Picture a future period where the Russian threat and the threats of terrorism and rogue states have all receded, due to the skillful strategic maneuvering of a US president. Like Eisenhower, this president’s maneuvers are far enough from the eyes of the media that he gets little credit for his wise and bold actions. Thus, a reduced threat is not seen in the media as the result of careful policy, but just something that happened.
In this very foreseeable future, NATO Country X elects a leftist government that promises to remove US nuclear weapons. These are the weapons that have kept peace in Europe since they first arrived on the continent, shortly after the end of World War II. The weapons (the relatively few left since the end of the Cold War) that prove the US will really use its nuclear arsenal if Europe needs it. The weapons that convinced European countries (Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, EDIT Aug 2021: and Spain) to stop their own nuclear programs. NATO decides to allow removal of US weapons from Country X over the strenuous objections of countries that still feel threatened and want to continue the assurance provided by nuclear sharing. The US removes weapons from Country X and sends home the US technicians who maintained the weapons. While this activity is never acknowledged by the US nor the host nation, word quickly gets out that weapons are being removed. Emboldened, leftist politicians in Country Y demand removal of US nuclear weapons from their country as well. Now NATO deliberative bodies are somewhat more reluctant to remove weapons from a second country, but the measure is still approved. The process repeats itself. Soon, all US weapons assigned for use by European countries are gone, leaving a much smaller number of weapons intended for US forces in Europe. Before long, those are gone too, mostly due to European pressure, but somewhat due to US pressure, although few in the US pay any attention to the issue.
The US nuclear weapons are soon gone from Europe. NATO governments and some neutral governments assume that US strategic nuclear weapons in the US and at sea meet all their needs. Eventually perceptions of a threat to peace in Europe return, because they always do. Europe has never been at peace for long, and the longest period of peace was … the era of nuclear weapons. Now strategic thinkers in Europe wonder openly why the US would expose its own country to nuclear counterattack just because European nations are threatened. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the US to pull back the ‘nuclear umbrella’ just a bit, in its own self interest? Can we sophisticated Europeans trust the crude Americans to protect us yet again? What would then remain to secure European NATO countries from the renewed threat?
Secretly, Country X starts its own nuclear weapons development program. Country Y follows. Both are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so these new programs are a violation of that treaty. It turns out that the treaty really didn’t prevent proliferation. The only thing that really prevented proliferation in Europe was confidence in US nuclear forces. With that confidence gone perhaps a dozen NATO nations in Europe, all of them dedicated to non-proliferation and (in political circles if not in defense circles) staunch critics of US nuclear weapons, will quickly develop weapons of their own.
In an effort to reduce the ‘proliferation’ of nuclear sharing (in which US weapons are always under US control), European NATO countries will ensure an increase in proliferation, by themselves. A hot nuclear war may become much more likely.
EDIT March 2022: Here is the clue that gives away the game. Countries in which much of the population rejects burden sharing with US weapons, bring up the possibility of burden sharing with French weapons. Anti-nuclear is just a pose. They want protection, but don’t trust us to maintain it despite the USA moving mountains to protect Europe for decades. They don’t want our weapons but are OK with weapons from others. And here’s how the conversation goes nowadays.
- Country X: Hey, we could always rely on French weapons for our deterrent, right?
- France: Whose weapons? For what now?
- Country Y: Your full suite of land, sea, and air weapons can protect us!
- France: We retired all ground-launched weapons in the 1990s. Please try to keep up. We have sea- and air-launched weapons, and these are for French purposes only.
- Country X: Come on, you have pushed this idea of deterring for us in the past
- France: Our deterrence force is independent! You benefit, but we offer no guarantees.
- Country X: Why do you have to play coy games in matters of European security?
- France: What? Didn’t hear you; distracted by my awesomeness. FOR THE GLORY OF FRANCE!!!!!
Final note: As always, I post few links because sooner or later the linked article says something I don’t care to mention, even indirectly.
EDIT (another one) March 2022: Things are changing in Europe. Euro NATO countries suddenly get serious about defending themselves. There was a real possibility that they would tear up the nuclear sharing regime and fall off a cliff to proliferation, but it seems now the danger has passed. It will be twenty years or more before the issue of removing US nuclear weapons from Europe comes back into discussion. Someone has convinced them to take the threat of Russia seriously. That someone is Vladimir Putin.