Three of Great Britain's retired top military officers have declared their country's nuclear deterrent to be "completely useless." They suggest dropping the British submarine-based missiles, relying instead on the U.S. Such a step would effectively complete Europe's status as America's biggest military dependent.
NATO was created during the midst of the Cold War to prevent Soviet domination of Eurasia. Europe was a notorious freeloader on the U.S. even then, but the conventional wisdom was that Washington had to defend the Europeans even if they weren't terribly interested in defending themselves. Both Great Britain and France created independent nuclear forces, but these arsenals were viewed as adjuncts to America's nuclear umbrella.
Europe's dependence on the U.S. makes no sense today. The Cold War is over, and with it Moscow's potential for dominating the continent. Even before the economic crisis Russia's global pretensions exceeded its capabilities. The victory over tiny Georgia demonstrated that Moscow could defeat a small neighbor, not conquer any of the populous and prosperous countries in Old Europe, the traditional center of America's defense efforts. The Russian economy has since taken a huge hit and political protests are increasing. Georgia might turn out to be Moscow's high water mark before its own social problems force Russians to turn inward.
Even if the Europeans face a serious security threat, they do not need America's help. The European Union has a larger population and GDP than does America; the EU also has begun forging a continental perspective on foreign policy issues. Yet the Europeans have proved to be the worst sort of military deadbeats, with neither the will nor the ability to project much force anywhere. This isn't just an American judgment. British Defense Secretary John Hutton declared in mid-January: "Free-loading on the back of U.S. military security is not an option if we wish to be equal partners in this trans-Atlantic alliance."
He pointed to Afghanistan as emblematic of Europe's defense failure, demonstrating "a legacy of underinvestment by some European member states in their armed forces, significant variance in political commitment to the campaign, and underneath it all a continued overreliance on the U.S. to do the heavy lifting." If a more centralized European Union does anything on defense, it should be to develop a continent-wide force capable of combat and backed by sufficient lift to get it where needed.
As part of that process, Europe needs to consider the question of nuclear weapons. For 60 years the Europeans have relied on the U.S., yet why should Washington risk nuclear war to protect them from a sharply diminished threat? A week before the statement by the three British military officers, a Pentagon panel recommended keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and possibly modernizing the arsenal.
If Europeans believe that Russia poses a nuclear threat, should not Europeans provide the deterrence? Although the retired officers correctly observed that Britain's arsenal has no value in combating terrorism, it surely guarantees that there will never be a Russian attack on the island nation, even if Moscow somehow reconstitutes its military. The same goes for France's force de frappe.
Neither country would have to "win" a nuclear war with Russia. They simply need retain a sufficient number of warheads to inflict unacceptable casualties on Russia in any conflict. The mere possibility of destroying Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Novgorod, and a few other major cities would concentrate minds in the Kremlin.
The obvious problem, of course, is that the British and French may hesitate before unleashing nuclear war to save Georgia, Estonia, or even Germany. Their reluctance is understandable, but why should Washington step in and do so instead? NATO expansion has incorporated numerous nations which are at best of peripheral interest to America. A U.S. government threat of war, let alone nuclear war, to defend such countries would represent policy malfeasance of the highest order.
Just as Europe has the wherewithal to create an effective conventional force, so it already has the makings of a nuclear deterrent. While concerns over proliferation might militate against a proposal to create a new nuclear power, Europe already is one after a fashion. The question is whether Britain and France, whose president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has talked much about empowering the European Union militarily, could be persuaded to turn their forces into a true continental arsenal.
Not likely as long as Washington continues to extend both a conventional and nuclear umbrella over Europe. But America no longer can afford to defend countries that are well able to confront what little dangers they might face. The U.S. is suffering through economic crisis at home and is very busy elsewhere in the world. There is much on which America and Europe can and should cooperate, including security. But Washington's one-sided defense subsidy should end, and along with it the best excuse for Britain and France holding their nuclear forces separate from the continent's defense needs.
Contrary to the judgment of Britain's three retired commanders, their nation's nuclear force could be highly useful, giving Europe some heft in dealing with a resurgent Russia. After more than a half century, the U.S. should insist that its European dependents take over responsibility for their own security. Which should include sharing today's bi-national nuclear deterrent to ensure that Europe won't have to call upon Washington for military assistance in the future.
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