NATO as a Framework for Nuclear Nonproliferation: The West German Case, 1954-2008

By Bange, Oliver | International Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

NATO as a Framework for Nuclear Nonproliferation: The West German Case, 1954-2008


Bange, Oliver, International Journal


The following analysis focuses on how the nuclear powers of the west were able to prevent the spread of nuclear weapon possession among their allies within the wider framing of the east-west conflict and by multilateralizing the issue - or the eventual solution - through NATO. Although the article looks into history, away from the grey of today's nonproliferation problems into the clear-cut past of the east -west conflict with its undisputed definition of friends and foes, some of its findings also point to current problems bedevilling NATO policies in this field.

In the 1960s, the key challenge to a successful nonproliferation strategy within the western alliance was the question of West German possession of nuclear weapons. East and West Germany provided welcome manpower in the unfolding Cold War within their respective pacts, but the legacies of Hitler's Reich meant that they both remained on constant probation. For West Germany, this meant reliance upon American, British, and (later) French nuclear weapons. However, such dependence, combined with the likely use of nuclear weapons in a future war, brought about profound feelings of vulnerability and exposure in West Germany. This in turn encouraged various West German schemes designed to gain access to nuclear weaponry and nuclear planning so as to have a more central role in, and control over, the deterrence game.

In the light of this very real interest, and considering the growing political influence of Bonn within the west, West Germany's financial strength as well as its undisputed technological capability to provide both up-to-date delivery vehicles and enriched nuclear material for warheads, a whole raft of questions arise: why did West Germany never acquire nuclear weapons? What made it possible for this nuclear abstention to be maintained throughout the various stages ofthe east-west conflict until 1989-90 and beyond? And what were the ingredients that made for the sustainability of this arrangement? While the core deal for a non-nuclear West Germany was struck between Washington and Bonn, it was enacted through the nonproliferation treaty and NATO. The framing for the continuation of West Germany's (non)nuclear status proved to be key for the limitation ofthe spread of nuclear weapons within the western alliance - and maintaining it became an ongoing task and even a raison d'être for NATO itself.

While many of these questions may remind the reader of today's dilemmas, the following is a historiographical analysis. As such, it will lead the reader through various - albeit selective - historical stages: the 1950s with the watershed year of 1957; the realization of a meaningful treaty on nonproliferation, including the signature of West Germany, in November 1969; the nuclear threats and dilemmas of 1977-78 leading up to NATO's dual-track decision; and a brief outlook on 1989-90 and Germany's position and choices regarding nuclear weapons today. Finally, the article will try to square some aspects of this particular nuclear history with the stillpreliminary thoughts on "sustainable diplomacy" developed by an interdisciplinary research group convened by James Der Derian and Costas Constantinou, which focuses on the virtues and limitations of traditional diplomacy and the necessary wider - regional, economical, ecological, ideological, religious, etc. - framing for long-lasting arrangements.1

THE "SILENT OPTION": BONN'S NUCLEAR POLICIES IN THE 1950S

Throughout the early and mid-1950s both the military and political leadership in West Germany paid little if any attention to nuclear weapons. In the Himmeroder Denkschrift - the founding document of what was to become the Bundeswehr - nuclear weapons were hardly mentioned at all and certainly not as a desirable option for the West Germans. Instead, West German generals busied themselves with rethinking their plans for large tank battles, developed in rather less fortunate times. Meanwhile, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer even seemed to hope that the Soviet Union would develop its own nuclear weaponry as quickly as possible, as this would virtually rule out the possibility of war. …

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