Asia and Eurasia
Europe and the Atomic Bomb

In a situation where the European international order has found itself in such a massive crisis that radical military solutions have become possible, the most natural solution may indeed be Germany acquiring its own nuclear weapons. It does not matter at all that this arsenal will officially be called “European”, like, for example, the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank, which manages financial policy in the Eurozone, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

For several centuries, Europe has been the greatest source of anxiety and military threats to the rest of mankind. At the same time, unlike the continental empires of the East — the Russian and Ottoman ones — the Western European states had the advantage of almost unlimited penetration into the most remote regions of the planet, due to their technical achievements, primarily in the field of navigation. Therefore, it is not surprising that signs of a new militarisation of intra-European politics can arouse interest and even concern. This concern becomes all the more justified, given the difficult economic situation in which the European states find themselves, and the desire of their ruling bureaucracy to find new ways to manage the population. They must convince people of the need to accept the costs incurred by their inability to solve the systemic problems associated with the market economy’s development, as well as democratic political systems.

Against this backdrop, the 100 billion euro investment announced by the German government in March of this year in the country’s defence budget was perceived by many observers as a sign of readiness to start down the path of real militarisation. Moreover, many German politicians are now demonstrating a determination to oppose Russia, not only in the fields of Ukraine, but also in a broader geographical and temporal sense. The lively discussions on the issue of Europe having its own nuclear “umbrella” — a deterrent force that should be significant and of sufficient quality to directly challenge Russia without the need for the direct involvement of the United States — could not go unnoticed. Only a few days ago, a large article was devoted to this topic in one of the leading German magazines, where the question of the role of nuclear weapons in the future of European security was discussed with a fairly high degree of seriousness.

Such discussions immediately caused the most gloomy predictions about the future of the European international order. Central among these are the ideas of John Mearsheimer, as outlined in his 1990 article for The Atlantic, “Why We Will Soon Miss The Cold War”. Shortly after the unification of Germany and just a few months before the collapse of the USSR, a major theorist of international politics argued that the most threatening, and likely prospect was the spread of nationalism and a return to a situation where a military solution would no longer be an unthinkable option for Europeans. Mearsheimer suggests that “There is no systematic evidence demonstrating that Europeans believe war is obsolete <...> Public opinion on national security issues is notoriously fickle and responsive to manipulation by elites as well as to changes in the international environment.” At the same time, it does not matter in principle what exactly will be the decisive factor in bringing about such changes, since the very fact of the return to regional policy of military solutions to important world order problems will inevitably lead to the spread of such a vital philosophy.

Now European politicians, especially the German ones, insistently claim that the reason for the change in their strategic approaches is Russia’s actions, aimed at correcting by force the injustice that arose in relation to its basic interests after the Cold War. However, no less important factor (which no one hides) is the US presence in European politics, or rather, the hypothetical readiness or willingness of the Americans to consider the interests of European partners on an equal basis with their own. In other words, the United States does not and cannot have arguments that can convince its allies on this side of the Atlantic that they are ready to sacrifice their own existence in a situation where US territory is not directly threatened.

This problem, in turn, is not new. The nuclear superpowers are, in principle, rather reserved with regard to taking into account the interests of allies in their own strategic planning. This is because the survival of allies and their ability to provide armed support is not a prerequisite for the survival of a country with several thousand nuclear warheads. In the case of the United States, the matter is complicated by its geopolitical position, in which even a general military catastrophe in Europe will not cause even indirect damage to American territory. Not to mention the more local and tactical use of nuclear weapons by the enemy of the Europeans, which seems to be the most likely possibility, amid modern conditions.

Moreover, the US position is not convincing enough now, when its direct military presence in Europe remains much less significant than it was during the Cold War. Not to mention that Europe is not a vital resource base for the US, and its main long-term interests are concentrated in the Pacific and Asia. Not surprisingly, the discussion about the European nuclear “umbrella” itself was initiated not now, but during the presidency of Donald Trump, when American policy had especially clearly shown the presence of an internal demand for isolationism.

Now the Democratic administration in the United States rejects such isolationism; on the contrary, it demonstrates in every possible way the desire to keep Europe as the main overseas base for its foreign policy. The determination to continue such a line should convince the Europeans of the assurances that the United States will “fight for every inch of NATO territory” and large-scale participation in supplying weapons to the authorities in Kiev. However, this has not yet been accompanied by a desire or the ability to really take responsibility for the consequences of the behaviour of the Europeans themselves on a scale even approximately similar to the Cold War period.

In the event of a change in the domestic political vector in Washington and the return to power of the Republicans, no one can rule out that the US attitude towards the interests of the Europeans will be revised again. Moreover, under the conditions of the possible curtailment of globalisation and the split of the world, a semblance of a bipolar device, where the US and China will play the role of the leading poles, Europe may turn out to be not an asset, but a liability of American foreign policy. For the United States, in principle, it is enough to control the Western hemisphere in order to provide itself with resources. In the event that the American elites really understand the futility of continuing the territorial expansion that they have been engaged in for the past century, and take on the internal arrangement of their own state, Europe risks becoming the weakest link among the players, theoretically capable of independence in the context of global power politics.

It must be remembered that since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a united Germany in the centre of Europe, the main efforts of the Europeans have been aimed at creating a base for their own comparative autonomy in the long term. The expansion of the European Union to the East, the creation of a common currency and the gradual drawing of Russia into the orbit of the EU were not so much the result of the opportunities that have opened up, but the understanding of the need to take advantage despite the likely short-term or even medium-term costs. Germany confidently stood at the head of these political decisions from the very beginning, and the events of the last 15 years have only strengthened its positions due to the weakening of the supranational institutions of European integration and its second pole — France, which has turned out to be incapable of adapting itself to the challenges of modern times. Moreover, Germany has no competitors for political leadership left within the EU, now that the UK has left the union.

Is it not entirely clear why we should expect the Europeans, and particularly the Germans, to abandon this strategy amid the new conditions. On the contrary, the rapid rise of China, the conflict with Russia and the need to resolve domestic problems for the United States — all these factors only strengthen the leading European politicians in the correctness of the chosen strategy. In a situation where the European international order has found itself in such a massive crisis that radical military solutions have become possible, the most natural solution may indeed be Germany acquiring its own nuclear weapons. It does not matter at all that this arsenal will officially be called “European”, like, for example, the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank, which manages financial policy in the Eurozone. Everyone understands that, in fact, this is not a European bank, but a tool for more tactful control over the economic policy of its partners by the most significant country in Europe in terms of industry, finance and demographics.

At the same time, one should not run too far ahead — as long as this kind of reasoning is purely hypothetical in nature. The prospects for moving towards realisation depend on too many factors. First, the United States, for which the European allies are still an instrument of influence on Russia. This is important in the context of the growing global rivalry between Washington and Beijing. The American side views Russia as a weak link in the Chinese defensive positions and fails to even hide it. We do not think that this point of view is correct, but its fallacy does not negate the subjective commitment of Americans to adopt precisely this vision of the situation.

Therefore, the United States will, of course, strive to tie Russia’s hands with a constant conflict in the European theatre, and Washington prefers the militancy of the states of the Old World here. However, even in the context of such goal-setting, it may turn out to be too decisive a step to raise the issue of the largest European power obtaining its own nuclear capabilities.

Second, France should not be completely discounted. The Elysee Palace is consistently reserved about losing exclusive control over the nation’s nuclear arsenal, especially since it now remains the only real asset of the republic against the backdrop of its numerous domestic and foreign policy failures. However, we also cannot rule out that the further degradation of France will force its elite to really place its most important security-related tasks in the hands of a senior partner in the economic management of Europe.

And, finally, Russia will play a certain role in realising the prospects of the German atomic bomb. At the moment, Moscow’s actions are being cited as a justification for Germany’s return to militarism. However, one cannot completely dismiss the possibility that in the future Russia itself won’t be especially active in preventing the military strengthening, even the radical military strengthening, of its most important European neighbour. Moscow may think that a more self-confident Germany will be able to balance its own interests with those of Russia better than it has been doing so far. How true this point of view will turn out to be, we do not know, especially considering that Russia already has experience indirectly supporting German ambitions and the consequences of such actions, which were very dramatic. However, we cannot completely rule out its recurrence amid new conditions.

Everyone in the world understands that Europe’s main problem is its lack of even elementary self-sufficiency in terms of resources. That is why for Europeans, territorial expansion is an even more inevitable foreign policy choice than for other advanced industrial powers like the United States or China, or industrially-lagging Russia and India. Therefore, the acquisition by the Europeans of new military capabilities will almost inevitably lead to an increase in their aggressiveness, at least when it does not entail a potentially deadly threat. It could prove to be a more alarming risk for global and Russian security.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.