Euronukes: War and the rise of Trump have changed Europe’s nuclear calculus

The debate over “Euronukes,” explained.

A uniformed crew member inspects torpedoes inside a dimly lit submarine.

A crew member checks the torpedos in a nuclear submarine on December 5, 2016, in Île Longue, off the west of France. Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

At the height of the Cold War in 1961, French President Charles de Gaulle famously questioned the value of American security guarantees, asking then-President John F. Kennedy if the US would really be willing to “trade New York for Paris” in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was because of these doubts that, under de Gaulle’s leadership, France developed its independent nuclear deterrent, which it maintains to this day.

Lately, de Gaulle’s old question has started to seem disturbingly timely.

Just last week, after French President Emmanuel Macron floated the idea of European NATO members sending ground troops into Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Western leaders that Russia has “weapons that can hit targets on their territory” and that they were risking the “destruction of civilization.” The takeaway was unignorable: After years in which it was a largely forgotten political issue on the continent, the continent’s leaders clearly can no longer afford to ignore the threat of nuclear weapons.

Thanks to a renewed threat from Russia as well as doubts about America’s security umbrella thanks to the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House next year, the topic of nuclear deterrence is back in a big way, and has some European leaders to talking openly about whether their countries should acquire nuclear deterrents of their own — independent from a suddenly less predictable US.

Leaders in Poland, literally on the frontline of the conflict between NATO and Russia, have proposed hosting NATO nuclear weapons on their soil. Manfred Weber, a senior German politician who leads the center-right European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the EU parliament, recently argued for Europe to develop its own nuclear deterrent. He told Politico: “Europe must build deterrence, we must be able to deter and defend ourselves …We all know that when push comes to shove, the nuclear option is the really decisive one.”

The idea of such a “Euronuke” is not new, but the fact that the discussion is being revived in a serious way is a telling indicator of Europe’s existential anxieties in the age of Putin and Trump.

Atom bombs for peace

There are already a large number of nuclear weapons on the continent. France and the United Kingdom both have arsenals of about 290 and 225 warheads respectively. The US also maintains an arsenal of around 100 warheads in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.

These US warheads are B61 “gravity bombs,” which are among the smallest nukes in the American arsenal and are classified as “tactical” nuclear weapons, but they have a range of possible yields and in some modifications are much more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons are kept in underground vaults and can only be used with “permissive action link” codes, which are kept in American hands, but they are officially designated as a deterrent for the NATO alliance. In NATO’s most recent “strategic concept,” its periodically updated mission statement, the members affirmed that they are still a “nuclear alliance” that maintains its arsenal in order to “preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression.”

All of this is in place because of Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal with more than 4,000 active warheads. Moscow has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, though it is not clear if there are actual nuclear warheads based there. Russia also claimed last year to have moved some tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which borders Ukraine as well as several NATO countries, though it’s not known how many weapons were sent or how they are being deployed.

Despite the frequent threats and references to nuclear war by Russian officials including Putin since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has shown no signs that it is actually preparing to use its nuclear arsenal in Ukraine. But the mere fact of Russia’s nuclear might has been sufficient to deter Western countries from certain actions, including sending their own ground troops to Ukraine (or at least publicly admitting to sending them) or imposing a no-fly zone over the country, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested when the war began.

As for Europe’s own nuclear weapons, their value as a deterrent has less to do with their number or strength than the political structure in which they are embedded. Article 5 of the treaty that established NATO in 1949 states that “an armed attack against one or more [member country] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that other members will assist the country that comes under attack, including by using military force. Therefore, even though most NATO member countries don’t have nuclear weapons, they benefit from the protection of being in an alliance with countries that do — the so-called nuclear umbrella.

In many respects, the war in Ukraine perfectly illustrated the value of Article 5. Even as NATO countries have ramped up support for Ukraine, with billions of dollars in military aid flowing across the country’s borders, Russia has refrained from any attacks on the territory of NATO states aside from some apparently accidental errant missiles. There are some lines that even Putin is wary of crossing.

But at least one country on the frontlines is looking for more tangible assurances.

A Polish nuke?

Since the war in Ukraine began, Poland, a NATO member that shares a 140-mile border and a bloody, painful history with Russia, has been bulking up its conventional military power: It now spends a greater percentage of its GDP on defense than any other NATO member, including the United States.

But wary of the possibility that if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he might turn his eyes toward other countries that were once part of Moscow’s sphere of influence, senior Polish officials including President Andrzej Duda and former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have said they would support the basing of US nuclear weapons on their territory.

As Morawiecki put it last June, “We do not want to sit idly by while [Russian President Vladimir] Putin builds up his threats of various kinds.”

The White House brushed aside Morawiecki’s suggestion at the time, but the idea was endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, the right-wing think tank whose policy ideas are thought to be close to those of a potential future Trump administration.

Poland once hosted Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil — though these deployments were secret and most Poles only learned of them after the end of the Cold War. It seems unlikely for the time being that NATO nuclear weapons will be moved to Poland. Doing so would require agreement from all 31 NATO member states, which have been less than fully unified lately.

Basing American nukes in Poland would undoubtedly be seen as a highly provocative move by Moscow, and critics contend that doing so would provide little military benefit, as such weapons would be more vulnerable to a preemptive Russian strike than those based deeper in Western Europe. The move would also violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act, an agreement from the 1990s under which NATO countries agreed not to base nuclear weapons on any new member states — although that may be a moot point these days given that Russia has also violated a number of its commitments under the agreement.

Some analysts have gone further, suggesting that rather than host NATO nuclear weapons under ultimate American control, Poland ought to have full control of them. As Dalibor Rohac, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote, “for deterrence to be credible, the weapons ought to be controlled by the party that bears the most risk of a direct Russian attack: Poland itself.”

For now, that idea looks even more unrealistic, and Polish leaders have mostly stayed away from explicitly backing it. But a recent comment by Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski during an appearance in Washington suggested it’s not entirely off the table. “If America cannot come together with Europe and enable Ukraine to drive Putin back, I fear that our family of democratic nations will start to break up,” Sikorski said at the Atlantic Council. “Allies will look for other ways to guarantee their safety. They’ll start hedging. Some of them will aim for the ultimate weapon, starting off a new nuclear race.”

The Euronuke

It’s not just Moscow that has Western European countries rethinking nuclear deterrence — it’s Washington as well. The debate over “Euronukes” is not new, but recent events have given it greater urgency. “The French have been talking about this since the ’90s,” said Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What’s different now is a couple of things. The first thing that’s different is that there is a war going on in Europe. The second thing is Donald Trump.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Trump is an outspoken critic of defense guarantees in general, which he argues encourages free-riding and reckless behavior by allies at America’s defense, and NATO in particular. As president he discussed pulling the US out of NATO altogether and onetime advisers like former national security adviser John Bolton have said he would likely have done so if he had been reelected in 2020.

Last year, Congress passed legislation preventing a future president from pulling the US out of the alliance without congressional approval, but that wouldn’t prevent Trump from simply refusing to fulfill US obligations under the alliance, including Article 5. During a meeting in 2020, Trump reportedly told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you and to support you.” More recently, he has said he would let Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to European countries that were “delinquent” by not meeting their NATO-mandated 2 percent of GDP defense spending targets.

In light of this, the old Cold War question has returned. “If there were to be President Trump back in the White House next January, and if we [Europeans] were to ask ourselves the question, ‘Is Trump going to risk Chicago for Berlin?’ I think it would be quite difficult to answer that question except in the negative,” said Nick Witney, a defense policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And then you really have to wonder what the US nuclear guarantee is worth.”

When it comes to a potential independent European nuclear deterrent, the key country is France, which, since Brexit, is the only country in the EU with its own nuclear weapons. While Britain’s nuclear forces — which have been having a rough few weeks with a second failed submarine missile launch tests — are assigned to NATO and experts question whether its program could even survive without US support, France has a fully independent deterrent, owing to de Gaulle’s old concerns about sovereignty and the value of US assurances. It does not participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, which sets deterrence strategy for the alliance. France’s nuclear deterrent is France’s alone.

Three leaders standing in front of the palace as a soldier salutes behind them.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Polish Prime Minister Andrzej Duda, and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 12, 2023. Andrea Savorani Neri/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But back in 2020, Macron raised eyebrows with a speech arguing that while France’s nuclear weapons are solely for the purpose of defending France’s vital interests, those interests “now have a European dimension.” He called for a dialogue with France’s European partners on the “role of French nuclear deterrence in our collective security.”

Macron has repeatedly called for Europe to shore up its own defenses and act more strategically independent from the United States, and in 2022, his office affirmed that he was still open to “Europeanizing” France’s nuclear deterrent, suggesting he was open to extending France’s own nuclear umbrella to its European partners. Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, expressed support for the proposal last month.

Meanwhile, a host of German politicians from across the political spectrum, including Weber, have been tentatively calling for Germany to seek a European nuclear deterrent, separate from the United States, a major shift for a country where public opposition to military force in general and nuclear weapons in particular has been high for decades.

Christian Lindner, Germany’s finance minister and leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party, recently argued in an op-ed that Germany should give serious consideration to France’s offer of dialogue on European nuclear deterrence and that “we should understand Donald Trump’s recent statements as a call to further rethink this element of European security.”

Of course, many Germans may not consider French security guarantees to be all that more reassuring than American ones. One anonymous official recently told the Wall Street Journal that Germany should be wary of a nuclear alliance with a country that was “one election away” from electing a pro-Russian president, referring to France’s increasingly prominent far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen. This has led some national security experts in Germany to argue that the country should look to acquire its own nuclear weapons, which would be held separately from the US arsenals in the country.

That idea would be a tough sell for the German public. While the war in Ukraine has caused many Germans to reevaluate their dislike of US weapons on German soil, 90 percent of Germans oppose the country acquiring nuclear weapons of its own.

At a meeting with reporters in Washington on Monday, Charles Fries, EU deputy secretary general for peace, security, and defense, acknowledged that the topic of an independent nuclear deterrent appeared to be garnering more interest lately but said that as of now, “the debate has not really taken place at the EU level.”

Nukes — what are they good for?

Underlying the Euronukes debate is the question of just how effective nuclear weapons really are as a deterrent. As countries including Israel and Pakistan have recently demonstrated, just having nukes is not a guarantee of perfect safety. But they can be effective at deterring the sort of threat — a massive conventional invasion aimed at seizing territory — that Russia potentially poses.

For evidence, many would point at Ukraine itself. At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal on its soil. As Ukrainian leaders including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have frequently pointed out, Ukraine “gave up” those weapons to Russia in exchange for guarantees that its security would be respected.

This talking point is slightly misleading: The weapons on Ukraine’s soil were under Moscow’s operational control, just as the weapons in Europe today are under Washington’s, and Ukraine could not have actually used them. But it has nonetheless taken hold as a powerful narrative about the naivety of trusting diplomatic guarantees over hard military power. The governments of Iraq and Libya also likely regretted abandoning their nascent nuclear programs before being attacked by Western forces.

Europe is not the only place where these discussions are taking place. South Korea, like NATO countries, is under the US nuclear umbrella, having signed a mutual defense treaty with the United States in the 1950s. But with external threats growing (North Korea and China in this case) and doubts about US credibility in the age of Trump, public support for the country developing its own nuclear weapon is high. Leaders of Saudi Arabia have openly said they will seek a nuclear arsenal if Iran acquires one.

While these countries may not go nuclear overnight, these discussions seem to augur a world where nuclear strategy and brinkmanship are once again at the center of global politics. The dream expressed in a formerly Communist Central European capital by an American president just 15 years ago of a world without nuclear weapons has never looked farther off.


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