When the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (Ican) received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2017, the German government also congratulated them. Heiko Maas, who, in view of exploratory talks in Jamaica, was looking forward to the end of his term as Federal Minister of Justice, praised Ican on Twitter. “Nuclear weapons do not create more security. They make the world more unstable and threatening. Congratulations!” Wrote the SPD politician, who had no idea that he would become foreign minister six months later after the Jamaica dreams had burst. Today he thinks differently about the problem.
Other government officials were more cautious. The grand coalition shared the Ican goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world, but considered the path it proposed to get there wrong. The Union, and in autumn 2017 also the SPD, acknowledged the need for nuclear deterrence. The alliance of non-governmental organizations, however, gathered UN states behind the goal of adopting a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This is not to be confused with the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with which many states, including nuclear powers, undertake not to spread nuclear weapons and to nuclear disarmament.
At the end of this week, on January 22nd, the TPNW Prohibition Treaty will come into force – 90 days after 50 UN states ratified it on October 24th, 2020. The process should revive the debate about Germany’s accession to the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, in which a lot has happened since 2017.
By joining the treaty, Germany could blow up NATO
A German signature on the prohibition treaty would result in the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany and give rise to serious conflicts in NATO over the loyalty of Germans to the alliance and the continuation of the pact. Although the Federal Republic of Germany does not have its own nuclear weapons, it is an indirect nuclear power because it has a say in NATO’s nuclear strategy and provides tornado fighter planes that can target US nuclear warheads in an emergency. The technical term for this is “nuclear participation”.
The Left Party and the Greens have long been calling for Germany to join the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, because they also reject nuclear participation. The position of the SPD has changed in the past three years. Since last year, parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich has been calling for US nuclear weapons to be withdrawn from Germany and for the technical part of nuclear participation to be dispensed with – with this position he also wants to enter the federal election campaign. The SPD chairmen Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans support him in this.
The deputy SPD parliamentary group leader Gabriela Heinrich recently called on the federal government to “abandon their categorical rejection of the treaty”. The SPD parliamentary group is still shying away from the demand to join the nuclear weapons ban treaty, but it is approaching this position. At the beginning of the year, she passed a paper in which she urged the government to “take part in the Conference of the Parties as an observer and thus to accompany the intentions constructively”.
With this, the SPD parliamentary group continues to put pressure on the SPD foreign minister, who does not want to bow to it. Maas is now rejecting the nuclear weapons ban treaty in his new office: “It is of no use to conclude treaties that do not include those who have the nuclear weapons that one wants to disarm,” he said recently before attending a disarmament conference with representatives from 15 other states.
A new study by the Berlin Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) supports the position of Maas and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU). Security expert Jonas Schneider writes in it that the prohibition contract will not be implemented “in the foreseeable future” because of weaknesses in content.
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The nine nuclear powers and the 27 non-nuclear weapon states of NATO have already declared that they will never join the “TPNW”, which is why the conclusion that its radiance will remain low would seem reasonable.
In addition, the protagonists of the treaty neglected the fact that it is “in practice more directed against democracies than against autocratic nuclear-weapon states”. In open societies, Ican’s civil society pressure is at work, but in states with a restricted or fully controlled public, the strategy of the TPNW supporters remains “ineffective”. In other words, the noble goal could ultimately help the wicked.
Supporting the nuclear weapons ban treaty, Schneider concluded, was not in Germany’s interest. The expert calls on the federal government to counter the public pressure more strongly and to “declare more confidently” its rejection of the treaty.
The Union should have fewer difficulties with this than the SPD. It is true that Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz is a real politician who is loyal to the country. Because he is not publicly exposed on this issue, the Foreign Minister would have to stand up against the leaders of his own parliamentary group and party even more. He knows the position widespread in the SPD well: after all, three years ago he himself argued against nuclear weapons.