Nuclear renaissance harbingers resurgence of Cold War realities
    Surviving in anarchy

    ANALYTICS  26 February 2024 - 15:50

    Yevgeny Preigerman

    Nuclear weapons, which were resting on the fringes of the international agenda for three decades after the end of the Cold War, are rapidly coming to the fore in a changing world. This is a natural process, but today it has become especially dangerous.

    One of the indicators of changing historical epochs is a marked acceleration in international events and processes. Changes that normally occur slowly over long periods, or not at all, literally gallop during the transformation period. The speed and accumulation of such changes often do not allow observers and direct participants in the processes to understand their causes and real consequences. Therefore, it is difficult to navigate, find relevant historical analogies and make optimal decisions.

    European rollercoaster of nuclear perception

    All this is certainly true of our times. One obvious example is the very rapidly changing role of nuclear weapons in global politics, as well as how they're perceived by governments and the public around the globe.

    It would have been hard to believe just five or six years ago if someone had suggested that EU countries would soon be engaged in a serious debate about the centrality of nuclear weapons to national and pan-European security. Particularly in Germany. There was a time when it seemed that Berlin would rather join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty than take a hard look at the possibilities of upgrading nuclear weapons for strategic deterrence against potential adversaries.

    Since the 1960s, Germany has participated in NATO's so-called "joint nuclear missions", which involve the deployment of US tactical nuclear warheads on German air force aircraft. Moreover, as a NATO member, Germany is under the US nuclear umbrella (or so it was perceived for many decades). However, strong pacifist sentiments in German society and elites have long made the nuclear issue unpopular. Many wanted to see the US nuclear bombs withdrawn. Significantly, as recently as 2020, 66 per cent of Germans believed that "Germany should completely abandon the concept of deterrence with nuclear weapons". Another poll the same year found even greater support for the idea of nuclear-free military - 83%. Two of the three parties in the new coalition government, the Social Democrats and the Greens, were anti-nuclear in the 2021 federal elections.

    But as early as mid-2022, a few months after war broke out in Ukraine, polls showed for the first time in years that just over half of Germans, 52 per cent, had come to support keeping the US nuclear arsenal on German soil. However, according to the latest poll published this week, 60 per cent of Germans are against Berlin acquiring its nuclear arsenal.

    The dynamics of public opinion are also reflected in politics. Manfred Weber, a member of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria who also leads the European People's Party, which dominates the EU, is open and unambiguous in his demand that nuclear weapons should be at the heart of any European military deterrence policy. As he puts it, "We all know that the nuclear option becomes decisive when a critical situation arises". The nuclear issue is likely to be high on the Brussels agenda if the EPP is expected to triumph in the upcoming European Parliament elections and again play a key role in shaping the new composition of the European Commission.

    However, those who doubt that this will happen still exist. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, a social democrat, is more cautious, warning of the complexity of the issue. In his opinion, "a discussion about nuclear weapons is the last thing that we need to have right now. It would be an unnecessary escalation".

    For advocates of a restrained approach, however, defending their position is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially after Donald Trump's recent sensational statement at a meeting with voters in South Carolina, where he said that in the event of a conflict with Russia, he would not come to the defence of European allies with insufficient military spending. Moreover, he would even encourage the Russian leadership to "do whatever they want" concerning "persistent deadbeats" in NATO. We have all grown accustomed to the eccentricities of the former and possibly future US president. But these words could leave few in Europe indifferent. They have re-energised the nuclear debate. This is particularly true as European military leaders, including those in Germany, have in recent weeks expressed their belief that military conflict with Russia is likely in coming years.

    Deterrence of last resort

    Little wonder, then, that a rapid renaissance of interest and attention to nuclear weapons is unfolding before our eyes. Germany is a prime example, but far from alone. The debate will continue to evolve. In Europe, it's already beginning to move beyond the basic "should we or shouldn't we?" to "how?". The Europeanisation of the nuclear umbrella is one approach gaining popularity. According to its proponents, European countries should move away from complete nuclear dependence on the US and develop their forces and arrangements, relying on French and British arsenals. French President Macron suggested thinking along these lines back in 2020, but at the time it did not inspire much enthusiasm among other states on the continent, partly because of a host of political and technical difficulties. Now the complexities are no less, but the idea has been revived and is attracting increasing interest from German politicians on different sides of the ideological spectrum.

    We do not want to foresee now where this debate will lead and its shape in Germany and Europe. That is not the main point at the moment. What is more important is to underline the key point, which Manfred Weber put in a nutshell: "The nuclear option becomes decisive in a critical situation. This thesis may sound unacceptable or even immoral to many. After all, the nuclear sphere in principle presents several dilemmas that would seem unacceptable to a normal person. But it reflects a universal, often not even fully realised, risk analysis that, in the context of growing political-military tensions, is common to most countries that feel vulnerable".

    In that respect, the story of last year, in which Minsk and Moscow announced the stationing of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Byelorussia, illustrates the point. The Belarusian leadership's logic behind this decision is similar to that heard in European capitals today. In Minsk, Berlin and Warsaw, nuclear weapons are now perceived as a deterrent of last resort, despite all the anti-nuclear and peace initiatives of the past and future years. All other obvious risks are outweighed by the expectation that this factor will prove decisive for their security in the event of adverse developments. For example, the risk of being a priority target for an enemy's first strike.

    More dangerous than in Cold War times

    In this respect, Europe is rapidly returning to the early Cold War realities. Back then, albeit at a completely different technological level, the dilemmas and the political and expert debates that reflected them were very similar to what we hear today. Because of these parallels, many are beginning to draw historical parallels, arguing that an experience of tough and uncompromising nuclear policy (such as that proposed by Henry Kissinger in late 1958) needs to be repeated. In the West, this experience has been associated with victory in the struggle with the Soviet Bloc. The golden age of bipolar confrontation with the Western world is fondly remembered in Russia and some post-Soviet republics.

    However, it is important to recognise that despite similarities in nuclear dilemmas, the current situation differs significantly from the Cold War. Firstly, the possibility of strategic compromise between opposing countries and systems is not present today because there is no ideological confrontation over annihilation. Second, there is a high degree of interdependence between the main geopolitical adversaries, which makes a complete "iron curtain" impossible. Third, there are no two, let alone three, states in the international system that are capable of acting decisively, including in the nuclear sphere. Fourth, a growing number of non-state actors possess significant technological capabilities alongside a large number of powerful states.

    The universal logic of nuclear weapons as a deterrent of last resort described above does not disappear because of such structural conditions. However, they do increase the universal risks of a nuclear arms race. The scenario of a nuclear catastrophe (especially regional) becomes more realistic, as it will be more difficult than in the last century for many nuclear actors to coordinate the situation. At the same time, there is no practical need to exaggerate the role of the nuclear confrontation. The specifics of the confrontation are different.

    All this leads to a banal conclusion. The whole world will have to learn to live with the growing role of nuclear weapons until the main antagonists in international politics can stop the spiral of escalation and find a way to cooperate. This will require far more calibrated public policy than we see today, as well as emotional fortitude on the part of many leaders. As Freeman Dyson wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs in 1960, "All our efforts must now be focused on somehow managing to survive and keep the world stable during the transitional period of international anarchy".


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