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Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger President of the Munich Security Conference Foundation.
At the height of the Cold War in 1977, then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gave a now-famous speech at the London Institute for Strategic Studies, in which he stated that new Soviet medium-range missile deployments, which particularly threatened Western Europe, would not be ignored by NATO.
In Schmidt’s assessment, the United States could not be expected to open its own cities to destruction because of the Soviet threat directed exclusively at Europe, and therefore, the credibility of nuclear deterrence was now in question. Her proposal? The alliance should respond by restoring credible deterrence, i.e. deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
The result was NATO’s famous Retrofit The decision resulted in plans to deploy 108 American Pershing II missiles and 464 cruise missiles in Europe. Huge anti-war demonstrations followed – and not only in Germany. But soon, the deployment plan prompted serious US-Soviet negotiations, eventually leading to the elimination of the entire weapons category defined by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Schmidt clearly showed that it is important to negotiate – but not from a position of weakness – and that if one leads convincingly, they can win over skeptical public opinion. This brings us to Germany’s hand-wringing decision to supply main battle tanks to Ukraine, as the current strategic situation is remarkably different but has significant parallels.
Today, just as 40 years ago, the German chancellor is rightly concerned about maintaining links to US nuclear deterrence. Therefore, in the face of Moscow’s nuclear threat, the government will always do everything it can to prevent the emergence of a non-nuclear Germany by taking unilateral action.
In this regard, it is to Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s credit that he committed himself to continuing nuclear sharing and purchasing US F-35 nuclear-capable aircraft. From his perspective, it is essential to seek the closest possible involvement of the United States in any strategic decision Berlin makes.
In the battle tank debate, however, Scholz seems to have gone a step further. The initial stipulation that he would supply Leopard tanks to Ukraine only if the US agreed to supply M1 Abrams, only to then immediately follow this with a disclaimer, casts unnecessary doubt on NATO’s reliability, collective defense and its trust in it. The US nuclear umbrella.
Washington’s displeasure was predictable, and some damage to Berlin’s reputation was a tragic consequence.
Instead, the German government should emphasize the need for effective and credible deterrence, and that negotiations with Moscow will have no meaning unless they are conducted from a position of Ukrainian or Western weakness. This applies to negotiations between Ukraine and Russia and any potential negotiations between the United States and Russia.
Of course, maintaining the nuclear link between Europe and the United States is crucial to NATO’s defense posture. But insisting on delivering Ukrainian battle tanks to Ukraine to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to Europe more than anything else, was certainly not the most elegant approach.
The U.S. has already done more than its share of sustaining defenses in Ukraine, but if one still believes in the desirability of additional reassurance, there are other options to strengthen NATO’s backbone in Central Europe — such as deploying more U.S. military units or additional nukes in NATO regions. -Deployment of capable US aircraft – can be envisaged. The message to Moscow must always be that any imagined Russian attack on NATO territory would directly affect the United States through its troops and systems stationed in Europe, and that Russia must always reckon directly with Washington.
Naturally, Scholz will want to note that his tactics have yielded a successful result – he got a deal on US tanks on top of his positive Leopard decision. But at what cost?
Germany’s approach has led to significant disillusionment—an episode that, in the long run, may prove politically unhelpful. And in America, it can be used as evidence as fuel for the argument that Europeans are still freeloaders at the expense of US taxpayers – lest we forget former President Donald Trump.
If Germany needs more reassurance from the United States to move forward, the best solution is to spend more — a lot more — on defense itself, and accelerate European efforts toward greater self-reliance and more equitable burden-sharing with the Americans. This is especially important, as there is no guarantee that the White House will always be occupied by a staunch NATO ally like President Joe Biden.
If Schmidt were still alive, his advice to Scholz today would be to show weakness, but to show leadership and try to strengthen nuclear ties by increasing US deterrence through NATO.
One thing we don’t need right now is German angst.