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Weapons of Mass Debate - Time to Talk about Nuclear Deterrence in Europe (Again)

Weapons of Mass Debate - Time to Talk about Nuclear Deterrence in Europe (Again)
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

As nationalism and great power competition make a comeback on the international scene, nuclear weapons remain a key currency of power and are once again brandished as an instrument of influence. All nuclear-weapons possessors have shown intent to maintain and modernize their arsenals. Arms competitions are alive in Asia; there are echoes of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia; North Korea is turning into a full-fledged nuclear power and the Iranian nuclear crisis is still unresolved. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in disarmament has led to the conclusion of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – which no nuclear possessor intends to sign.

Yet in this fast-moving strategic environment, the foundations of the European nuclear order remain unchanged. There are two European nuclear powers – France and the United Kingdom – as well as five “NATO nuclear sharing” countries – i.e. non-nuclear countries hosting US weapons on their territory, which could be loaded on their own fighter-bombers (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). These can carry the US B-61 gravity bomb, a new version of which is to be deployed in Europe in 2025 on newly-acquired F-35 fighter-bombers (by Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands) and perhaps on other types of aircraft. The United States, the United Kingdom and France all contribute to the overall deterrence of the Atlantic Alliance. However, only the former two assign nuclear weapons to NATO and explicitly extend a nuclear protection umbrella over their allies. France’s independent nuclear choice was seen by Paris as incompatible with military integration of its deterrent force.  

What’s New 

The role of nuclear weapons on the continent has always been a topic of debate among Europeans and within most countries. The first part of the 2020s will witness a new round of such debate, for several distinct reasons.  

British Choices

The United Kingdom has left the European Union (EU) and France will remain the only EU nuclear power. While this has no immediate strategic and even less operational consequences, there will be symbolic and political implications. Paris will feel lonelier when discussing nuclear policy questions in the EU – for instance at the occasion of the important Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conferences, which happen every five years. The UK departure also implies that any serious discussion of nuclear deterrence questions among Europeans could hardly happen within the Union’s formal institutions – i.e. without London’s participation.     

At the same time, the UK’s new, more muscular nuclear deterrence stance, embodied in its 2021 Integrated Review, brings London closer to Paris than it has been over the past thirty years in terms of nuclear policy. However, a lingering shadow exists on the long-term sustainability of the UK deterrent in case of a Scotland breakaway, given that the only UK submarine base is located there and alternatives would be very costly. 

European Hesitations

Three European countries – Austria, Ireland and Malta, which are EU but not NATO members – have signed the new TPNW, which entered into force in January 2021. Although it is unlikely that several others will follow any time soon, national debates on the subject are ongoing or should be expected, including because of the moral support of major religious leaders. According to some polls, the Treaty is quite popular (more than 70% favoring their country becoming a signatory) among Nordic – Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – populations.

Germany’s official stance on nuclear deterrence may be affected by the outcome of the September elections: the Green party’s leadership favors ending German participation to nuclear sharing and signing the TPNW. While Berlin currently envisions acquiring 45 US F/A-18 fighter-bombers to replace part of its ageing fleet of Tornado – a decision that would allow it to maintain its NATO nuclear sharing mission – no formal decision is expected before 2022. 

Turkish Questions 

Turkey is in a different place. Ankara does not openly challenge the presence of US nuclear weapons on the strategically located Inçirlik base (mostly for use by the US Air Force for conventional operations in the Middle East). But increasing tensions between the current leadership and its European neighbors, as well as with the United States – even more since the advent of the Biden administration – have planted the seed for a possible major political crisis within NATO.

Since the signing of the Washington Treaty, Europeans have wondered how solid the US defense guarantee to NATO allies really was and transatlantic crises of confidence have been many. 

Turkey’s strategic choices and increasing aggressiveness vis-à-vis some of its neighbors could lead a short-tempered Erdogan to a symbolic decision to cease US access to Inçirlik, or demand the withdrawal of the US B-61s stored there, or even leave the integrated military structure altogether, as France did in 1967 (as well as Greece, briefly, in 1974). Although Turkey’s own role in the nuclear sharing procedures is very limited – its capability could only be generated with significant delay – of note is the fact that the US cancellation of Ankara’s F-35 order means that Turkey would no longer be able to maintain a (theoretical) nuclear sharing role by the late 2020s.

US U-turns

Since the signing of the Washington Treaty (1949), Europeans have wondered how solid the US defense guarantee to NATO allies really was and transatlantic crises of confidence have been many. But the experience of the Trump administration has left a deep mark on some of them, fuelling the narrative that it cannot be a reliable long-term solution for the security of the continent. To be sure, they breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Biden was sworn into office, but the new US President is troubling some of his allies when he claims that, in addition to focusing more on China than on Russia, he seeks to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy, aiming for a “sole purpose” concept, whereby the function of these weapons would henceforth be limited to the deterrence of a nuclear attack. In addition, there are fears that Washington could be ready to give up its non-strategic nuclear presence on the continent, if this was the price to pay for a follow-on bilateral arms control treaty.  

French Proposals

Indeed, in Paris, the evolution (and zigzags) of US strategic choices since 2010 have validated the traditional, post-1958 dominant national narrative, according to which the United States – or, to be clear, any other non-European country – can ever be a solid guarantor of European security on the long run. This was a major driver behind Emmanuel Macron’s February 2020 proposals. The French President emphasized – more than his predecessors ever did – the European vocation of his country’s nuclear forces, and proposed a new dialogue on deterrence with interested countries. He added that they would be invited to participate in French nuclear exercises. This happened in the background of a renewed French drive for more “strategic autonomy”. Recall that as early as 1994, Paris had solemnly stated that “With nuclear [weapons], Europe’s defense autonomy is possible. Without [them], it cannot exist”.    


What these elements suggest is that a new strategic fracture could open up on the continent. A future US-German convergence for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s strategy, which would be supported by several NATO and EU members, would be problematic for Paris and London. Also, a unilateral decision by one nuclear-sharing country to cease its participation in the process and demand the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons could lead to an unraveling of the whole scheme through the empowerment of anti-nuclear forces in national parliaments of other countries. That would put an end to a decades-old arrangement, often seen to be at the core of the transatlantic bargain, the “sharing of nuclear risks and responsibilities”.

The materialization of such scenarios would not be without consequences on the political cohesion of Western institutions (NATO and the EU), and would put at risk the very notion of a common European strategic culture. Not only would non-nuclear NATO countries be cut off from the discussions about nuclear planning and operations, but they would also lose the opportunity to weigh on Alliance nuclear policy. Perhaps most importantly, this would also affect the perception by potential adversaries of the solidity of these discussions and on deterrence itself, at a time when Russia increasingly appears as a major strategic threat.

A future US-German convergence for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s strategy, [...] would be problematic for Paris and London.

There is no reason to over-exaggerate those risks, and even a break with nuclear-sharing practices by one country could theoretically find a fallback solution. For instance, if asked by the United States and supported by other allies, Poland could theoretically “replace” Germany as a nuclear sharing nation. Greece – which was a nuclear sharing country until 2001 – could be an alternative to Turkish nuclear basing, even though these would entail major political decisions by their capitals. 

It is also likely that national positions on nuclear deterrence will remain more in terms of shades of grey than in black-and-white, or in clear-cut “camps”. But the new parameters described suggest that it is a good time to reopen the nuclear deterrence debate among Europeans.  

National Views

Geography and history matter when charting the European nuclear debate. In the Western part of the continent, there is a British-French “Nuclear Weapon-States axis”, where nuclear assertiveness prevails. In the central part, one finds the NATO nuclear sharing countries, where the presence of US nuclear weapons is generally challenged by the Left and the Greens.These countries suffer from a certain nuclear anxiety today. In the North, nuclear ambivalence prevails as these countries are torn between their traditions of neutrality or pacifism, and growing worries about the Russian threat. Further east, Central Europe is where NATO and EU members support or accept nuclear deterrence and do not want to rock the nuclear boat. In EU Mediterranean countries, the debate is generally non-existent: the expression nuclear apathy comes to mind. Turkey appears to be the odd country out.

A slightly different taxonomy was suggested by a 2018 European Council on Foreign Relations report, which distinguished “True Believers” (France, the UK, Poland and Romania) from “Neutrals” (Ireland, Austria, Malta, Cyprus and Finland), “Pragmatists” (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Italy), and “Conformists” (Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Greece, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain, and Portugal).

In most other countries, nuclear apathy prevails and no major political parties or non-governmental organizations influence political decisions.

There exists an occasional but vibrant nuclear debate in old European democracies, with a strong parliamentary tradition in the Northern parts of the continent – that is mostly in the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, as well as in Switzerland. Some of them (the last three) had serious debates about whether or not to join the TPNW. For Nordic countries – even non-NATO members Sweden and Finland – concerns about their relations with the United States at a time of growing Russian assertiveness in their region was a key reason to reject the Treaty.

Disarmament-oriented ideas and proposals are generally put forward or supported by center-left, leftist and green forces, while conservative, liberal and Christian-democrat parties remain more attached to the status quo. In most other countries, nuclear apathy prevails and no major political parties or non-governmental organizations influence political decisions. Only on occasion does a parliamentary debate happen on a key decision – such as in Spain where the previously-ruling coalition was inclined to join the TPNW.  

In some EU countries, notably Germany and Poland, the ideas proposed by Emmanuel Macron, in February 2020, were politely welcomed, although colored by lingering suspicions about French motives. To be sure, in 2019 and in 2020, opinion polls in the Federal Republic revealed significant support for a French and/or British nuclear protection. But although the emergence of the pandemic prevented Paris from embarking on a major diplomatic campaign to promote Macron’s ideas, there is no strong official appetite in European governments  for implementing them today – even more so since the election of Joe Biden. Many governments are unwilling to “rock the boat” either nationally (waking up antinuclear forces), or internationally (giving arguments to those in the US who seek to trade away the weapons based in Europe). In most NATO countries, the fear that any European initiative could weaken the transatlantic link is often heard. That may be because open enthusiasm for the French proposals might signal a lack of trust and could be used by Washington to reduce its deterrence commitments. Such attitudes largely mirror those regarding the need for a stronger “strategic autonomy”. Questions have also been raised about what is sometimes seen as a paradoxical or self-contradictory French position, given Macron’s strong desire to maintain dialogue and cooperation with Moscow. It is likely, however, that quiet bilateral discussions about nuclear deterrence have taken place among officials since February 2020. 

Scenarios and Possible Outcomes 

Overall, two broad future scenarios exist. 

As is often the case, the most probable one is the status quo, even more so since nuclear deterrence is one of those issues where Heads of State and governments almost always resist abrupt changes. That is even more true  at a time when nuclear weapons are brandished all around the world as instruments of power, much more than was the case in the 1990s and 2000s. The renewed salience of the Russian threat, for instance, helps explain why traditionally disarmament-friendly Nordic countries stayed away from the TPNW. 

Then again, there are too many forces at work pushing for change to discard the possibility of a second scenario of an unraveling of the nuclear deterrence arrangements within the Atlantic Alliance. This could particularly be the case if more than one country pressed for change, either because they have a disarmament-oriented agenda (the United States, Germany) or because of a nationalistic one (Turkey). 

If the status quo did prevail, it does not mean that the French ideas for a European-only debate on nuclear weapons would be irrelevant. Paris is right to say that Europeans need to avoid leaving this discussion entirely to transatlantic forums, and that only a reinforced dialogue among them can ascertain whether there is a common understanding of nuclear deterrence, nurture a common strategic culture, as well as inform French thinking about the European dimension of its national deterrent. Such discussions would be particularly relevant in an era of increased uncertainties about the reliability and future of the US deterrent. Under the Biden administration, only 51% of Germans see Washington as the most reliable of their allies – and most Europeans are aware that the likelihood that Mr. Trump (or a Trump-like figure) could be elected in 2024 is non-trivial. 

The EU itself would not be an appropriate forum for such discussions, given the strong opposition to nuclear weapons of some members, and the absence of the UK (and one should not expect Paris to push for that kind of EU discussion in its 2022 presidency). A European Intervention Initiative-like forum might be more adequate. Such a forum could also be an umbrella for detailed briefings by Paris and London, visits to French and UK bases, as well as attendance to nuclear exercises. 

If the status quo did prevail, it does not mean that the French ideas for a European-only debate on nuclear weapons would be irrelevant.

If the UK stood firm on its new nuclear stance and European countries worried about US protection, a UK-French consensus on some form of explicit nuclear umbrella declaration for Europe could then be in the cards, perhaps including an intention to consult partners before nuclear use, time and circumstances permitting. Rotations of French Strategic Air Forces aircraft – without their nuclear weapons – on bases in Central Europe could also be envisioned as a reassurance measure. This would not be a substitute for the NATO deterrent and nuclear arrangements – rather a sort of additional insurance or safety net (a “backstop”?). Indeed, a high-level multinational taskforce composed of recognized senior experts and former officials from various Western nations suggested in 2021 that “France and Britain should extend their nuclear deterrent to their European allies. [...] Ultimately, European defense cooperation would benefit from a strong, European-oriented nuclear deterrent capability separate from the US nuclear umbrella”.

Consultations with a group of European experts convened by Institut Montaigne on June 14th, suggest a few additional recommendations to French officials regarding a European discussion about nuclear deterrence. Paris should: 

  • be clearer about what it seeks and does not seek through such discussions, including by public statements directed at national parliaments, think tanks and NGOs;
  • refrain from openly linking the idea of a nuclear dialogue to the drive for European strategic autonomy; 
  • include arms control and other “strategic stability”-related questions in any European nuclear deterrence discussions; 
  • consider joining the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, at least as an observer, to alleviate suspicions. If Paris joined as a full member - something that would not imply any de jure constraint on its nuclear force - Paris would also benefit from another forum to push for its ideas and positions about nuclear policy issues. While a political taboo in France (Paris has long feared that its deterrent would be seen as less independent if it was an NPG member), domestic politics - i.e., Gaullist opposition - would less be a constraint for such a move than they were in the past;
  • foster non-official dialogues among European experts, including for educational purposes, perhaps on the model of the NATO Defense College’s annual workshop for young scholars.  

If the second scenario was to materialize – a real break, at some point in the future, in the existing NATO nuclear arrangements – then more drastic innovations should be imagined. This could include a formal French or UK-French nuclear umbrella and even a new form of nuclear sharing in which European aircraft would carry the French ASMPA missile, for those countries which would be willing and able to do so. But we’re not there at all. 




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