Editor's note:

In a paper for the Brookings-Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI), Steven Pifer describes the views of the major German political parties regarding the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons and “nuclear sharing” ahead of September’s federal elections, how negotiations for likely coalitions might address these issues, and how the U.S. can influence those negotiations.

Executive summary

Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic InitiativeThe United States has long deployed nuclear weapons in Germany under “programs of cooperation” in which the weapons are maintained under U.S. custody but, in a conflict, and with proper authorization, could be turned over to the German military for use. The current delivery system is the German Air Force’s Tornado aircraft, which is dual-capable — it can deliver both conventional and nuclear weapons — but nearing the end of its service life.

Participation in this nuclear role is often referred to as “nuclear sharing” in Germany. However, the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons is not popular with the German public. With national elections which will determine who replaces long-serving chancellor Angela Merkel to be held September 26, two of the three leading political parties have called for an end to nuclear sharing and the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear arms — although with some ambiguity regarding timing. The issues of nuclear sharing and replacement of the Tornado with another dual-capable aircraft may not arise as major questions in the campaign, but these issues will figure in the coalition negotiation between the parties that will form the next government. This paper describes the views of the major German political parties regarding nuclear sharing and the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons and how the possible coalition negotiations might address these issues.

The United States has an interest in how that negotiation turns out. At a minimum, the U.S. government does not want a German policy that seeks to end nuclear sharing in a unilateral manner, which could unravel NATO’s current deterrence and defense posture. Given the contribution of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe to extended deterrence and, in particular, to assurance of allies across the continent regarding the U.S. commitment to NATO’s defense, changes to the alliance’s nuclear posture should come about as the result of an alliance process, not as the result of one country’s unilateral decision. Washington can take steps in the coming months, such as articulating its approach to nuclear arms control, that could help shape how the coalition negotiation in Berlin addresses the nuclear sharing issue.

This publication is part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI), a comprehensive multi-year project of applied research and programming aimed to create synergies and originate new activities that reinvigorate trans-Atlantic collaboration on global issues, made possible by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The author is grateful to the members of Germany’s main political parties, government officials, think-tank researchers, and journalists who discussed with him German attitudes on the nuclear sharing question during January-May 2021. The author is also grateful to Pia Fuhrhop, Jan Fuhrmann, Britta Jacob, Oliver Meier, Götz Neuneck, Rolf Nikel, Jannik Rust, Constanze Stelzenmüller, and Jim Townsend for reviewing and commenting on drafts of this paper. He, of course, is responsible for the final content. The author also very much appreciates the work of Ted Reinert, who edited this paper, and Rachel Slattery, who provided layout.