The Meaning of a Second Nuclear Age in Europe

Othon Leon Analysis, Conflict & Security, Europe

13 minute read

Back in 1972, Walter F. Hahn described the Atlantic Alliance as a “transatlantic bargain”1, one better explained by Harlan Cleveland, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, who succinctly put it as an understanding among the European members of the Alliance; an arrangement between them and the United States. NATO, Cleveland affirmed, was an arena of organized controversy: “Each year the mix of NATO defense forces and the character of allied political collaboration change, adjusting to the shifting technology of war and to (…) the tides of domestic politics in each of the fifteen NATO countries. But while the bargain changes, the constant is a consensus among the allies that there has to be a bargain.” But what happens when that variable (aptly referred here as a “constant”) underlined by H. Cleveland, stops being?

In Brief

What happened?

The array of events that are transforming the world order and the evolution of military technologies are affecting other times NATO’s understanding of a permanent bargain between its members and the U.S. in exchange for security. As stability periods are preceded by great convulsions, the one corresponding to this period is still to be seen; one consequence of this transition, is the debate on which direction NATO’s strategy must follow and particularly that of the possibility of a new nuclear-armed Europe.

Why does it matter? 

Never in history the question of a nuclear-armed Europe of its own was plausible. As a new world order emerges, the occurring imbalances of power are creating conditions that (almost inevitably) put in risk the security status of the state members of the alliance; if grave mistakes are committed, Europe could occupy (once more) a pivotal position in matters of not only regional but also of world security. The stakes are higher than ever, and mistakes of calculation could mean the end of the relatively long peace period that the world has enjoyed since WWII.

World Order: A Rarity (and The European Relevance in it…)

Recently, Richard Haass wrote that: “When one does arise (a world order), it tends to come after a great convulsion that creates both the conditions and the desire for something new. It requires a stable distribution of power and broad acceptance of the rules that govern the conduct of international relations. It also needs skillful statecraft […] And no matter how ripe the starting conditions or strong the initial desire, maintaining it demands creative diplomacy, functioning institutions, and effective action to adjust it (…)”.2

Haass then goes on to add: ” (…) inevitably, even the best-managed order comes to an end. The balance of power underpinning it becomes imbalanced. The institutions supporting it fail to adapt to new conditions. Some countries fall, and others rise, the result of changing capacities, faltering wills, and growing ambitions. Those responsible for upholding the order make mistakes both in what they choose to do and in what they choose not to do.”

It seems that we have a “cocktail” composed out of that desire for something new, both clear and unclear changes in the distribution of power, non acceptance of some rules that govern the conduct of international relations, sometimes lack of skilful statecraft, etc. A new world order is unfolding, the main missing ingredient is the great convulsions that comes along the process. Athens and Sparta and / or Germany and Japan are good examples of what happens when that disruption is poorly managed. Two things are clear: the current “mix” alters the security status quo of the involved actors (in an interdependent world, that means all of them) and the question is mainly in which way and when will that upheaval present itself? Europe continues to be of central strategic relevance as things happen.

European Real Estate and NATO in a Post-Nuclear World

Haass explains: “over the second half of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, a powerful, unified Germany (…) rose, the Ottoman Empire and tsarist Russia declined, and France and the United Kingdom grew stronger but not strong enough. Those changes upended the balance of power (…)”.3

Before both, ICBMS (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and submarine nuclear missiles (late 1950s), the U.S. relied on European real estate as its strategic deterrent. In 1981, Christoph Bertram4 back then, Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London) called this phenomenon “the end of the age of geographic deterrence identity between the United States and its European allies” which signaled the beginning of new security issues in the European theater nuclear balance. These problems, Bertram explains, are caused by “by the distinctiveness of the theater issues from the nuclear strategic aspects”:

This pattern runs from the transatlantic debate over the Multilateral Force (MLF) in the early 1960s to that over the function of tactical nuclear weapons in European defense; from the political concerns over the withdrawal of the U.S. Jupiter and Thor missiles in the early 1960s to the first real Alliance decision on theater nuclear forces, taken in December 1979, to station new U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles on European territory. […] it is not the first nor will it be the last time that theater nuclear issues have strained the Alliance.

In 1990, John Mearsheimer5 asked two questions: given that the Cold War was over, and that postwar European order had ended, “how would such a fundamental change affect the prospects for peace in Europe? Would it raise or lower the risk of war?” He answers by arguing that “the prospects for major crises and war in Europe are likely to increase markedly […] The next decades in a Europe without the superpowers would probably not be as violent as the first 45 years of this century, but would probably be substantially more prone to violence (…)”

His conclusion comes from the idea that “the distribution and character of military power are the root causes of war and peace” and that that spread would be disrupted in three ways: “the bipolar distribution of military power on the Continent; the rough military equality between the two states comprising the two poles in Europe […]; and that each superpower was armed with a large nuclear arsenal”. He concluded that “the demise of the Cold War order is likely to increase the chances that war, and major crises will occur in Europe.”

Both Bertram and Mearsheimer were right. 1979 It was not the last time that theater nuclear issues strained NATO and since then, “crisis” (and grave incidents) have occurred in Europe (like the recent one in Ukraine). As much as things have evolved, two main factors continue being at the center of NATO’s deterrence strategy: the credibility of a first, effective nuclear strike and the capability to complete a second nuclear attack against a nuclear aggressor.

New Cold War: More and New WMD in Europe?

Nuclear submarines, tactical, nuclear capable tanks, secret nuclear bases and storage facilities in Europe (such as cruise missiles launching installations in what used to be West German territory), that by the end of the Cold War were military threats, are today’s popular tourist attractions or are abandoned, some of them are even used as music festivals venues, however, the possibility of nuclear confrontation(s) has increased and it represents one of Haass’ Great Convulsion possible scenarios.

New, Europe destined, nuclear weapons are being tested by the U.S. According to Hans Kristensen (as cited in Orth,2019), Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 150 nuclear tactical weapons, gravity bombs, delivered by fighter jet aircrafts, that remain stored in a German Air Force base located in Western Germany, are the last remnant of an inventory of 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons that used to be there.

Andreas Orth6 has stated that in accordance to NATO’s dispositions, “20 new B61 American nuclear bombs are set to be stored” in that same facility. 4 countries in Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy) have NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, so in case of conflict, these countries would be given the task of managing and delivering nuclear attacks. In Germany alone, until some years ago, all political parties were asking for a total removal of nuclear weapons from German territory, but this has changed. These facts leave clear that the nuclear issue has gone nowhere… it has merely transformed, and Europe is living the worst nuclear situation after the fall of Berlin’s Wall.

Cold War 2.0 in Europe or… A Bomb is Born?

For a fact, new developments show that tensions not only continue to be present, but sometimes to raise: Military exercises to protect the Baltic states, continuous NATO-Russian aircraft encounters, B-52s exercises not carried out since the late 1980s and intended as messages to Russia, and even crisis in other regions such as the one in Syria or the most recent one, related to Iran and which could escalate to a nuclear and/or European level and get out of control, are some examples.

Then, Donald Trump’s critiques and threats to leave NATO during the alliance’s Brussels Summit in July 2018, posed a fundamental question: What would be the consequences of a weakened NATO or U.S. defence reliability? Some experts, such as security policy ones in Germany6 have addressed the question and even conclude that “if Washington is no longer willing to defend Europe, then perhaps Germany should develop its own nuclear weapons”. Christian Hacke’s favourable opinion7 on the matter, propelled a debate that seemed to be nonsense at the beginning, but which has gained traction since it was published by Die Welt am Sonntag (July 29, 2018)and currently seems to be a viable policy option.

The question is more and more of how andless of if… in terms of how, two possibilities are on the table: one, an indigenous German nuclear deterrent or two, a pan-European deterrent; in my research I have found that both options have their proponents and their opponents… I believe that even if Germany was to declare the adoption of nuclear weapons as being part of a European defence strategy, considering historical reasons, a nuclear Germany would mean that Russia would feel very threatened, which could cause a drastic change in defence procedures from the part of Russia, whilst a pan-European deterrent would be a more convenient solution to maintain at least, security policies at a certain status quo level. Also, another question should be considered: If at the end the answer in Europe falls in favour of adopting nuclear weapons, which ones would make the “right stuff”? (conventional submarines equipped with nuclear weapons? Mobile medium-range missiles? Nuclear armed aircraft? A combination of those?).

The answer would depend on a European defence policy and ultimately, either if NATO is to survive or not to Europe’s adoption of nuclear weapons, that policy would have to contemplate an alliance with the U.S. The economic, legal, even social implications of such a change would be multiple and, sometimes, deep; taxpayers throughout the E.U. would assume the load, reallocation of resources would take place, which would mean reductions in social programmes, military equipment would have to be updated, etc.

For example, current nuclear-capable, military aircraft operating in Western Europe like the Tornado, F-15E and F16, will have to be updated (B-2 and PA-200 integration, according to the case) to adapt to the latest version of B61 (-12 LEP) nuclear bombs (these adaptations are already programmed to be carried out during the present year). According to Maxwell Dowman10 from the British American Security Information Council (cited in Orth, 2019) all of this would come with enormous risks, the first one being the possibility that the first expected places to take Russian missiles in case of conflict, would be those where the B61 are placed, then, it should be assumed that those nuclear arms should be in place in the aircrafts, which with effective warnings should take off, then, they should be refuelled during flight, then, fly into Russian airspace (which would make them highly vulnerable), then, evade Russian ballistic missile defences, and only then, drop their weapons; Dowman’s belief is that this equipment would never lift off the ground.

In all cases, the withdraw of the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, earlier this year, created a void in European security ideas that left a trail of questions on the way: Would the U.S. step up in case of a security situation in Europe or would it be a Trump’s case of “America First”? Should Europe develop its own nuclear arsenal to reduce reliance on American security support? Should certain European countries become nuclear powers? Some experts think an affirmative answer to any of these questions would mean a huge step back, towards the politics of the Cold War, but then I ask myself this question: Isn’t Europe (and then we all) there, already?

About the Author
Othon Leon

Othon Leon

Othon A. Leon is the managing director and senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. A current student at the PhD program in Political Science at Concordia University, with three masters’ degrees from ITAM, Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal. He currently lectures in universities around the world. His fields of research include International Relations, Comparative Politics, and War Studies.

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Footnotes

  1. Hahn, Walter F. (1972). “Nuclear Balance in Europe”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, April 1972, Volume 50. Number 3, p. 501-502.
  2. Haass, Richard (2019). “How a World Order Ends and What Comes in Its Wake”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, January / February 2019, Volume 98. Number 1, p. 22-23
  3. Haass, Richard (2019). “How a World Order Ends and What Comes in Its Wake”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, January / February 2019, Volume 98. Number 1, p. 24.
  4. Bertram, Christoph (1981). “Nuclear Weapons in the 1980s: The Implications of Theater Nuclear Weapons in Europe”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, Winter 1981/2, Volume 60. Number 2, p. 305-326.
  5. Mearsheimer, John J. (1990). “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War”. International Security, Volume 15, Number 1, Summer 1990, pp. 5-56
  6. Orth, Andreas (2019). “The New Cold War. More Nuclear Weapons in Europe?”. DocFilm, DW, aired on the 3rdof April 2019.
  7. Hacke, Christian (2018). “Why Germany Should Get the Bomb,” [Translation of Hacke’s article, published first in Die Welt am Sonntag, July 29, 2018]. Consulted on May the 24th, 2019.