NATO Secretary General attempts to hold the line on nuclear sharing: Germany and Norway caught in the crosshairs

Dr. Ian Davis

23 November 2021

Speaking at the German Atlantic Association 'NATO Talk 2021' conference on 19 November 2021, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed the importance of Germany remaining part of the alliance's nuclear sharing arrangement. Referring to US nuclear weapons on German soil that can be carried by German fighter bombers in a crisis, he said “I count on Germany to remain committed to NATO’s nuclear sharing, it is our ultimate security guarantee”.

Germany has no nuclear weapons of its own but stores about 20 US B-61 nuclear gravity bombs at Büchel air base and maintains a fleet of ageing Tornado fighter bombers to deliver them. The next German coalition government will have to decide about an expensive Tornado replacement to maintain this nuclear sharing role. There is scepticism among both voters and political elites in Germany regarding the continued stationing of US nuclear weapons on their soil as well as sizeable support for their removal, including opposition to purchasing new fighter bombers with a nuclear weapon delivery role.

This latest phase in the longstanding nuclear debate in Germany comes on the back of Norway’s announcement in October that it will participate as an observer in the First Meeting of States Parties to the nuclear ban treaty (The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW), which will take place at the UN in Vienna on 22-24 March 2022. A total of 86 countries are now state parties or signatories to the TPNW.

Norway is the first NATO state to announce its participation, breaking the hard line against the TPNW that NATO has been exerting on its member states. In a document sent to NATO members ahead of the vote on the TPNW in 2017, for example, the United States “strongly encourage[d]” member states, to vote against the resolution, “not to merely abstain”. In addition, it said that, if the treaty negotiations do commence, allies and partners should “refrain from joining them”. Norway’s decision potentially opens the door for others in the alliance, such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, to follow suit and also participate as observer states.

Norway’s elections in September 2021 led to a change of government, with Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party elected as Prime Minister. As Foreign Minister, Gahr Støre was supportive of the “humanitarian initiative” process which led to the negotiations of the TPNW. The government’s platform also says that it will increase Norway's efforts for nuclear disarmament, take the initiative to focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and work together with countries inside and outside NATO for a world without nuclear weapons.

Norway has already come under pressure from the United States and NATO for its decision to attend the meeting. It was an issue that was discussed at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in October, for example, although details remain scarce because of NATO’s secrecy rules. When asked about it during his press conference, Stoltenberg responded by saying that he would not go into details about NATO’s internal discussions which covered a wide range of nuclear issues, including “our nuclear posture, and also including the ban treaty”.

There have also been vigorous exchanges of views within the Norwegian media from proponents and opponents of Norway’s participation at the TPNW meeting – including this interview with Stoltenberg and an opinion piece by his Chief of Staff (articles in Norwegian). These attempts to sway public opinion in Norway come in the face of significant support for the TPNW within the country. Several Norwegian political parties have expressed support for Norway’s accession to the treaty, and in September 2020, six former Norwegian prime ministers, foreign ministers, and defence ministers signed an open letter calling on current leaders to “show courage and boldness – and join the treaty”. Dozens of Norwegian cities, including the capital, Oslo, have called on the Norwegian government to sign and ratify the TPNW, while a 2019 public opinion poll found that 78 per cent of Norwegians wanted their government to sign and ratify it (85 per cent of whom wanted Norway to join even if it were the first NATO country to do so).

Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that Stoltenberg used his platform in Germany to call for unity on NATO’s nuclear ‘deterrence’ strategy. He also stressed that Germany’s role also gave it a seat in NATO’s nuclear planning group. However, even if the US nuclear bombs were removed from German soil and Germany joined the TPNW as an observer—as the SPD and the Green election platforms demanded—this would not preclude Germany from continuing to have a seat within NATO’s nuclear planning group. Other member states without the nuclear sharing role already participate on that basis. It is decidedly misleading for Stoltenberg to suggest otherwise.