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Why Germany needs nuclear deterrence
If Germany had its own nuclear deterrence, there would not be a war in Ukraine right now. Not because the Russians would fear German nuclear weapons more, then American ones, but because Germany would be able to give out security guarantees in Eastern Europe.
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The war in Ukraine and the tense situation in Eastern Europa in general are solely the result of German weakness. The current war might be a contingent event, but the general situation in Eastern Europe is the unavoidable consequence of said German weakness. Without German security guarantees, small Eastern European states have no other option, then to look out for an out of area protector. The alliances and coalitions of interests formed thereby, are by their very nature unstable, regional conflicts are the unavoidable consequence. If Germany want’s to prevent a permanent danger of war on its eastern border, its only option is the creations of its own security system including its own nuclear deterrence.
(One disclaimer on translation: Throughout this text I will continuously refer to Carl Schmitt’s concept of a “raumfremde Macht”. A concept describing a power from outside a given geographical area. The literal translation into English would be “space alien power”, so for obvious reasons I chose a different translation and came up with “out of area power” in reference to the term “out of area operations”, commonly used for NATO operations outside of the alliance treaty's geographic designations.)
Let’s look at the security situation: In Eastern Europe, the space between Germany and Russia is filled by a group of smaller states. Poland and Ukraine are the only ones with a population exceeding 20 million people. In one way or another, all these states have gained their independence in opposition to Russia. Russian hegemony, which in theory could be a stable political constellation, will not be accepted by these states, if they see any possibility to avoid it. But none of said countries would be able to stand up to Russia on its own and even all of them combined would have hardly any chance fighting off serious Russian attempts at expansion. At the same time, the Eastern Europeans are well aware of the fact, that the current Russian borders, drawn after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are the historic low water mark of Russian territorial extension. They fear, that a reinvigorated Russia will try to revise those borders. How well founded those fears are, is of little consequence in the medium term future. If Russia refrains from expansion, the fears of the East Europeans might dissolute over the next decades. But if there was any progress in that direction, it has been destroyed by the current war. Should it end with Russian annexation of Russian settled territories in Ukraine, which from a Russian perspective has developed from a desirable outcome into a necessity, the fears of Russian revisionism will grow to entirely new proportions.
The Consequences: For the foreseeable future, and foreseeable future means at least the next half century in this context, we have to deal with these fears as a political fact. Trying to brush this fact aside, by stating ones own interpretations of Russia’s intentions, is a categorical mistake, revealing incurable political ineptitude.
Because the countries in Eastern Europe lack the capacities to secure their own independence, they need a protector. If Germany doesn’t step up to become this protector, their only option is the alliance with an out of area power. “Out of area power”, this originates from Carl Schmitt’s work on international law. Schmitt developed the idea of an international order of greater areas (Großraum) with a prohibition to intervene for out of area powers, in the thirties and forties. After the experiences of the First World War, where the United States, an extra-European power, had decided a European conflict, he wanted to generalize the Monroe doctrine. Great powers should concentrate on their own geopolitical environment, and refrain from intervention on foreign continents, thereby reducing the danger, of conflicts in on part of the globalized world escalating into another World War.
But mere thinking in continental blocks, like Schmitt, does not explain the specific security problems of an out of area protector in the Eastern Europe. Therefore we have to define precisely our understanding of the term “our of area protector”: A protector is out of area, if the country it is supposed to protect is irrelevant to its own security interests. An out of area protector therefor has no existential interests in its client state. Loosing the client would not endanger its national security. Being out of area in these terms of security policy, is not quantifiable in miles. During the Cold War, Western Europe was existential for the United States, and you can well argue, that it still is. It is the opposing Atlantic coast, whose control is an important pillar of American sea power. On the other hand: From an American point of view it is a secondary question, whether the western border of Russia is on the Volga or the Vistula.
The lack of existential interest in protecting the client state is the reason, why relationships between out of area powers and their client states are often so destabilizing. The first problem is the callousness which an out of area power can afford in conducting its business in a far away region, since it won’t be directly affected by a possible war. But this is only the most obvious problem. The real danger stems from the interaction of incentives of client state and out of area power. This interaction consists of four elements, two from the public interest of both states and two from their internal politics.
First, why would a great power dole out security guarantees outside the geographical region existential to its own security? In most cases it is either interested in its client’s resources, or the intention is to harm another great power, which has existential security interests in said region. The classic example for the first possibility is the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. We will not discuss patronage for reasons of resource acquisition any further, because this kind of relationship has its own logic. American patronage in Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is the perfect example for the later option. Its goal is the weakening of Russia and by extension China. If a great power supports a client state in another part of the world, to harm another great power located in this region, this goal runs contrary to stability in said region by its very nature.
The client state on its part is in a precarious situation, due to its pact with an out of area protector. Since its protector has no existential interests in the client state, future protection is quite uncertain. The out of area power can turn away from its client at any given moment, without compromising its own security. At the same time, the alliance with the out of area power means conflict with local powers, which most of the time are more powerful, then the client state. And they will still be there, when the alliance with the out of area power will already be part of diplomatic history. So there is a constant incentive for the client state not just to enjoy the temporary protection, but to try to exploit the contemporary alliance aggressively, to deal with its security problems once and for all.
In Ukraine and Poland, where there is open discussion of dismemberment of the Russian Federation with American assistance these days, we witness a text book example of this phenomenon. By the way, it is no coincidence, that these two states in particular are so aggressive. With 38 million inhabitants (Poland) and 41 official inhabitants before the war (Ukraine) both are regional half powers. The temptation to play at least being a regional power with foreign help, falls on fertile soil in these countries, a fertile soil lacking in the no less nationalistic countries of Hungary or Lithuania, where such aspirations would be absurd to begin with, lacking sheer mass.
In both cases above we have looked on public interests. But states are not monolithic agents, although for analytical purpose it may be expedient to pretend otherwise. But to fully understand the instability caused by an out of area protector, we have to consider the mutual influence these countries have on each others internal decision making process. These mutual influences are, contrary to lip services payed to national sovereignty, quite normal.
On one side, the protector is the far greater power, of the two. So there is no alliance of equals to begin with, even if both parties try to keep up the appearance. Not only does the protector command the far greater military, its economic, intelligence, cultural and institutional (NGOs) capabilities are far greater as well. Contrary to military intervention those later capabilities can be used to influence the client states politics, without destroying the appearance of its national sovereignty.
But on the other side, the political system of the protector is not focused on its policy towards the client state for most of the time. The protector is a great power with far reaching interests all over the world, all competing for the limited attention resources of the political system. If the client state is not at the center of an international crisis at the given moment, the policy regarding it will be made not by the entirety of the political system (President and Congress in the case of the United States), but by specialized parts of the ministerial bureaucracy and the thing people in Washington call a “policy community”.
The term “policy community” designates the community of those people, who are consistently working on a specific political subject, either formally or informally. It consists not only of the authorized parts of the bureaucracy, but also of members of parliament, lobby organizations, think tanks, NGOs, journalists and everybody else, who has the subject on his agenda even if the broader political system does not. Inside such a policy community there does not need to be the same opinions prevalent on the matter, as in the broader political system, let alone the population. The fact that, not counting the specialized bureaucracy, the policy community consists by its nature of those people having some special interest in the matter at hand, preselects membership in one way ore another.
This policy community is a focal point for lobbying efforts by the client state in its protector’s capital. The client state does not have to influence the political system as a whole, influencing a relatively small part of it will do the trick most of the time, because this small part will work for the client states interests, during the internal negotiations inside the protectors political system. In such negotiations the result is oftentimes a package deal instead of negotiating individual points one by one, because many different interests concerning many different subjects have do be harmonized, in order to achieve stable governance. In principle, support for the client state can get into such a package deal the same way, the proverbial highway in some representatives district does.
This mutual influence on each others political system can grow into a web of aggressive parts of the elites in the protector and aggressive elites or parts of the elites in the client state. In the worst case scenario, these parts of the elites in both countries are capable to confront their respective political systems with a done deal, most often a conflict the states involved can not avoid any longer, without loosing face on the international scene. By these means, the aggressive parts of the elites can make their confrontational policy the rational way forward for the entirety of their states, which even more peaceful members of the political systems have to support now as raison d’etat. If there happens to be transnational corruption on top of this, like in the complex relationship between the United States and Ukraine, the resulting situation becomes extremely dangerous.
Germany has these two options: Option one is to accept that Eastern Europe remains the playground of out of area powers. Nowadays the out of area power is the United States, tomorrow it may well be China, which will have every incentive to occupy Russia in Europe once the American world hegemony has come to a close. If Germany accepts this, it has to bear the consequences, like in the current war, without much capabilities to influence the events.
The other option is creating a security architecture in Eastern Europe. This security architecture has to take Russian security concerns into account, but it also has to provide credible guarantees for the smaller states in Eastern Europe. Vis a vis Russia, Germany can be more credible then the United States, for the simple reason that Eastern Europe is right on the German border, so Germany will be affected by conflicts in that region. Unlike an out of area power, it is incapable of sowing chaos, without facing the consequences.
But Germany can only provide security guarantees against a possible Russian invasion, if, in addition to a functioning military industry, it has its own capabilities of nuclear deterrence. The farcical plan, brought into the discourse every once and a while, of making the French nuclear deterrence into a European one by sharing it somehow, will never work, for the simple reason, that nobody can tell what a shared nuclear deterrence is supposed to look like. You have to be able to decide on the launch of nuclear weapons in minutes, otherwise you don’t have a nuclear deterrence, but a nuclear first strike capability after a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers of the European Union.
There are two obvious objections to a security system in Eastern Europe backed by German nuclear armament. The first is the reaction of the existing nuclear powers. The second is the reaction of Poland. Concerning the nuclear powers, they are traditionally not fond of letting anyone into their exclusive club, but they face a simple choice: Either there will be a nuclear armed Germany guaranteeing the security of the Eastern European states, or Zelenskyy’s Ukraine won’t be the last country in Eastern Europe planning to get nuclear weapons to deter possible Russian aggression. Either Germany get’s the bomb or all of Eastern Europe will get the bomb and the later option would herald the global collapse of the non proliferation treaty.
Poland is a more difficult case. The objections other countries in Eastern Europe have against Russia, the Poles have them against Germany as well. From a German perspective the only possible way is patience and prudence. Poland must not be isolated, because it would throw itself at any possible protector in this case. It has to be integrated, especially economically. At the same time, the consistent message to the Polish elites has to be, that dangerous attempts to recreate the Polish-Lithuanian-Commonwealth or some Intermarium, will not be tolerated. The best way to achieve both goals is to give credible security guarantees to other Eastern European countries. In such a common (Eastern) European house, there will be a place for Poland.
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