POLITICO: Europe is quietly debating a nuclear future without the USA

11:12 08.07.2024 •

A Marine carries the Nuclear Football at the U.S. ambassador's residence in London.
Photo: AFP

America has protected Europe with is nuclear umbrella for more than 70 years. In the era of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, the continent is quietly debating a different nuclear future, notes POLITICO in its detailed review of information that relates to this issue.

In a castle near Stockholm, standing on a blue-curtained podium that hid the room’s gilt mirrors and sparkling chandeliers, French President Emmanuel Macron ripped open a debate that Europe had been avoiding not just for years but for decades. 

During the Cold War, Macron noted, “all the treaties were decided by the former USSR and USA. Everything that covered our territory was decided by the big guys in the room, not by the Europeans themselves.” Going forward, he said, looking around the audience to make sure his point was getting across, in the area of arms control, troop deployments and the entirety of Europe’s security architecture, that needs to change. “We have to be the one to decide,” Macron said.

Ever since the advent of nuclear arms, Europe has been protected by an American nuclear umbrella. It was the United States that promised NATO allies that any nuclear aggression by the Soviet Union, and later, by Russia, would be answered with a barrage of U.S. missiles. 

For seven decades, this arrangement allowed Western Europe to focus on recovering from the devastation of the 20th century’s two world wars instead of developing costly nuclear capabilities. Only France and the U.K. developed small national arsenals, and they were just a fraction the size of those controlled by the Cold War superpowers.

But now, some European countries have begun to question whether that nuclear status quo will hold much longer. Nuclear calculations in Europe have been shifted by two developments, one external to NATO, and one internal. 

First, Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. 

Second, after his election in 2016, former U.S. President Donald Trump changed the United States’ posture toward NATO, taking a far more transactional approach to the alliance by saying that the United States might come to the aid of only those countries that pay their fair share for defense spending.

With the strong possibility that Trump could be reelected in November, European officials have reluctantly — and quietly — begun to debate whether Europe should do something that’s been unthinkable for most of NATO’s existence: develop a security architecture that’s not so dependent on the United States, including for nuclear deterrence. 

In the months since Macron’s speech, officials from a variety of European nations have been reaching out to their French counterparts, seeking more information about what France’s head of state has in mind, according to six people with first-hand knowledge of the conversations.

During the Cold War, Europe was terrified by the possibility of nuclear war. But once the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, the specter of nuclear war receded. Sure, France and the U.K. still had their arsenals, but they were increasingly seen as an obsolete weapon of a bygone era. 

That all changed because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Macron hasn’t provided many specifics about how exactly this arsenal would cover Europe, but has made clear that France would remain fully in charge: “It’s the President of the Republic as head of the armed forces who defines the engagement of this nuclear force in all its components and who defines France’s vital interests,” he told The Economist. “It’s not a question of changing that.” 

At present, the U.K. has about 225 warheads, which it partially contributes to NATO defense. That number is expected to grow in the coming years after the U.K. government decided in 2021 to raise the cap to 260 warheads. London is part of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) but only the U.K. prime minister can authorize the use of nuclear weapons, even if they’re deployed in the context of a NATO response. 

For its part, France has about 290 warheads, but is not a member of the NPG. In comparison, the U.S. has more than 5,000 nukes and Russia 5,580, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

It’s fair to say that quite a few European countries think that by reopening the debate over its nuclear umbrella, Europe has far more to lose than to gain. Chief among them is Germany, which has a history of saying no thank you to nuclear pushes from French presidents. 

However, West Germany eventually became part of the U.S.-led nuclear sharing program in NATO and Germany currently has an estimated 20 American tactical nuclear bombs stationed at the Büchel airbase in Rhineland-Palatinate. Washington retains control over the weapons’ use, but German Tornado bombers — meant to be replaced by American-made F-35s in the coming years — can carry them if needed. 

At least a few security experts think Macron’s idea merits discussion. Retired Lieutenant General Heinrich Brauss, NATO’s assistant secretary general for Defense Policy and Force Planning from 2013 to 2018, has proposed “a review and adjustment of NATO’s current nuclear posture in Europe” toward an expanded European nuclear posture but with Europeans bearing the largest share of the costs. “This would change the burden-sharing formula in the alliance in favor of the Americans, which would counter the free-rider argument of Trump and his supporters,” Brauss said.

The need to come to terms with the changing nuclear landscape may be felt most keenly by those countries — many of them newer members of the NATO alliance — located geographically closer to Russia. 

Until recently, the largest and most vocal was Poland, a country that shares borders with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad. For Poland and the Baltic states, the most immediate concern remains the threat of conventional and hybrid warfare, but the conversation around nuclear deterrence has changed since the war in Ukraine started. In Warsaw, there’s been a push to be more involved in the continent’s nuclear deterrence framework — but with the Americans, not the French. 

On several occasions, Poland President Andrzej Duda publicly said he would like his country to be included in the U.S.-led nuclear sharing program.

So far, signs coming from Washington are not very encouraging, according to Polish officials. 

Talks took place between Warsaw and the current U.S. administration last year on Poland’s suggestion to participate in the U.S. nuclear sharing program, but there’s little appetite on the American side to risk an escalation spiral with Moscow, Polish officials said. 

And actually stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in Poland seems out of the question. 

And finally, there’s the fact that it’s still not clear just what Trump might do vis-a-vis Europe in a second term. Rose Gottemoeller, who served as deputy secretary general of NATO during the Trump administration and is now at Stanford University, said that although Trump has had his differences with the alliance, that doesn’t mean he’ll abandon the nuclear umbrella Europe has relied on since World War II. 

The bottom line, she said, is that for as much as the continent has lived under the American nuclear umbrella for seven decades, Europe has never been 100-percent sure that any American president would actually push that button if Europe needed it. 

“From the very inception of the extended nuclear deterrent, way back when, questions have been raised whether the United States would actually pull the trigger,” she said. “The line always was, ‘Would the United States trade Paris and Berlin for New York?’”

Europe still doesn’t know the answer to that question, POLITICO stresses.


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