How Germany Should Change Its Approach to Arms Control
The old habits of Cold-War arms control no longer suit today’s security environment. It is time for Germany to devise a new strategy. Berlin has spearheaded new initiatives for conventional arms control, the most prominent being the 2016 Steinmeier Initiative, yet success has thus far been limited.
For Germany, arms control is a heartfelt wish. Generations of politicians have praised it as the answer to the perceived militarization of foreign policy and as Germany’s contribution to peace. Arms control has become a key element of the country’s political and diplomatic DNA. When the Ukraine crisis revived this Cold War concept, Berlin spearheaded new initiatives for conventional arms control, the most prominent being the 2016 Steinmeier Initiative, led by then foreign minister Walter Steinmeier.
Yet success has so far been limited. This is not only due to Moscow’s reluctance to engage in such efforts. Too many actors in Berlin apply a Cold War approach to arms control that no longer suits today’s modified security environment. This is even more curious given that over the last twenty years, the expert community have been looking for ways to overcome the chronic crisis of arms control and catapult it into the twenty-first century. Arms control has often been confused with disarmament, meaning to dispose of weapons. Unfortunately, this outlook neglects the very distinct notion of arms control as a military strategic tool to manage risk. Today, Germany seeks (to some extent) to repeat the proven Cold War experience of disarmament. Reducing numbers seems easier than controlling strategy. It has also the advantage of nicely fitting the overall resurgence of Cold War rhetoric—but this is not the case.
Classical arms control devised during the Cold War was made to control large formations of conventional forces. But today, these restrictions are ill-equipped to cover technological innovations, are unable to deal with the quality—as opposed to quantity—of troops, and are limited in their ability to address nonmilitary elements, such as the role that private industry plays in many armed forces around the world.
The necessary adaptation goes beyond technicalities and straight into the prevailing mindset: arms control seems to be about restricting the weapons of the other. In fact, it is about mutual strategy control to ensure stability together, rather than against each other. It allows the risk of war to be minimized by limiting one’s own military options, which the adversary perceives as destabilizing. Options—or what militaries call capabilities—are based on far more military aspects than a gun and its size. It is about the elements that are needed to organize war as an effective political instrument, for example, doctrines and leadership.
From this perspective, arms control is only one instrument to prevent war—not the only one, as some in Germany like to think, and often not the central one. Yet arms control can play an important role. To maximize its full potential, Berlin should restructure its arms control approach along three elements:
First is security realism. Today, risks and threats to stability and security derive from a large variety of sources. Democratic states are not only vulnerable in a military sense—just consider Russia’s use of cyberwarfare and fake news. States are highly vulnerable to nonmilitary tools and soft power, including propaganda and economic blackmail, but also the (mis)use of dependencies and connectedness during a cyberattack.
The traditional definition of war does not apply anymore. When developing a new approach toward arms control, these modified parameters—such as nonstate actors (including the so-called Islamic State and paramilitaries in Ukraine), nonmilitary threats, and increasingly nonmilitary adversarial tools—need to be taken into account.
On the other side of the spectrum, nuclear weapons are returning to prominence on the world stage. Arms control has to address the link between the conventional and the nuclear dimensions of weaponry.
This brings in the issue of military realism.
The risks that conventional capabilities pose have also changed. Armed forces in Europe have shrunk by 50 percent since the end of the Cold War. Smaller, much faster, and more capable armed forces have replaced mass armies. This applies especially to the United States and Western Europe, but also to Russia. With its snap exercises, Moscow has demonstrated its ability to move very large forces very swiftly. Thus, military planners on all sides have to prepare for the element of surprise.
Today’s military capabilities are composed of a network of sensors and shooters, based in the air, at sea, on land, or in space. Air operations not only need fighter jets, but also support from tanker planes to increase their range, electronic warfare to jam enemy radars, and sometimes soldiers on the ground. Thus, capabilities can only be analyzed and controlled in a meaningful way if we conceive of them as clusters. Additionally, the importance of single weapons systems—a main category in Cold War arms control— is diminishing. The legions of soldiers that ensure logistical and combat support, such as reconnaissance, have become more important than the top gun fighter pilot. New categories are needed to outline what should be controlled.
This is where alliance realism matters. Germany cannot initiate arms control without its NATO allies. Effective negotiations with Russia and other states need consensus among the 29 allies. Berlin has regained respect in NATO thanks to its substantial contribution to the alliance’s recent deterrence and defense measures, but this is based on the assumption that Germany acts to increase the security of all NATO allies, takes into account their worries, and coordinates initiatives.
This is why Germany should support arms control as much as it does deterrence. According to NATO’s 1967 Harmel Report, security is the result of deterrence and dialogue—with arms control being a key component of the latter.
Confronted with an adversary like Russia—who is willing to move borders by force and rejects the Helsinki and post-Cold War acquis—dialogue without defense would be dangerous folly. Yet without political contact between adversaries even the most robust defense risks misunderstanding signals, unintentional escalation, greater instability, and eventually heightened insecurity.
The old habits of Cold War arms control cannot continue. It is time for Germany to move on and shape arms control into what it truly is about: an element of military and security strategy, in concert with other instruments and partners. Also, as the United States shows little interest in the matter, this is a field for Germany to take the lead on. Once the new government is in place after the September 24 election, Berlin should demonstrate in this very area that it remains serious about taking on greater responsibility in international security.