1. Eyes wide shut
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 28/01/2019
Balkans Germany UK
* « There is too much government today. We’ve got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people, and for the people.» Ray Bradbury
The 29 July edition of Germany’s Welt am Sonntag hit newsstands like a bombshell. The weapon in question was painted in German national colours, and illustrated the front-page headline “Do we need the bomb?” Inside, the writer argued that: “For the first time since 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany is no longer under the US nuclear umbrella.”
It is extraordinary that this question should arise so prominently in peace-loving, anti-nuclear Germany. But it is not before time.
This year, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a comprehensive survey of attitudes towards nuclear issues across the member states of the European Union.
Two overarching themes emerged.
- Firstly, despite the growing insecurity all around them, Europeans remain unwilling to face up to the renewed relevance that nuclear deterrence ought to have in their strategic thinking.
- Secondly, and as a consequence, national attitudes remain much where they were when the subject dropped off the agenda at the end of the cold war – which is to say, scattered across the entire spectrum from those who continue to see nuclear deterrence as an essential underpinning of European security to enduring advocates of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
This is hardly the only important challenge on which Europeans’ views are all over the place, and about which they would prefer to remain in denial. As one official told the authors, “Europe has not only outsourced its security, but also its security thinking”. But when set against the dramatic changes occurring in the international security environment, the results of this research demonstrate that there is now an urgent need for Europeans to think about, and debate, nuclear deterrence anew.
A ‘German bomb’ is unlikely to prove attractive – not least to Germans themselves. Europeans must instead give serious consideration to whether a Franco-British ‘nuclear umbrella’ would be a possible and desirable complement to, or substitute for, the current US nuclear guarantee to Europe. This paper concludes that this issue is significant but belongs to a range of nuclear weapons-related topics with which Europeans need to re-engage.
Regardless of whether it proves viable to agree to a “nuclear Saint-Malo”, to borrow a phrase coined by a member of ECFR’s pan-European research team, one thing is clear: the situation is such that Europeans can no longer pretend that their declared ambition of “strategic autonomy” is more than an empty phrase unless they engage seriously on the nuclear dimension.
The absence of a European deterrent may be a fatal flaw for such an ambition. Besides nuclear capabilities, there are many ways in which Europe can move towards its stated bid for strategic autonomy. But, without this, many Europeans will continue to believe that Russia will always hold the whip hand in any military confrontation with a Europe not backed by a credible US nuclear guarantee. And yet most Europeans’ approach to the nuclear dimension of a rapidly shifting strategic environment is to keep their eyes tight shut.
Europeans are, of course, aware that their security environment is deteriorating. They know that the neighbourhood they once aspired to turn into a ring of friends has instead turned into something closer to a ring of fire. They know too that this violence has ventured into European territory in the form of terrorism.
But Vladimir Putin’s Russia has also played a key role in European perceptions, as evidenced by the coincidence between the rise in European defence budgets and the war in eastern Ukraine that began following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And with Donald Trump resident in the White House, doubts have risen about the United States’ commitment to Europe’s security, including through NATO.
The 2016 Global Strategy set strategic autonomy as the centrepiece ambition for the EU and its member states.
Though ill-defined, this concept nonetheless indicated that Europeans acknowledged the need to be readier to fend for themselves and, consequently, to do more on defence by standing on their own feet and reducing their dependence on the US. But the truth is that NATO and the accompanying US security guarantee were, and remain, the defining security frame for Europeans. The progress made towards a European Defence Union since 2016 has addressed only conventional capabilities and Europe’s defence technological and industrial base. In all these discussions and developments, European governments were all too happy to ignore nuclear issues almost entirely.
And yet the nuclear dimension of this security environment is obvious. A recent concerted diplomatic effort led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the United Nations in 2017. But this effort won no support from any of the current nuclear weapons states – whether those recognised by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the others.
On the contrary, nuclear weapons have since gained further salience in Russia’s defence strategy, while the US has moved to a more “flexible” policy under its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and its inclusion of low-yield warheads.
At the same time, events in east Asia and the Middle East have increased worries about a rise in the number of nuclear states; and the risk of proliferation crises in Iran and North Korea has dominated the headlines at various times in the last year. The situation in both regions remains highly unpredictable. Europe is more or less absent from efforts to solve the situation in east Asia. And, although it is playing a crucial role in trying to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, it faces a formidable challenge due to the US not only exiting the deal but also trying to prevent Europe from implementing its own non-proliferation strategy by threatening secondary sanctions on European companies.
In Europe itself, the crisis in Ukraine has given way to Russian nuclear sabre-rattling – through not just rhetoric but also the deployment of short-range nuclear-capable missiles to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders two EU member states.
This has further weakened a European security order to which the US and Russia have, in fact, been actively making changes for nearly two decades; the notion of an unchanging post-cold war order does not bear too much scrutiny.
The US unilaterally terminated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, while Russia has likely violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by testing and deploying the SSC-8, a new and prohibited intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile. Both powers have announced new plans to strengthen their strategic arsenals.
Yet, although NATO statements have raised this issue, Europe scarcely seemed to act upon it until the US announced its intent to withdraw from the INF treaty. When Russia deployed a new missile, the SS-20, in the cold war, the result was the Euromissile crisis. In contrast, Europeans have chosen to react to the appearance of the SSC-8 by looking the other way.
Trump has shown that he meant it when he described NATO as obsolete, even though Europeans are only slowly coming to terms with this fact. But even in the post-Trump era to come, the US may well fold up its nuclear umbrella.
- For the moment, European governments continue to believe, or hope, that they can go on taking advantage of the comfort blanket of the post-cold war order.
- This is partly because they have fallen so far out of practice of discussing nuclear weapons issues with one another, not to mention with the public.
Of course, memories of the Euromissile protests of 35 years ago result in some governments turning a blind eye. Others really are wary of Russia. Some governments have begun to recognise the changing environment formally: for instance, the French armed forces ministry’s recent strategic review noted the emergence of a “nuclear multipolarity”, the growing risks associated with the “deconstruction of the security architecture in Europe”, and the strategic “unpredictability and ambiguity” that come with it. But most European leaders still shy away from opening up what they fear could be a Pandora’s box of difficult questions and possible political opposition.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu