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To get nukes, or not to get nukes

By Jacqueline Westermann

A recent op-ed in the newspaper ‘Welt’ has unchained a similar debate in Germany. Prof Christian Hacke argued that Germany would need to acquire nuclear arms, as it is no longer protected through the US nuclear umbrell because of uncertainty arising from the Trump administration’s policies.

In an extreme case of crisis, Hacke wrote, Germany would be without protection and potential aggressors could only be deterred with nuclear weapons.

Although many politicians, military experts and commentators quickly denied any possible benefits from a German nuclear capability, the debate reveals a larger underlying issue - the deteriorating relationship with the US. In the Financial Times, Guy Chazan calls the op-ed ‘nonsense’ but also notes that “the anxiety it reflected is real enough.”

The uncertainty surrounding Washington’s commitment to overseas engagement has proved equally worrying for Canberra. Stephan Fruehling has argued in the Strategist that only specific circumstances favour Australia acquiring nuclear weapons; Indonesia having a nuclear program, for example, or the undeniable loss of the US nuclear umbrella.

The Australian debate also considered whether acquiring a nuclear capability is an opportunity to develop local industry and local jobs. However, there are already numerous companies worldwide with decades of experience in the field. Australian companies are unlikely to gain an independent foothold in a hypothetical commercial competition or quickly catch up in expertise. A joint-venture, on the other hand, may be more plausible; companies from non-nuclear states, such as Italy’s Finmeccanica or the Netherlands’ EADS, have previously been involved in nuclear production and development.

Nevertheless, like Germany, Australia would also face other obstacles (leaving aside public and political opposition). Whilst Australia has a history of considering nuclear weapons (which is why the facilities at Jervis Bay were established), the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) prohibits research to develop nuclear weapons. Australia is also a signatory to the NonProliferation Treaty. In short, if Canberra had nuclear aspirations, they’d quickly come to a legal halt.

From a broader perspective, an Australian or German nuclear acquisition would also violate the values-based international system that Canberra and Berlin rely upon, and may trigger chain reactions of regional nuclear acquisitions.

Hacke also overlooks the fact that Germany partakes in NATO’s nuclear capabilities through the policy of nuclear sharing, which sees allies transporting and/or storing US nuclear arms. Furthermore, the UK and France have nuclear arms and are NATO members, which extends their capabilities to all alliance members.

Some are now revisiting an old debate; whether Germany should chip in to the UK’s or France’s nuclear expenses and therefore ‘acquire capabilities’. While the Bundestag parliamentary research service doesn’t foresee any legal obstacles to co-financing, it also found that there wouldn’t necessarily be significant advantages to Berlin as Germany is already protected through NATO and EU agreements. Australia is similarly protected under the terms of the ANZUS treaty.

Berlin, however, can make use of the debate’s momentum: instead of concentrating on the acquisition question, there is a chance to establish an essential, but hitherto lacking, transparent public discourse in Germany on strategic issues, security and defence politics.

Originally published by: Australian Defence Magazine on 09 Aug 2018