What makes the US still strong?

Defense policy: Europe without America

The shock is still not digested. A few days after US President Donald Trump announced that around a third of the GIs would be withdrawn from Germany, the issue is preoccupying all political levels. Mayors in structurally weak regions are concerned about massive losses in purchasing power, the German Foreign Minister fears that German-American relations will weaken further, and the military planners in Europe are wondering what this decision will mean for the European security architecture. After all, Germany is the central building block of the US defense strategy in Europe - including the location of US nuclear weapons, which would be flown to their destination by German fighter planes in an emergency.

US Airbase Ramstein: Largest US Air Force facility outside of the US

But this presence in Germany should be massively weakened. Trump wants to withdraw around 9,500 GIs from Germany. Should the majority of the soldiers not be relocated to other locations in Europe but return to their homeland, the balance of military power on the continent would change. "Where this trip will go and what security gaps it will result in is still completely unclear," says the Vice President of the transatlantic German Marshall Fund in Berlin, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff. He cannot see the winners of this decision for the moment. Not even Germany's neighbor Poland, who can hope for an increase in the US contingent in his country. The weakening of the ties between the USA and Germany is damaging all of Europe, said Kleine-Brockhoff, which the states in Central and Eastern Europe have also registered.

And yet: Europe must find answers to the American withdrawal.

Europe's security without America

"Europe will have to take on more responsibility," believes Roderich Kiesewetter. The former career officer is now the CDU foreign politician in the Bundestag. Kiesewetter is repeating a demand that the Federal Chancellor and the responsible ministries regularly hear. But German politicians are happy to leave open what this additional responsibility can look like.

Foreign policy expert Kleine-Brockhoff: "The withdrawal of US troops is weakening all of Europe"

Is it about a little more commitment in one or the other trouble spot to relieve the USA, which in the future will likely focus heavily on its Chinese rivals and Asia? Or does the pressure from the withdrawal mean that the government will ultimately comply with the demands made by the USA and NATO for years and massively increase its defense spending? Foreign policy expert Kleine-Brockhoff recommends precisely this reaction: "In the refugee crisis and now in the Corona crisis, the Federal Republic of Germany has proven that it can handle large sums of money." Or is a paradigm shift even conceivable for Germany? The work on a Europe that could guarantee its security without America - also in the final analysis.

Again and again offers

If the latter consideration is on the secret wish-list of German politicians, then it would inevitably demand the remaining political and military EU heavyweights, Berlin and Paris. And it would again bring to the fore a question that is uncomfortable for Germany: the attitude towards nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence is seen as the last life insurance of state independence.

For decades, the Federal Republic has been under the nuclear protective umbrella of NATO and thus of the USA. If Europe wanted to take care of its own security, then there would have to be a European replacement for this protective shield. As things stand, only France could be considered. The French have been paying a lot of money for their nuclear force, the so-called "Force de Frappe", for decades - and in this area they have always kept their distance from the USA and NATO. To date, the French arms have not been integrated into the planning of the defense alliance.

However, there have been several attempts in the past to introduce Germany to French nuclear weapons in one way or another. Shared responsibility was even considered under President Jacques Chirac in the 1990s. Nicolas Sarkozy is said to have offered the Chancellor a financial contribution during his presidency. But Berlin declined with thanks, referring to the US umbrella.

Emmanuel Macron's offer

At the beginning of the year, President Emmanuel Macron launched a new attempt. The President invited the European partners to a "strategic dialogue" on French nuclear weapons. What exactly was meant by this remained open for the time being, but the German Defense Minister accepted the invitation on a visit to Paris - but not without emphasizing the importance of the US umbrella in the same breath.

Four months later, the "strategic dialogue" has not yet produced any results for the public. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense merely confirmed that with France "issues of nuclear deterrence in Europe are also being discussed in the context of the regular coordination on strategic issues".

There must be no doubts

The fact that there is little information available to the public here is undoubtedly also related to the sensitivity of deterrence issues. "If the American protective shield and American nuclear participation in Europe and elsewhere should be questioned," warns the transatlantic scientist Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, "then there will be a need for many small and medium-sized powers to be nuclear power themselves." Even the doubt could set a chain reaction in motion and unsettle partners and rivals alike.

Pleads for a nuclear dialogue between Germany and France: DGAP safety expert Christian Mölling

The question of a European nuclear umbrella could nonetheless arise at some point - should the US continue its withdrawal from Europe, which began long before Donald Trump. "I would advise the government to take a double-track approach," says Christian Mölling, security expert from the German Society for Foreign Policy in Berlin, "namely to keep the option open to switch to a French potential". Because such a change of direction must be prepared over decades.

FCAS as an introduction to the switch?

One possibility to initiate this development could be the Franco-German fighter aircraft FCAS, which is to be developed by 2040 - and which should play an important role in the French deterrent strategy. "20 years to build trust and a common perspective is not much time. At least for a change of direction in state policy," says Mölling, analyzing the major hurdles for a change in the nuclear protective shield.

Could facilitate the nuclear dialogue between Germany and France in the long term: the planned Franco-German fighter aircraft FCAS

How difficult such a path would be, along with all the technical issues, is shown by the fact that in France nuclear deterrence is the linchpin of the entire security architecture, while in Germany large parts of the policy require the withdrawal of the US forces currently still stationed in the country. Demand nuclear weapons.

The mere question of who would decide on the use of weapons in the event of a conflict within a very short period of time does not seem solvable for a "European bomb". In France, deterrence is tailored entirely to the president, who is followed at every turn by a senior officer with the emergency nuclear codes.

There will be no easy answers to this question, but the Germans may have to become more familiar with French nuclear thinking in the coming years. Security in Europe without America - if it is possible at all - would be a question of decades. The mind games for this could start earlier.