Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addresses media representatives after visiting the Women's Solidarity Foundation in Cankaya District of Ankara on July 30, 2022. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons to secure his attack on Ukraine earlier this year, he brought the dangers of nuclear war back to the attention of Western politicians and citizens. At the time, Putin threatened anyone who opposed Russia with “consequences that they have never experienced in history”. At the same time, he had his nuclear forces put on increased alert. This is one of the reasons why NATO states are trying to limit the risk of a nuclear escalation of the conflict when supporting Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has been negotiating the sensitive issue since Monday. The Greens politician attends the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York before traveling to Canada. The commitment to nuclear disarmament is “still extremely important,” she said at the start of the trip. Even if success in the current world situation still seems a long way off, the following applies: “We must never lose sight of this goal, we have to be persistent when it comes to its implementation.”

The commitment to nuclear disarmament stands in a certain tension to the demand of the Green politicians for the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. In March, during a keynote speech on the future national security strategy, the Foreign Minister confessed that she had had to learn: “Defense decides our security.” And further: The war had also made it clear that NATO’s nuclear weapons were important. “NATO’s nuclear deterrence must remain credible,” she demanded. Disarmament is desirable. But it can only exist if all sides pull together. Such a commitment would have been unthinkable by a top politician from a party that also comes from the peace movement before February 24th.

The foreign minister must try to use these contradictions to make politics. Like previous governments, the traffic light coalition is committed to the goal of nuclear disarmament. Under pressure from the Greens, the coalition agreement does not stipulate that Germany will join the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (AVV). As a sign that the traffic light coalition shares its goals, Germany is taking part in its conferences as an observer.

The ban treaty prohibits the development, stockpiling, deployment and use of nuclear weapons and the threat of such. Previous governments had always kept their distance because US nuclear weapons are stored in the Eifel, the Bundeswehr would carry them to the target in an emergency and Germany is under the nuclear protective umbrella of the USA. NATO countries have not signed the treaty.

While parts of the SPD, such as parliamentary group leader Rolf Müntefering, are in favor of Germany unilaterally opting out of nuclear sharing, the Greens are not doing so. This is considered a real political success of Baerbock. In the election program, her party professes the goal of nuclear disarmament, but wants to implement it together with the allies. However, Putin’s war of aggression in NATO has not strengthened the willingness to take steps towards nuclear disarmament, quite the opposite.

As part of the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament established in 2019, the Foreign Minister and her Swedish colleague Ann Linde want to help overcome differences between the 86 signatories to the ban treaty and the 191 states that have signed the non-proliferation treaty.

The approach to the ban treaty is “continuously sharply criticized by the Allies because Germany is gradually moving away from nuclear deterrence,” says Joachim Krause, director of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel.

There is controversy among security experts as to whether Baerbock can be successful. Peter Rudolf from the Security and Politics Foundation (SWP) is not bothered by the contradictions in their goals. “Foreign policy is subject to a multitude of sometimes conflicting demands and expectations that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet,” he says. The management of expectations and dilemmas only becomes problematic “if we avoid a concrete discussion of the problems associated with nuclear deterrence, such as the question of what credible nuclear deterrence means”.

Krause from Kiel is more critical of Baerbock’s approach, even if he praises her commitment to the credibility of nuclear deterrence. Your statements from March showed “that the Greens are probably rethinking”.

The security expert warns that the nuclear weapons ban treaty will not lead to nuclear disarmament: “It only weakens nuclear deterrence on the Western side and favors authoritarian nuclear weapon states.” Krause hopes that this insight is now also growing among the Greens and Social Democrats. His harsh verdict: “The contract is stone dead.”

On the other hand, Rudolf, author of a new book on nuclear weapons strategy (“World on Alert”), says it is a three-step process, first stigmatizing nuclear weapons, then delegitimizing them, and finally eliminating them. “Nothing indicates that the contract can go beyond the first two stages,” judges the SWP expert. But that doesn’t mean he’s useless. Its importance lies “above all in drawing attention to the devastating humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons and in strengthening the fear of such operations”.