The New York Times and The Economist each have reports on a new European debate over whether to pursue a pan-European nuclear deterrent. This might include either British and French extended deterrence guarantees to NATO Europe or an independent German nuclear bomb. The implication, of course, is that this is further evidence of the damage the Trump administration is doing the world order. Any sane US president would obviously take steps to quash any talk of European nuclear independence.
Yet rather than see this as another excuse to lament the disintegration of the rules based international order, American analysts should at least consider the advantages to the United States. The potential for accidents that lead to force is the major theme of this blog and America’s extended deterrence guarantees are accident prone. Efforts to make them seem credible require the transfer of control of some American tactical nuclear weapons to the armed forces of other states. They require the adoption of warfare doctrines that call for America to be the first to use nuclear weapons in some conflict scenarios. By definition, these guarantees expose American citizens to a heightened risk of nuclear war. They were originally conceived as a necessary evil to offset Soviet conventional superiority in Central Europe, but today they remain as an atavistic sop to the Europeans. Put another way, extended deterrence was originally a stopgap measure – one erected at great risk to the American people. Now that the Europeans are capable of and apparently increasingly willing to pull their strategic weight, Americans should be happy to let them take this dangerous responsibility off of their shoulders.
A major theme of the Trump presidency has been that the interests of Americans are distinct from and sometimes at odds with the interests of “globalists.” There is no clearer example of this dichotomy than extended deterrence, a doctrine which – explicitly – requires America to subordinate the interests of Americans. If the Trump administration is really committed to putting America first it should assist the Europeans in erecting an independent deterrent in a safe, sustainable and credible manner.
I will return to the topic of spheres of influence in the next post.