Last Friday saw the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – one of the major building blocks of the arms control regime that allowed the cold war to thaw out. Signed by presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, it eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapon.
The INF Treaty put an end to the Euromissile Crisis – a period of great anguish and concern across Europe and the NATO alliance, triggered by the Soviet Union’s deployment in the 1970s of a new class of intermediate-range nuclear missile designed for use on the continent. After NATO’s threat of counter-deployments failed to convince the Soviets to reverse course, the United States deployed cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles to Europe in 1983, attended by widespread anti-nuclear protests and civil disobedience. Europeans welcomed the INF Treaty for not only reducing the nuclear threat but healing internal divisions.
Now, the treaty has slipped into the dustbin of history, following Russia’s development and deployment of a prohibited weapon, the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile. Yet, in contrast with the Euromissile Crisis, no one seems to care much. Few European leaders have chosen to argue with US President Donald Trump’s decision to renounce the treaty in response to Russia’s refusal to withdraw the prohibited system. There have been no panicky appeals from European politicians for the US to match the Russian deployments, to maintain deterrence and transatlantic confidence. NATO’s response, as articulated by its secretary-general last Friday, is to be “measured and responsible” – in other words, just to carry on with current plans such as those to improve air defences.
The insouciance of the main protagonists is not much of a surprise. A Russian president who invades his neighbours is not going to allow treaty obligations to stand in the way of a military development he judges useful. The US under Trump – a man equally allergic to any constraints on his power – has shown no very evident regret at, or concern to avoid, the treaty’s demise. But European passivity is more of a puzzle.
One possible explanation for Europeans’ lack of a reaction might be that they just do not see today’s Russia as presenting the same threat as the Soviet Union of the 1970s and the 1980s. And, of course, the cold war is history. But Poles and Latvians are hardly relaxed about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s track record, military capabilities, or intentions. Few European governments are unaware of the part that military – specifically, nuclear – intimidation plays in Russia’s strategy to subvert and cow its western neighbours.
Europeans need to take their heads out from under the duvet and discuss how to create a “Euro-deterrent”
Alternatively – at least, in theory – the composure of today’s European leaders could mean that they feel a more perfect confidence in the US nuclear guarantee than their predecessors did. After all, the whole Euromissile business stemmed from the worry that, unless the US military deployed intermediate-range systems in Europe to respond to Moscow’s use of such systems, Washington might flinch from using its strategic weapons. The Euromissile deployments were intended to prevent the Soviets from gambling that the US president would, in a moment of crisis, decline to “risk Chicago for Berlin”. Perhaps today’s Europeans have more confidence that Trump would run such a risk for them? And pigs might fly.
The sad truth is that European indifference to the death of the INF Treaty stems not from confidence but from a deep-seated reluctance to accept that nuclear issues are back on the agenda at all. As ECFR found in a comprehensive recent survey of attitudes towards nuclear deterrence across Europe, Europeans are choosing to address these issues with, in the words of the report’s title, “eyes tight shut”. In some member states, folk memory of the domestic conflicts sparked by the Euromissile Crisis is evergreen. Others – particularly non-NATO members – retain a deep-seated attachment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Few have any appetite for facing up to the wider implications of the deterioration of the US security guarantee to Europe under Trump. So, if the Russians and the Americans seem ready to view the painfully constructed arms control regimes of the twentieth century as disposable, most Europeans seem ready to go with the flow.
Of course, it is not stupid to decide against responding to Russia’s deployment of intermediate-range systems in a tit-for-tat fashion. Nuclear deterrence has never depended on exact parity – and the credibility of a deterrent has never depended on where the weapons are based. (So, yes, the whole Euromissile Crisis was unnecessary.)
But it is myopic to refuse to take the elevated Russian nuclear threat seriously. As the ECFR report cited above argues, Europeans need to take their heads out from under the duvet and start thinking seriously about how to create a “Euro-deterrent” – that is, about how to effectively extend the deterrence capacity of the French and British nuclear arsenals to cover European partners and allies. No one pretends that such a goal will be quick or easy to achieve. But, without it, all talk of European “strategic autonomy”, or of a Europe able to exercise any real degree of strategic sovereignty in the twenty-first century, is ultimately vacuous.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.