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Time for a European Nuclear Deterrent?

After spending a quarter century treating NATO as an international social club to which every reasonably civilized European nation should belong, the alliance has begun to focus again on its original role as a military alliance. Rather than expect the U.S. to burnish NATO’s nuclear deterrent, European nations should consider expanding their nuclear arsenals and creating a continent-wide nuclear force. 

Since its creation NATO has stood for North Atlantic and The Others. America dominated the alliance and European Nuclear Deterrenceoffered a continental security guarantee, both conventional and nuclear. 

France and Great Britain created their own nuclear forces, but they likely would have been reluctant to engage in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union to protect West Germany. If any country was going to engage in nuclear exchanges with Moscow, it would have been the U.S. 

That almost certainly remains the case today. European tensions with Russia have greatly increased, mostly tied to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine’s east. 

There is no evidence that the Putin government intends to start an aggressive war against Europe, and no alliance member, including the Baltic States and Poland, has boosted military outlays as if it believed conflict was imminent. Rather, the Europeans have concentrated on demanding that America do more. 

That’s certainly the case when it comes to nuclear weapons. In a study last year for the Atlantic Council Matthew Kroenig argued that NATO needed to emphasize nuclear deterrence. 

Any additional weapons likely would be American—Washington currently shares control over U.S. nukes with several alliance members—and the country most in Russia’s retaliatory sites would be America. Since two European nations possess nuclear weapons and others could develop them, why should the U.S. remain the country expected to bring Gutterdaemmerung to life? 

Americans should ask whether it is truly in America’s interest to use nuclear weapons to defend Europe?  The Soviet Union was an ideological and global competitor to the U.S. During the Cold War Moscow’s domination of the more populous and productive Western European states would have made for a much scarier world. 

Very different is Russia, which looks a lot more like pre-1914 Imperial Russia with far more bounded ambitions. Moscow’s present aggressiveness is unpleasant, but not particularly threatening to the U.S. Putin’s Russia appears most interested in respect—for its interests and borders. 

If anyone is at risk, it is the three Baltic States, though Moscow would gain little benefit from attacking them while the costs would be significant. Nothing in Russia’s posturing today looks like the opening salvo of an expensive Russian blitzkrieg over a geopolitical cliff. 

And if Putin surprised in a bad way, does defense of the Baltics warrant Washington taking steps that could incinerate the American homeland? In this case for what? 

To protect a continent which appears to have little interest in arming itself? Only the specter of Donald Trump becoming president appears to have caused a few European nations to reluctantly do a bit more. But the difference is hard to notice. 

Nuclear nonproliferation is a worthwhile goal, but not if it increases the likelihood of America being involved in a nuclear war. If anyone should take that risk for Europe, it should be European nations. 

A possible solution would be to create European nuclear deterrent through contributions from member nuclear states. Roderich Kiesewette, a German Bundestag leader on foreign policy, suggested turning to Britain and France, with a build-up financed by a joint European military budget: “If the United States no longer wants to provide this guarantee, Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes.” 

Berthold Kohler, a publisher of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, followed with the suggestion that Germany might need to augment the small British and French arsenals to successfully confront Russia and maybe China. 

However, a nuclear Germany isn’t a new idea. It came up during West Germany’s rearmament and induction into NATO. A German nuclear capability deserves a full debate today. 

For much of the foreign policy community, what has always been must always be is the guiding mantra. The incoming Trump administration is likely to provide greater opportunities to rethink Washington’s conventional wisdom. 

One policy which deserves rethinking is extended deterrence in Europe. The continent already has two European nuclear states as members of NATO. Instead of expecting the U.S. to risk a nuclear exchange to protect Europe, the Europeans should take over that risk. With their continent already hosting two nuclear states, it is time to ask whether that number should grow. 


Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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European Nukes

While a European nuclear deterrent might be a good idea and would take some of the pressure off of the U.S. to be the world's Peace Officer, a necessary precondition is a united Europe, which I don't see happening. The European Union is falling apart, simply because Englishmen, Dutch, French, Spaniards, Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and others do not want to be governed by a distant, unaccountable bureaucracy any more than we Americans in flyover country do. Although NATO may provide some cohesiveness in the defense of its member nations, it is subject to the same criticisms and stresses as the European Union. Political accountability to one's constituents is not a strong suit among globalists and others who favor international unions. For example, look at the way Angela Merkel and Barack Obama have betrayed their respective native populations with their reckless (or deliberately destructive) immigration policies.