Besides these American weapons, France and the United Kingdom also have their own arsenals. But France has always kept its nuclear weapons out of the Western alliance’s joint strategy – it is the only nation among NATO’s 30 member states not to participate in the alliance’s nuclear planning group.
Even before Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine this year, some Europeans feared that the American umbrella would become less reliable, and therefore by definition less of a deterrent. The United States has shifted its geopolitical focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and specifically to mastering China, which is now rapidly adding to its arsenal.
Washington must therefore brandish two nuclear umbrellas and plan two simultaneous wars. Academics like Maximilien Terhalle in Germany and Francois Heisbourg in France have warned that Washington, forced to choose, is likely to prioritize its engagements in Asia, and allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Worse still, former US President Donald Trump spooked Europeans when he questioned NATO’s mutual defense clause and even considered pulling the US out of the alliance. Trump is gone for now. But he, or a president like him, could return. In the long term, the United States seems less reliable as a protector than before.
To top it off, Putin has gone ballistic rhetoric by issuing not-so-veiled threats that he might use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or Western countries that interfere in his war. The consensus for now is that he is bluffing. But from the Baltic to Poland and beyond, Europeans would like to know what the backup plan is.
In one scenario, France could extend its nuclear umbrella to the whole of the European Union (of which the UK is no longer a member). French President Emmanuel Macron often talks about achieving European “autonomy,” by which he usually means independence from the United States. It should therefore in theory be docile.
In practice, the French are neither willing nor able. Since Charles de Gaulle, France has always insisted on total sovereignty over its arsenal and all decisions concerning it. In this sense, visions of a Europeanized ‘strike force’, as the French call their nuclear weapons, suffer from the same problem as ideas of a ‘European army’. Without the United States of Europe, we do not know who would command, when and how.
Moreover, the French arsenal is not suited to the task. France has a relatively small reserve of 290 nuclear weapons. In the event of an all-out war, an adversary like Russia, with thousands of warheads, might be tempted – and able – to remove those weapons with a preemptive first strike. Deterrence only works if retaliation is assured.
French nuclear weapons are also the wrong kind. They are “strategic” bombs – i.e. each capable of causing extensive devastation in Hiroshima, and therefore intended for use only in an all-out war scenario to destroy entire cities in the enemy’s homeland .
If Russia were to step up, however, it would do so with “tactical” nuclear weapons – smaller warheads deployed at close range to subdue an enemy or win specific battles. It is inconceivable that France (or anyone) would respond to an initial and limited tactical strike by moving directly to strategic response and therefore to Armageddon.
The result is that all Western nuclear powers – the United States, France and the United Kingdom – must add more tactical nuclear weapons to their toolkits, to keep pace with Russia and become capable of responses flexible to its attacks. The EU, led by Germany and France, could collaborate in this effort. Even then, however, the Europeans would still have to resolve the old questions about the command structure.
Alternatively, countries like Germany could build their own nuclear bombs. But for that, Germany would have to withdraw from the international treaty against nuclear proliferation and from the agreement that allowed its reunification. Moreover, Germany would have to upset its entire post-war political culture. Many of its leaders grew up today protesting against the stationing of American missiles and nuclear bombs in general.
For now, the realistic response to Putin is to keep and fix the American umbrella. More US tactical nukes, in more places and delivered in more ways, is the only language understood in Moscow and Beijing. It is also probably the only way to slow the pace of other countries, friendly or hostile, going nuclear. But the entire American political class, on both sides of the aisle, must buy into this American commitment to its allies, be it Trump or high tides.
No conclusion could be more depressing. It amounts to entering a new tactical arms race and therefore runs counter to the vision of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by 86 non-nuclear countries and supposed to totally ban these diabolical weapons. Instead of eliminating nuclear weapons, we would seek new ways to deter their use.
For all this, blame Putin. He attacked Ukraine – 28 years after Russia guaranteed the country’s security so that Kyiv could surrender its own Soviet-era nuclear weapons. He broke the taboo against the threat of nuclear escalation in conventional warfare. In all these cases, Putin has made naivety and pacifism untenable. The European Union, rightly called the greatest “peace project” in the history of the world, must prepare for self-defence.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Is Putin’s War More Like World War I or World War II? : Andreas Kluth
Putin may win in Ukraine, but the real war has only just begun: Max Hastings
Weapons failures could disarm Russian arms diplomacy: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion
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