Europe is Quietly Debating a Nuclear Future Without the US

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This article was a reporting collaboration between the newsrooms of POLITICO and WELT, and is being published by POLITICO Magazine and WELT am Sonntag.

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In a castle near Stockholm, standing on a blue-curtained podium that hid the room’s gilt mirrors and sparkling chandeliers, French President Emmanuel Macron ripped open a debate that Europe had been avoiding not just for years but for decades. 

Macron had chosen the time and place carefully; he was on a state visit to Sweden, one of the long-neutral European countries who decided in 2022 to join NATO in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He was sharing the stage with Sweden’s king and prime minister, and faced an audience of Swedish military cadets and officers who were recalibrating their mission and ideas about their country’s, and the continent’s, security. It was the last week of January, and Sweden’s final ratification as a NATO member was just weeks away. And he spoke in English, to make sure people outside of France and Sweden paid attention. 

During the Cold War, Macron noted, “all the treaties were decided by the former USSR and USA. Everything that covered our territory was decided by the big guys in the room, not by the Europeans themselves.” Going forward, he said, looking around the audience to make sure his point was getting across, in the area of arms control, troop deployments and the entirety of Europe’s security architecture, that needs to change. “We have to be the one to decide,” Macron said.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (right) listens as French President Emmanuel Macron addresses at joint press conference.
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (right) discuss defense concerns at a joint press conference. Sweden applied to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

The room of military officers was quiet. Macron hadn’t used the word “nuclear,” but he didn’t have to. A Swedish officer stood up and asked if France, as “the only EU country with an independent nuclear force,” had a “special responsibility” to protect the security of the continent’s northernmost region, the Arctic sea passage. In other words, was France prepared to use its nuclear weapons if Scandinavian countries were threatened from the north, presumably from Russia’s bases in the Arctic. 

“Definitely yes,” Macron responded without hesitation, as if he anticipated the question. “Part of our vital interest has a European dimension, which gives us a special responsibility, given precisely what we have and the deterrence capacity we have,” he added. 

Ever since the advent of nuclear arms, Europe has been protected by an American nuclear umbrella. It was the United States that promised NATO allies that any nuclear aggression by the Soviet Union, and later, by Russia, would be answered with a barrage of U.S. missiles. 

For seven decades, this arrangement allowed Western Europe to focus on recovering from the devastation of the 20th century’s two world wars instead of developing costly nuclear capabilities. Only France and the U.K. developed small national arsenals, and they were just a fraction the size of those controlled by the Cold War superpowers.

But now, some European countries have begun to question whether that nuclear status quo will hold much longer. Nuclear calculations in Europe have been shifted by two developments, one external to NATO, and one internal. 

First, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed that Moscow has grown eager to expand its empire by use of force. In the last three years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly engaged in nuclear saber-rattling to get his way. In recent months, he has conducted military exercises together with Belarus that include the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which has heightened anxiety in Europe, particularly in those countries bordering Ukraine or Russia. 

Top: Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump gestures to members of the audience as he leaves a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University on February 10, 2024 in Conway, South Carolina.

Bottom: Servicemen attend joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of a military excercise at the Gozhsky firing range in the Grodno region, on February 12, 2022, against the backdrop of tensions between the West and Russia over neighbouring Ukraine.
After his election in 2016, former U.S. President Donald Trump changed the United States’ posture toward NATO, saying that the United States might come to the aid of only those countries that pay their fair share for defense spending. | Win McNamee/Getty Images; Leonid Shcheglov/AFP via Getty Images

Second, after his election in 2016, former U.S. President Donald Trump changed the United States’ posture toward NATO, taking a far more transactional approach to the alliance by saying that the United States might come to the aid of only those countries that pay their fair share for defense spending. And just days after Macron’s speech in Sweden, as if on cue, Trump made that threat explicit, telling a rally of supporters in South Carolina that he’d already informed the president of an unnamed European country that the U.S. would not protect them from a Russia attack if they were in arrears. 

“‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” Trump recounted. ‘“No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want.”

With the strong possibility that Trump could be reelected in November, European officials have reluctantly — and quietly — begun to debate whether Europe should do something that’s been unthinkable for most of NATO’s existence: develop a security architecture that’s not so dependent on the United States, including for nuclear deterrence. 

In the months since Macron’s speech, officials from a variety of European nations have been reaching out to their French counterparts, seeking more information about what France’s head of state has in mind, according to six people with first-hand knowledge of the conversations. These talks have been held largely behind closed doors among ministry officials and experts and they are mostly bilateral — not being held within EU institutions or NATO — and haven’t yet reached higher-level diplomatic engagements. 

For the most part, the conversations are focused on clarifying Macron’s idea. How does France’s nuclear deterrent, which is not part of NATO’s security architecture, actually work? Would Paris share nuclear decision making? Does France have enough nuclear weapons to effectively deter Russia? Would Macron really stand by Germany and other European partners with nuclear weapons in a crisis? Is Paris trying to replace Washington or become a second layer of nuclear insurance? Would the United Kingdom, Europe’s other nuclear power, be involved? 

While many NATO countries share Macron’s concerns about Russia and the direction of American politics, there is also a lot of skepticism about what Paris actually has to offer. 

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What’s more, key countries including Germany and Poland do not in any way want to give the impression to Washington that they’re pushing America away to make way for Paris. Just talking about the problem, they fear, could be a self-fulfilling prophecy in a second Trump term. Especially now that France, a country historically wary of investing too much in the transatlantic relationship, could see the EU-skeptic, NATO-skeptic far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen gain power. Do NATO allies really want to lean less on a Trump-led America but more on a Le Pen-led France?

“There is a fear among several NATO member states that the Americans might turn away in frustration if Macron were to go on the offensive at some point with his ideas on nuclear deterrence,” said a former NATO official who spent years in senior positions dealing with strategic issues and hybrid threats, and who, like others quoted in this story, was granted anonymity to talk about sensitive matters. 

Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary-general who’s now a distinguished fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the debate is proceeding cautiously and quietly to prevent weakening the American deterrent or pretend Europe has the same nuclear firepower as America. But it’s happening, and it has implications that raise questions for the U.K., the U.S. and the European countries where American nukes are stationed. 

“A conversation is opening up because nuclear power has regained a place in Europe’s security that, though perhaps less central than during the Cold War, is more important than what anyone could have imagined in the past 20 years,” Grand said. 

Thinking the Unthinkable
The speech in Sweden wasn’t the first time Macron had raised the idea of France using its nuclear arsenal to help protect Europe. He had floated the concept first in February 2020, in remarks to French military officers, but perhaps because he was speaking in French to a French audience, no one else really paid attention. 

Besides, it was a different world back then. Most of Europe’s attention was focused on the looming Covid pandemic. Putin hadn’t yet launched his massive invasion of Ukraine and European leaders were starting to hope that NATO-skeptic Trump was on his way out as president. Macron’s proposal, which included the participation of European armed forces in French nuclear deterrence exercises, went unheeded. 

During the Cold War, Europe was terrified by the possibility of nuclear war. But once the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, the specter of nuclear war receded. Sure, France and the U.K. still had their arsenals, but they were increasingly seen as an obsolete weapon of a bygone era. 

That all changed because of the conflict in Ukraine. Even as he launched his full-scale invasion, Putin played the nuclear card, reminding the West that Russia was a powerful nuclear state and warning of “ominous consequences” if the West came to Ukraine’s aid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, while seated, oversees the training of the strategic deterrence forces.
In the last three years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly engaged in nuclear saber-rattling to get his way. | Alexei Babushkin/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s not surprising that our closest allies are increasingly concerned about the different nuclear threats they’re seeing from Russia,” a senior Biden administration official said in an interview, speaking on condition that they not be identified by name. 

This renewed nuclear threat comes as many of the guardrails put in place by decades of arms control agreements are being dismantled. One of the last ones remaining, the New Start treaty, which imposes limits on deployed long-range nuclear weapons, expires in 2026 and Putin announced last year that Moscow would no longer participate. And Putin’s nuclear threats have only grown in recent months; in June, for the second time in a matter of weeks, Russia and Belarus conducted joint exercises on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. Putin’s recent visit to nuclear-armed North Korea, long seen as an unstable and belligerent rogue state, did little to calm jitters in Europe and North America. 

“You cannot pretend that nothing has changed,” said Robert Pszczel, former Polish diplomat and former NATO official who was posted in Moscow, slamming “nuclear blackmailing by Russia.” “The environment is no longer benign, but actually hostile.”

Against this backdrop, some European countries have been modernizing their aircraft fleets, upgrading the warplanes they use to deliver American nuclear missiles stationed on allies’ territory as part of NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium are part of the program, and Poland has been eager to join. 

Recently, Trump has been downplaying his threat to pull back from NATO, saying that he’ll keep the United States in NATO “100 percent.” But every time, he is still quick to add conditions on U.S. participation, including that allies keep up defense spending and “play fair.”

Both European and U.S. experts say it’s unlikely a Trump administration would decide to physically take out the nukes stationed in Europe. But nuclear deterrence depends on political credibility, and there’s an unspoken fear in Europe that Trump would be less willing to come to the aid of European allies than his predecessors. Would Putin be so confident that Trump would be willing to risk a nuclear war to save Estonia? 

“The French and the British are going to have to think about their nuclear posture if Trump is elected and if he makes good on his threat to disengage from NATO,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

“It’s the first time since the 1960s that European countries have to question the American umbrella,” he added. 

Macron’s ambitions for France’s nuclear deterrent haven’t exactly been a hit with his constituents, with far-right and far-left parties accusing him of selling out France’s sovereignty to the Europeans. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to promote the idea, mentioning it three more times in just the last few months.

Supporters of French President Emmanuel Macron celebrate reports of a 2022 election victory in Paris.
Recently, Macron’s nuclear deterrent ambitions have prompted France’s far-right and far-left parties to accuse him of selling out France’s sovereignty to the Europeans. | Lewis Joly/AP

Macron hasn’t provided many specifics about how exactly this arsenal would cover Europe, but has made clear that France would remain fully in charge: “It’s the President of the Republic as head of the armed forces who defines the engagement of this nuclear force in all its components and who defines France’s vital interests,” he told The Economist. “It’s not a question of changing that.” 

The U.K., a participant in the Manhattan Project during World War II alongside the United States and Canada, became the third country with a nuclear arsenal in 1952, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union. France started its nuclear program in 1954 and, in the early 1960s, former French President Charles de Gaulle decided to go all the way and develop an atomic bomb — at the time, the rationale behind having nukes was already to become more independent from Washington. (France left NATO’s military structure in 1966 and didn’t rejoin until 2009.)

At present, the U.K. has about 225 warheads, which it partially contributes to NATO defense. That number is expected to grow in the coming years after the U.K. government decided in 2021 to raise the cap to 260 warheads. London is part of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) but only the U.K. prime minister can authorize the use of nuclear weapons, even if they’re deployed in the context of a NATO response. 

French President Emmanuel Macron (center) is greeted by French National Marine sailors.
Macron (center) attends the official launch ceremony of a French nuclear submarine. France has about 290 warheads. In comparison, the U.S. has more than 5,000 nukes and Russia 5,580. | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

For its part, France has about 290 warheads, but is not a member of the NPG. In comparison, the U.S. has more than 5,000 nukes and Russia 5,580, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

At all times, London and Paris each have at least one nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine patrolling the seas. A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Paris deployed three (out of four) submarines at the same time — an unprecedented level of alert. 

However, unlike the U.K., France’s arsenal is also airborne, with two Rafale fighter jet squadrons equipped with long-range missiles. They can take off either from French territory or from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

What Macron’s proposal would mean in practice is way too early to assess. One option, that he suggested back in 2020, is for European allies to begin to participate in France’s own nuclear exercises — as did one Italian air tanker in 2022.  

“The Baltic and Nordic countries are trying to understand better. They’re asking questions. We’re not yet in a truly public debate, we’re at the start of the conversation,” said Grand, the former NATO assistant secretary-general. 

According to a French lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the current political situation in France, German lawmakers from the Bundestag’s defense committee asked questions about how the French nuclear deterrent works during a joint meeting with French MPs in Berlin in late January. The French National Assembly’s defense committee mulled inviting them to France to provide more information. Macron’s decision to call a snap parliamentary election — whose second round is set to take place Sunday — put those plans on the backburner. 

“The first step before talking about it too much is to inform our partners about what French deterrence actually is, there’s a lack of understanding of what French deterrence is,” said another French lawmaker working on defense issues, “on our side, we need to be more transparent and explain our doctrine.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron is pictured on the deck of an amphibious helicopter carrier.
Macron on the deck of a French amphibious helicopter carrier. At all times, London and Paris each have at least one nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine patrolling the seas. | Sipa via AP

France has had to dispel two misunderstandings, said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, who advised Macron on diplomatic and military policy during his first presidential campaign in 2017. One is that France is considering the involvement of EU institutions, giving the bloc’s 26 other heads of state and government power over the French nuclear deterrent.

“Macron always talks about Europe and not the EU. London is not part of the EU,” Tertrais explained. “Paris is not seeking to have its nuclear effort financed by other countries either.” 

France also has to work against its reputation as a country wary of having too close ties to the U.S. Besides, Paris is also sometimes suspected of seeking to replace Washington as Europe’s security guardian. 

“The French are not contemplating a nuclear deterrent without the Americans,” explained Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, adding that even if London and Paris joined forces, they wouldn’t have the same deterrent potential as Washington. 

“France is offering additional life insurance in case there are any doubts about the Americans,” she added. 

A way for Paris to prove it’s not trying to replace the American nuclear umbrella but rather strengthen it would be for France to become a member of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group and discuss those matters in a forum that includes all allies, including the United States, several officials said. 

“This would be a first signal that they feel responsible not only for the nuclear protection of their own country, but for Europe as a whole,” said a top diplomat from an Eastern European country. 

Russia Rising

It’s fair to say that quite a few European countries think that by reopening the debate over its nuclear umbrella, Europe has far more to lose than to gain. Chief among them is Germany, which has a history of saying no thank you to nuclear pushes from French presidents. 

Back in 2007, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested to then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel his country should share its nuclear weapons with Germany. The proposal was met with a mix of bewilderment and annoyance in Berlin — a capital where, in part because of Germany’s history of 20th-century militarism, the idea of possessing nuclear weapons has long been taboo. 

That’s a central reason that Germany, despite being Europe’s largest country and most powerful economy, doesn’t have — or want — its own nuclear arsenal. When then-West Germany negotiated to join the Western European Union in the early 1950s, one of the conditions was a ban on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. 

However, West Germany eventually became part of the U.S.-led nuclear sharing program in NATO and Germany currently has an estimated 20 American tactical nuclear bombs stationed at the Büchel airbase in Rhineland-Palatinate. Washington retains control over the weapons’ use, but German Tornado bombers — meant to be replaced by American-made F-35s in the coming years — can carry them if needed. 

Before the war in Ukraine, having U.S. nuclear weapons on German soil wasn’t unanimously backed by Germany’s political factions. In 2021, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) — known as the “traffic light coalition” — agreed to work together to form a government, NATO allies feared they would withdraw from the military alliance’s nuclear sharing. Eventually, they didn’t. 

Top: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko shake hands during a meeting of the Union State Supreme Council in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Bottom: A military parade of the Russian army takes place in Moscow.
Putin’s nuclear threats have only grown in recent months; in June, for the second time in a matter of weeks, Russia and Belarus conducted joint exercises on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. | Pool photo by Dmitry Astakhov; The Kremlin Moscow via AP

But the mood changed significantly after Putin sent his troops toward Kyiv. In late February 2022, Scholz announced that Germany would be upgrading its nuclear-capable warplanes. But for now, the German government doesn’t seem to be willing to go further than modernizing existing infrastructure much less think (at least out loud) of a world where America’s involvement in Europe’s security is scaled back.  

“The Germans really, really, really don’t want [to think about] the consequences [of a Trump presidency] because then, the question is whether they should have their own nuclear deterrent. And they don’t want to have this conversation,” said Fried, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “Their position is more difficult than the French and Brits.” 

After Trump threatened to let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” with countries who don’t pay up, a debate did emerge in Germany about whether they should look to the U.K. and France for extra protection, or even move toward an EU-led nuclear deterrent. Finance Minister Christian Lindner suggested a strategic dialogue with both Paris and London to explore “collective security.”  

Still, the German Chancellery considers France’s repeated calls for a European nuclear umbrella illusory for both political and technical reasons. 

The political reservations have to do with France’s unstable domestic politics. In a matter of days, the French government could be headed by the far-right National Rally, a party with historic ties to Russia that looks at Germany with suspicion. Its leader, Le Pen, wants to enshrine in the French Constitution that France’s nuclear capabilities are for France only. She is also the front-runner for the 2027 presidential election, when Macron himself won’t be able to run for office again because of the French Constitution’s term limits. 

“Since 2020, I’ve been hearing the same argument very often in Berlin: Why put all our eggs in the European basket if tomorrow France is run by Marine Le Pen?” said Gesine Weber, a Fulbright visiting researcher at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. 

Besides, Berlin is also very keen to keep the United States interested in Europe’s security: Some German officials don’t want to give Washington the impression the U.S. is not needed in Europe. “They are starting to think about the Trump scenario, but for them, France is not an alternative to cooperation with the U.S.,” Weber said. 

On the technical level, the German Chancellery points to the enormous costs of beefing up Europe’s nuclear deterrence at a time that many countries are still struggling to meet NATO’s existing spending targets. What’s more, building capabilities would also take a very long time —  “25 to 30 years,” according to a senior NATO official. 

Still, despite Germany’s official reluctance, the future of Europe’s nuclear deterrence is being debated inside a few security policy think tanks, university faculties and specialist conferences in Germany — including last month when the German Society for Security Policy hosted a discussion on the role of nuclear weapons in European security.

At least a few security experts think Macron’s idea merits discussion. Retired Lieutenant General Heinrich Brauss, NATO’s assistant secretary general for Defense Policy and Force Planning from 2013 to 2018, has proposed “a review and adjustment of NATO’s current nuclear posture in Europe” toward an expanded European nuclear posture but with Europeans bearing the largest share of the costs. “This would change the burden-sharing formula in the alliance in favor of the Americans, which would counter the free-rider argument of Trump and his supporters,” Brauss said.

Russia Rising
The need to come to terms with the changing nuclear landscape may be felt most keenly by those countries — many of them newer members of the NATO alliance — located geographically closer to Russia. 

Until recently, the largest and most vocal was Poland, a country that shares borders with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia’s heavily militarized enclave of Kaliningrad. For Poland and the Baltic states, the most immediate concern remains the threat of conventional and hybrid warfare, but the conversation around nuclear deterrence has changed since the war in Ukraine started. In Warsaw, there’s been a push to be more involved in the continent’s nuclear deterrence framework — but with the Americans, not the French. 

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (center) looks on as French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (right) share a smile.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (center), Macron (left) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (right) prepare for a photo at the 2023 NATO Summit. Duda said on several occasions that he would like Poland to be included in the U.S.-led nuclear sharing program. | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

On several occasions, Poland President Andrzej Duda publicly said he would like his country to be included in the U.S.-led nuclear sharing program. But according to the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed by the alliance and Russia in 1997, NATO pledged it has “no intention, no plan and no reason” to station nuclear weapons on the soil of the newest alliance members, which includes Poland.   

However, Duda’s security advisor, Jacek Siewiera, suggested last year a way around the text’s limitations. The deployment or relocation of American nuclear bombs to Polish territory is only “one element” of the program — hinting that Poland’s pitch is to participate in nuclear sharing without asking for the actual transfer of U.S. nuclear weapons to Polish soil. For example, Poland’s U.S.-made F-35 stealth bombers could be certified for carrying nuclear missiles and Polish pilots would train for that mission without actually putting the weapons on Polish soil. 

“In the future, Poland could participate in the nuclear sharing program, initially with certain elements such as participation in exercises or the use of our other capabilities,“ said Paweł Kowal, chairman of the Polish parliament’s foreign affairs committee and government representative for Ukraine. 

Poland’s new conservative Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who came to power in December 2023, has so far kept a low profile on the issue. 

“The new government is very reluctant to express this wish publicly,” according to a European diplomat with first-hand knowledge of the matter. “Nuclear sharing is first and foremost linked to the elections in the U.S., so Poland has to wait like many other countries to see who’s in [the U.S.] government.” 

So far, signs coming from Washington are not very encouraging, according to Polish officials. 

Talks took place between Warsaw and the current U.S. administration last year on Poland’s suggestion to participate in the U.S. nuclear sharing program, but there’s little appetite on the American side to risk an escalation spiral with Moscow, Polish officials said. 

And actually stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in Poland seems out of the question. 

“So far, the United States has resisted that because it would be very provocative, and frankly, not very militarily meaningful to do that. It’d be more symbolic, but it’d be really provocative too,” said Lynn Rusten, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Nuclear Policy Program and former Obama administration senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the National Security Council. 

What’s more, nobody in Warsaw wants to give the impression they are questioning American protection. All the more so as Poland — NATO’s leader in defense spending as a percentage of GDP — is likely to get on Trump’s good side if he’s reelected. In private conversations with Polish diplomats, politicians and experts, they said time and again that they believe Trump can be reckoned with. 

Other countries closer to Russia also don’t want to spook Washington. Romania, like Poland, views Moscow as the primary threat and the U.S. as its “number one security guarantee,” according to Iulia-Sabina Joja, director of the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea Program. It also shares the longest border with Ukraine among alliance members.

Smoke is seen after an American rocket artillery system HIMARS (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System) was shot to a target.
The need to come to terms with the changing nuclear landscape may be felt most keenly by those countries — many of them newer members of the NATO alliance — located geographically closer to Russia. | Narciso Contreras/Anadolu via Getty Images

Sweden, NATO’s newest member, also has no plan to challenge the transatlantic relationship, at least publicly. “Obviously we see the ominous signs extrapolating on Trump’s rhetoric,” said Jakob Hallgren, the director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “But the appetite is limited in talking about alternative scenarios in one way or another that don’t include a very strong relation with the U.S.” 

However, Sweden’s conversation about nuclear deterrence did change after the war in Ukraine started — in yet another sign that the continent is facing a new reality. Not only did Stockholm seek to join NATO, but the Nordic country also signed last year a Defense Cooperation Agreement with Washington that was ratified by the Parliament in June and “doesn’t close the door” to the deployment of nuclear weapons on its soil. 

“That’s a huge cultural change for Sweden,” according to Hallgren. 

High-Stakes Elections
At least for now, the future of Europe’s conversation on nuclear deterrence depends on several high-stakes elections. Citizens from NATO’s three nuclear powers — the United States, the United Kingdom and France — are all going to the polls this year and NATO- and Euro-skeptics could soon be wielding power in both Paris and Washington.

That’s one reason why the topic is unlikely to be aired openly during the gathering of NATO leaders that will take place in Washington from July 9 to 11. “I do not expect European nuclear defense to be much of a topic at the summit,” one European diplomat said, “rather NATO will again affirm its deterrence and defense.”

But there’s little doubt that concerns about the future of Europe’s nuclear umbrella will be discussed at least on the sidelines. While some believe a Trump presidency wouldn’t change Washington’s involvement in Europe, others argue it’s risky to base policy on this assumption. “A lot can be said about Trump, but he’s deeply anti-European,” said Weber of Columbia University. “I wouldn’t trust the scenario that he maintains the umbrella over Europe.” 

Another major question mark is about France, the very country that started the conversation in the first place. Should the far-right National Rally party win the snap parliamentary election on Sunday or the presidential one in 2027, the French push to Europeanize France’s nuclear deterrent will abruptly stop. Le Pen has repeatedly criticized Macron’s push to include European partners in a conversation about French nukes — and there is little doubt she would make clear early on that the French nuclear deterrent is for a national purpose only.

“Our partners are also skeptical about our offers of protection and dialogue on a European defense that include deterrence because of the very strong political uncertainties in our country,” said Yannick Pincé, a nuclear historian and associate researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Strategic Issues. “If the National Rally comes to power, France will turn in on itself.”

And finally, there’s the fact that it’s still not clear just what Trump might do vis-a-vis Europe in a second term. Rose Gottemoeller, who served as deputy secretary general of NATO during the Trump administration and is now at Stanford University, said that although Trump has had his differences with the alliance, that doesn’t mean he’ll abandon the nuclear umbrella Europe has relied on since World War II. 

A Marine carries the Nuclear Football at the US ambassador’s residence, Winfield House, in London.
A Marine carries the Nuclear Football at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London. Citizens from NATO’s three nuclear powers — the U.S., the U.K. and France — are all going to the polls in the coming months. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

“Why would he want to weaken his nuclear deterrence capability and capacity anywhere in the world? He’s the president with the biggest button, right?” Gottemoeller said. “So even though people are worried about somehow the extended deterrent going away in Europe, I just don’t see it happening because of the politics and the character, personality of Donald Trump himself.”

The bottom line, she said, is that for as much as the continent has lived under the American nuclear umbrella for seven decades, Europe has never been 100-percent sure that any American president would actually push that button if Europe needed it. 

“From the very inception of the extended nuclear deterrent, way back when, questions have been raised whether the United States would actually pull the trigger,” she said. “The line always was, ‘Would the United States trade Paris and Berlin for New York?’”

Europe still doesn’t know the answer to that question. 

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