A U.S. nuclear test in the Nevada desert in 1953-Foto: National Nuclear Security Administration
Putin’s war has unleashed a debate in Berlin that has been taboo for decades: Does Europe need a share nuclear deterrence of its own?
At shortly after 8:30 a.m. on July 12, 2018, Donald Trump asked his National Security Adviser John Bolton: “Do you want to do something historic?” The United States president had just spent the night in the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels and he was now facing a long day of summit meetings. Trump was eager to make waves.
Dinner on the previous evening with heads of state and government from the trans-Atlantic alliance had put him in a bad mood. Once again, most of America’s NATO allies had declined to promise a boost in their defense spending. And on top of that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was still unwilling to suspend construction on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. “We’re out,” Trump announced to his distraught advisers, adding: “We’re not going to fight someone they’re paying.” The reference was to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the reliance of many European countries on energy imports from Russia.
Bolton, as he describes in his memoirs, began wondering if he would have to resign by the end of the day should Trump carry through with his plan. Together with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he was able to keep the president from exiting NATO. But if Trump ends up returning to the White House following the 2024 elections, that could very well drive a stake into the heart of the alliance. “In a second term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO,” Bolton told the Washington Post in early March. “And I think Putin was waiting for that.”
A Number of Delusions
The war in Eastern Europe has exposed a number of delusions. The idea that Russian natural gas deliveries couldn’t be used as a political weapon, for example. Or that Putin’s megalomania was just the standard Kremlin huffing and puffing. “Those who deploy violence to shift borders will do so again and again,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at the end of March. “And that is why we must together make ourselves strong enough to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
In response to Putin’s aggression, Scholz has said that his government intends to inject 100 billion euros
into Germany’s defense, while Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has promised to develop a national security strategy by the end of the year that reflects Germany’s interests. Berlin, astoundingly, has never before had such a strategy.
Already, though, it is becoming apparent just how difficult it might be to come up with a convincing plan for European security. What might happen if the U.S. was to withdraw from NATO and leave Europe alone with a dictator who violates all established norms and doesn’t even stop at slaughtering civilians?
It is a question that American think tanks are currently focusing on more intently than is the government in Berlin. Once again, it would seem, the German government’s penchant for denying reality is on full display. “I found German passivity toward Donald Trump when he was elected president in 2016 shocking,” says Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington with ties to the Democratic Party. “I didn’t quite understand how, you know, Europeans would sort of pretend as if nothing had changed and if America was completely reliable.”
That could be the case as long as Joe Biden is still in the White House. But the 79-year-old Democrat’s approval rating is historically low, and with the November 2024 election rapidly approaching, the party doesn’t seem to have a promising replacement candidate either.
Within the Republican Party, meanwhile, there is a powerful group that would prefer to see the U.S. turn its back on NATO. Last Tuesday, 63 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a resolution affirming U.S. support for NATO. One day later, the pollsters at Pew published a survey according to which 82 percent of Democratic voters believe that the U.S. benefits from the Western alliance, but just 55 percent of Republicans agree. It isn’t a completely absurd idea to think that Trump could run an explicitly anti-NATO campaign and that it might even prove successful, says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. “If all these things play out in a bad way, then I think Europe has some very fundamental and difficult choices, and one of them could include the idea of developing a European-wide nuclear deterrent.”
The Difficult Nuclear Debate in Germany
It is an issue that caused turmoil in the German government once before. In the 1950s, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss discussed the idea of building a European bomb with France and Italy. In November 1957, Strauss even signed a secret deal with his counterparts from Paris and Rome. Their goal was to make Europe independent of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The plan, though, was ultimately torpedoed by Charles de Gaulle, who had taken over power in France in mid-1958 and wanted France to have its own nuclear weapons. The idea of a joint European bomb never again gained traction – much to the frustration of Strauss, who for the rest of his life considered it a mistake for the German military to be dependent on the U.S. when it comes to nuclear weapons.
Strauss, though, became increasingly isolated over the years with his fondness for the bomb. The NATO Dual-Track Decision, with which the Western alliance sought to respond to the Warsaw Pact’s nuclear weapons buildup in Europe, drove hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Germany and Europe in the 1980s. Resistance within Germany’s center-left Social Democrats to an increase in the number of American Pershing missiles in Europe was so great that it contributed to the collapse of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s government in 1982.
In 2010, then German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle even sought to make Germany a nuclear weapons-free zone and urged the Americans to withdraw their nuclear warheads stationed at the Büchel airbase in western Germany. And until recently, prominent Social Democrats like parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich blocked the German military from acquiring new warplanes capable of deploying those nuclear warheads as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. And now, the EU is supposed to consider a path to becoming a nuclear power?
In the face of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government has at least decided to place an order for American F-35 fighters. They have the capability of flying American warheads deep into enemy territory. “NATO’s nuclear deterrence must remain credible,” Baerbock said in a speech opening the debate over Germany’s national security strategy. Nevertheless, the government’s deliberations continue to assume that NATO and the U.S. will remain dependable – a rather irresponsible position given developments in the U.S. “It is objectively possible that a U.S. president will rise to power who will once again call NATO and the American nuclear umbrella for Europe into question,” says Ekkehard Brose, president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy. “That is something we need to worry about.”
Dependence on American nukes could ultimately be more dangerous than dependence on Russian gas. Putin has the fourth largest military in the world, with 900,000 soldiers. Germany’s Bundeswehr, meanwhile, has just 180,000 troops.
The reputation of Russia’s fighting force, to be sure, has suffered mightily due to its inability to even take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. But the Russian military threat isn’t just rooted in its tanks and artillery, but also in its almost 6,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to annihilate Europe. The Russian arsenal also includes tactical nuclear weapons which, because of their lower explosive power, are intended for use on the battlefield. They could also be detonated in unpopulated areas to force opponents to capitulate.
“The fact that Putin hasn’t yet played the nuclear card in Ukraine demonstrates the strength of NATO,” says Maximilian Terhalle, a visiting professor of political science at King’s College in London. But the Western alliance’s nuclear deterrence is almost entirely dependent on the U.S., which possesses around 5,400 nuclear warheads of varying strength, deliverable in a number of different ways: intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth bombers and cruise missiles, to name a few.
Can America Be Relied On?
Because the U.S. has recently turned its strategic attention more toward China, Terhalle has been urging for years that Europe establish its own nuclear deterrence. In December 2018, he joined French political adviser François Heisbourg in advocating
for France to expand its rather limited nuclear umbrella to protect other European countries that do not possess such weapons. “This commitment could involve the rotational presence of French nuclear-capable combat aircraft on the territory of NATO allies in Europe, including Germany,” the two scientists wrote. It was an idea that only really received attention at the time in security policy circles. That, though, has now changed.
“Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and his nuclear threats have once again made clear to us just how important NATO and the American nuclear umbrella are,” says Christoph Heusgen, the former security policy adviser to Chancellor Merkel. “We must understand, though, that the U.S. sees China as the greatest threat, and we have to keep an eye on possible domestic political developments in the U.S.”
It is a diplomatic way of saying that Germany must prepare for a scenario in which the Americans can no longer be relied on. Heusgen served Merkel in the Chancellery for 12 years and is one of the most experienced security policy practitioners in Europe. In summer 2017, half a year after Trump’s inauguration, Heusgen was sent to New York as Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, and he is now head of the Munich Security Conference. The time he spent at the UN convinced Heusgen that the old trans-Atlantic certainties not longer apply. That, too, has motivated him to speak up.
Europeans must be prepared to do far more for deterrence and defense, Heusgen says. He views the 100-billion-euro spending package for the German military to be an absolute necessity. “But in addition to that, I believe we should begin a strategic dialogue with France focused on whether and how Europeans can jointly contribute to a nuclear deterrence against Russia. One model could involve the German government and other EU member states contributing financially to the French nuclear weapons program in return for a say in the planning and deployment of French atomic weapons.”
Heusgen would like to see such talks embedded in efforts to form a real political union, one which would remain a partner of the U.S. He is very much aware, after all, that there have been periodic efforts in Paris to disconnect from the U.S. And it wasn’t all that long ago that French President Emmanuel Macron described NATO as being “brain dead” – a formulation that many in Berlin found to be extremely unfortunate. What’s the point, after all, of wantonly bad-mouthing the trans-Atlantic defensive alliance? For Heusgen, a European nuclear umbrella would in no way be an end in itself, but rather a kind of insurance policy should NATO become unreliable.
France’s Limited Arsenal
Since Brexit, France has been the only nuclear power in the EU. The 26 other member states have pledged to refrain from building the bomb as part of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Beyond that, as part of the deal that paved the way to German reunification in 1990, the so-called Two Plus Four Agreement, Germany committed to neither producing nor possessing weapons of mass destruction. As such, the simplest path toward a European nuclear umbrella would be the expansion of France’s deterrence capability to include the rest of the continent.
There are plenty of hurdles, however, including of a technical nature. France possesses just short of 300 nuclear warheads. In theory, that is sufficient for effective deterrence. Those warheads, though, can essentially only be delivered by four submarines, of which only two are usually available. Security experts have their doubts as to whether such a tiny fleet would be enough to convince Putin that Europe could respond to a nuclear attack with a destructive retaliatory salvo. The U.S., by contrast, possesses 18 nuclear-powered Ohio Class submarines, each of which has the capability of firing off 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Complicating matters further is the fact that France only has strategic nuclear weapons. A French M51 missile holds up to six warheads, each with an explosive force of 100 kilotons of TNT, eight times as powerful as the bomb the U.S. detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Russia, on the other hand, also has smaller tactical weapons, which can be used to force an adversary to surrender – an approach Western military experts refer to as “escalate to de-escalate.”
The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states that Russia has not only significantly expanded its nuclear arsenal, it has also provided for the possibility of a limited nuclear strike. That’s why the American president needs a whole range of nuclear weapons to be able to strike back flexibly.
So far, the French nuclear arsenal has not developed the capability to do that. “If they want to effectively deter a country like Russia, they need to have flexible options,” says Oliver Thränert, who heads the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. Without that flexibility, Thränert says, Russia could quickly force Europe to surrender, because Paris could only respond to the deployment of a small Russian warhead with large strategic weapons – risking the annihilation of all of Western Europe in a counter-strike. And what president would want that?
Of course, it would be possible for France to expand and diversify its nuclear force with the help of its European partners. “The problem with a joint nuclear deterrent would not be a technical increase in existing assets,” says policy adviser and security expert Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The problem would be the chain of command – who decides when and with what objective? But that requires a common strategy and policy planning.”
A “Wake-Up Call”
And that doesn’t exist. Nuclear weapons are at the core of French sovereignty. The country’s nuclear arsenal was created during the presidency of de Gaulle, who as lieutenant colonel had seen the Nazi Wehrmacht overrun his homeland in the spring of 1940. Nuclear weapons were to ensure that France never had to experience such humiliation again. That’s also why De Gaulle was always against relying on others in defense matters. In 1966, he led France out of the NATO military command structure. It was not until 43 years later, under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, that the country returned. To this day, Paris still isn’t part of NATO’s nuclear planning group, which drafts deployment scenarios for nuclear weapons.
This alone shows how complicated it will be to put French nuclear weapons at the service of Europe. Is France really prepared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack on Poland or Latvia? Or even use them? Similar to the NATO rule, every member of the European Union is theoretically obliged to rush to the aid of another member state if it is attacked. “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power,” Article 42 of the Treaty on the European Union states. But while that may sound powerful, it could also mean that help is limited to blankets and bandages.
The French nuclear arsenal reinforces security in Europe by its very existence “and also has a European dimension,” President Macron said at a keynote address on security at the École Militaire in Paris in February 2020. Clément Beaune, the secretary of state for European affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, later added that nuclear deterrence could be discussed together with the Germans.
Macron has been calling for years for a common security and defense policy that would make Europe less dependent on the Americans and NATO. When Australia canceled a submarine deal with France last September and instead struck a deal with the U.S. and Britain, Beaune called it a “wake-up call for the Europeans.” He would later describe Putin’s invasion as a deep shock. “This war will bring about profound changes,” he said.
But which ones? The Germans have had rather mixed experiences with Macron and the French in the past. German diplomats in New York have seen how, on the one hand, Paris publicly sang the praises of European cooperation – only to then push back any attempt to make the French seat on the UN Security Council a shared European one. Sources in Berlin security circles say that, to date, there has been no real offer from Macron for nuclear sharing.
On the other hand, the Germans have never really bothered much with strategic issues in the past. One problem is that the number of experts on nuclear weapons is very small, even in the specialized ministries, says the Federal Academy for Security Policy’s Brose. But that, like so many things, could soon change. “In the past, anyone who pointed to the need for deterrence was on the defensive. Today, when you say we need nuclear options, to protect ourselves from Russian blackmail, for example, you fall on receptive ears among the populace and politicians.”
In Berlin, there is hope that a strategic debate will finally get underway after the presidential election in France. Macron is running a close race, with Marine Le Pen not far behind him. The right-wing populist Le Pen has already announced her intention to leave NATO’s command structure if she wins the election. That doesn’t give Macron much room for flexibility at the moment. It is unlikely that Le Pen will ultimately win, but it is still a possibility. If the president remains in office, “Olaf Scholz will have to sit down with him calmly after the election and explore what is possible,” says one political consultant in Berlin.
If France were unwilling to stretch its nuclear umbrella over the entire EU, it is conceivable that a few countries would move forward under enhanced cooperation. It would be anything but an ideal solution. “But we have to start somewhere,” the consultant says.