Maybe It Is Time for a European Nuclear Weapon

Maybe It Is Time for a European Nuclear Weapon

Nuclear proliferation is rarely desirable, but it might be the antidote to American overextension in Europe.

Credit: Ssgt Phil Schmitten

Europe’s support for Ukraine in part reflects the fear that Vladimir Putin won’t stop with a victory there. Ukrainians play on that emotion to extract more Western aid; recently, the Ukrainian journalist Sasha Dovzhyk insisted, “It simply won’t stop at Ukraine. Every few days, propagandists on Russian state television fantasize about invading Poland, the Baltic States or Finland.” 

Of course, TV fantasies are evidence of neither the will nor the capability for such attacks. In any case, it is well past time for Europeans to take over primary responsibility for their defense. Unfortunately, despite much rhetoric and some action, the continent is little better prepared for a general war than it was in February 2022 before Moscow’s invasion. In fact, the number of NATO members devoting at least two percent of GDP to their defense fell after the Russian attack.

Germany remains a laggard six years after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “we Europeans must now take our fate into our own hands.” The current government has played statistical legerdemain to undercut 2022’s much-hyped Zeitenwende. Nor has Moscow’s assault on Ukraine increased interest among German youth in joining the Bundeswehr. The United Kingdom, too, has abandoned its ambitious spending goals and is shrinking the size of its armed forces.

Naturally, Europeans’ view of NATO grew more positive after the onset of the conflict. Yet before the Russian invasion, popular majorities in only four of 14 European countries polled advocated defending their fellow members. In every case far more people believed that the U.S. would act than believed they themselves should act. It is more than ridiculous to expect Americans to bear the greatest burden in aiding peoples unwilling to defend themselves or their allies. 

What to do? Evidently the Biden administration’s policy of urging the Europeans to do more while spending more money on, sending more troops to, and offering endless reassurances for the same people is self-defeating. President Donald Trump demonstrated that raising questions about American commitments is the most effective way to encourage allies to do more. That was evident with Japan and South Korea as well as NATO. (Added to that, of course, is increased fear caused by China, North Korea, and Russia.) 

Treating the Pentagon as a welfare agency for well-heeled but manipulative allies would be bad at any time, but it is especially so as Washington’s fiscal position worsens. Uncle Sam ran a nearly $2 trillion deficit in 2023—without a hot war, financial crisis, or deadly pandemic. The federal government’s debt to GDP ratio is already nearly 100 percent and could double by mid-century. Interest costs are rising and entitlement programs are burgeoning, while neither Democrats or Republicans are willing to make tough decisions in cutting popular domestic outlays or raising revenues. When the inevitable financial crisis hits, there will be no more funds for feckless foreign friends.

Washington should start paring military spending today. To start, the U.S. should tell Europe, “No more!” There should be no more extra cash for European operations, no more extra troops to safeguard the population-rich continent, and no more reassurances to governments that Americans will always pick up the slack. Alliances are not intended to be an international dole for other nations, but rather a security enhancement for the U.S. Americans should be placed at risk only if doing so is necessary to protect their homes, their communities, their families, and their Constitution. The Pentagon was not created to be an international welfare agency.

Of course, the Europeans would likely have a tough time providing for their security after spending nearly eight decades on the American defense dole. Today they are scrambling to ensure continued funding for Ukraine’s war effort, as reported in the London Times: “Ministers are desperately trying to ramp up manufacturing capabilities across the continent so they can send weapons and ammunition to the front line and keep Vladimir Putin at bay for at least another year, irrespective of U.S. support.”

Bolstering their own militaries will require even more money and effort. A potential short-cut would be for them to establish a nuclear deterrent. Russia relies on its nuclear parity with America to cover its conventional inferiority. Europe could do the same to Moscow. Nuclear weapons are a military equalizer.

Of course, there already are two European deterrents, but they are national, not continental. Neither France nor the United Kingdom is likely to loose its nukes to defend, say, the Baltic states. A Europe-wide force is necessary, whether through a European-run NATO, European Union, or some other association.

In December, the former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer declared that “the E.U. needs its own nuclear deterrent.” Although he said he disliked the idea, he concluded, “As long as we have a neighbor Russia, one of Putin’s imperial ideology follows, we cannot forego deterring this Russia.” He allowed that German acquisition of nuclear weapons was “the most difficult question.” Hence his preference for an E.U. arsenal. (A couple decades ago he was pushing the U.S. to withdraw its nukes from Germany.) Last year scholars at the Atlantic Council proposed “a trilateral British, French, and German nuclear umbrella, combined with a U.S. umbrella, all under the command and control of” NATO.

The issue is not new. A few years ago, Berthold Kohler, publisher of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, suggested that Germany develop nuclear weapons alongside France and Great Britain. More sensitive to history, Bundestag member Roderich Kiesewetter proposed relying on the British and French arsenals while adding European-financed weapons. His objective was not to match Moscow but to deploy enough to deter Russian military action. This “German nuke flirtation” was short-lived, but generated a mini-debate for a time.

Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s nationalistic Law and Justice Party, recently ousted from power, also urged a European deterrent, one that rivaled Russia’s arsenal. Undoubtedly, even friendly proliferation would be complicated. And designing a collective European system to oversee the use of nuclear weapons would be extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, necessity can be a powerful incentive. If the Europeans fear Russia and are incapable of developing an adequate conventional force, then nukes appear to be the only serious alternative.

The downsides would be obvious. More nukes increase opportunities for misuse and leakage. New nuclear powers undermine nonproliferation. A growing European arsenal might cause Russia to increase its own nuclear capabilities. Europe’s possession of a nuclear shield might encourage European governments to take greater risks in dealing with Russia. Nevertheless, to the extent that Europeans fear potential aggression by Moscow, nukes would provide a potent antidote.

Europe’s course should be Europe’s decision. Washington should not attempt to dictate to the continent’s many governments on what they should spend and whether they should go nuclear. Rather, American officials should set forth American policy—what this nation will do. (Which, in the case of foreign wars, should be much less than in the past.) How the Europeans respond, through their individual countries and the European Union collectively, should be up to them. 

Washington should facilitate their efforts to generate military power to match their political influence and economic heft. That means encouraging rather than resisting an independent European defense, cooperating on security matters of shared interest, aiding individual and collective military development, and accepting any expanded or additional nuclear programs. While proliferation rarely seems desirable, it might very well be the best of bad options. Worst is having the U.S. forever risk American cities to ease Europe’s military burden. Bad is Europe feeling vulnerable to Russian nuclear pressure. Better is the continent possessing a deterrent to coercion from Moscow or another power.

The world is aflame, but the most serious dangers to the U.S. come from Washington’s determination to make other nations’ conflicts America’s own. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though criminal, was provoked by the allies’ reckless disregard of Moscow’s security interests and oft-expressed warnings. Although a humanitarian disaster, the conflict does not endanger the U.S. The Middle East is a region of declining interest, and Washington should act on behalf of the American people, not nominal and often authoritarian allies which routinely manipulate US politics to their benefit. China poses an economic challenge to Western states but has shown no interest in assaulting America. Beijing’s rising influence in East Asia is a challenge but threatens no vital American interests warranting war.

The best way to address today’s genuine security challenges would be to return defense responsibilities to the allies routinely labeled Washington’s greatest international asset. Let populous, prosperous nations take over responsibility for their own defense rather than rely on the U.S. If that means more nukes in more hands, so be it. Washington’s defense responsibility is, first and foremost, to the American people.

The post Maybe It Is Time for a European Nuclear Weapon appeared first on The American Conservative.

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