatedly feuded with its NATO allies and pressured them to reach the target, even momentarily floating the idea of a 4% spending target. The prospect of a potential new Republican administration following the next 2024 presidential election means that this issue could return to the forefront of NATO internal discussions.
Despite the fact that the FDP “stands by the NATO target” and “seeks to spend 3% of output on defence, development and diplomacy,” the SPD does not support the 2% goal and neither do the Greens. Before the coalition, members of both parties “repeatedly questioned NATO’s 2% financing target and instead called for a disarmament policy.” Yet, the coalition agreement did commit the new government to an ambitious 3% spending goal on “international action,” without specifically mentioning the 2% defence goal. As such, there is a real ambiguity about whether or not Germany will ever truly meet it, which is a change from Merkel’s repeated reassurances that it would. Abandoning the goal would, of course, draw the ire of Washington and probably lead to profound vexation from a hypothetical Republican administration. Again, this would weaken the alliance by diminishing Germany’s buy-in, notwithstanding its goal of modernizing its military forces, and could serve as a precedent for other countries to also give up the goal. Indeed, while Canada’s position on the matter has been that it would reach it eventually, a German refusal could give it diplomatic and political cover to imitate it. If more members of NATO divested themselves of their shared spending responsibilities, it is the trans-Atlantic alliance’s military capability that would be affected and it would become more dependent than ever on the United States’ forces. The FDP is sure to oppose this proposal within the coalition—yet, the Greens’ control of the Foreign Ministry and the SPD’s own ambivalence on the question mean they are probably not the most influential players. Even though the coalition agreement did include a commitment for a 3% spending goal for its “international” actions (which is not limited to defence), the ambiguity over a possible German abandonment of the 2% goal could, again, impact the alliance’s cohesion and Canada’s security.
A Useful Reminder of NATO’s Blind Spots
As a collective, collaborative and consensual defensive military alliance, NATO—and its internal balance—is bound to be affected by the domestic politics of its member states. In the context of novel forms of aggression through the instrumentalization of migrants by Belarus against Poland, and of continued animosity from Russia, its cohesion is fundamental to its capacity to deter conflicts and guarantee its members’ security. Canada is not exempt from this: its security is directly linked with the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance as it is a “cornerstone of Canada’s international security and defence policy.” This means that Germany’s incoming “traffic light” coalition and the changes it is bound to make to its country’s foreign policy are sure to impact, through NATO, Canada’s.
While this hot take does not argue that the highlighted potential policy shifts— joining the TPNW, withdrawing from nuclear sharing, or abandoning the 2% spending goal—will all happen (indeed, only joining the TPNW has so far been confirmed, while exiting nuclear sharing was set aside as an option), it nonetheless sought to underline NATO’s blind spots in regard to domestic considerations and how they could result in the creation of new rifts within the alliance. While the FDP has moderated some of the SPD and the Greens’ more radical and transformational positions, the 16-years Merkel stability in German foreign policy is over. Conversely, the Greens, the FDP and parts of the SDP had been calling for more stringent opposition to Russia and China, something that the future Foreign minister is set to do. To maintain their security, the United States, Canada, and all of the alliance’s other members will have no choice but to adapt to the new reality of a Scholz chancellorship.