mushroom-cloudShould Europe be a “nuclear-free zone”? Other continents have managed it, including Latin America and Africa (with South Africa being the only country to have successfully built a nuclear bomb before scrapping their arsenal completely). Despite domestic political grumbles, the United Kingdom and France both remain nuclear powers, whilst Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands all participate in the NATO policy of nuclear weapons sharing with the United States.

But, with the end of the Cold War, is there still a reason for European states to cling to their thermonuclear toys? Or do worsening relations with Russia (not to mention North Korea joining the nuclear club, and Iran on its way) provide reason enough to retain a nuclear deterrence?

One of our commenters, Alex from Germany, said he would like to see his country withdraw from NATO and build its own nuclear arsenal. He hopes the future Germany might resemble a nuclear-armed “big Switzerland, independent and neutral” . It’s an unconventional (and unlikely) vision, to be sure, but does anybody really know what the future holds for nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War order?

We recently had this question sent in from Wouter:

What will the role of nuclear weapons be in the future? How is NATO going to defend against nuclear arms? [And] how far can a nuclear threat influence major crisis (like the crisis in the Ukraine right now) and limit the possibilities of conventional warfare today?

During the Security & Defence Agenda’s Annual Conference “Overhauling Transatlantic Security Thinking”, we spoke to Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, and asked him to respond:

We also had the chance to put the same question to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary General (2004-2009). What did he think the future held for nuclear weapons?

With the end of the Cold War, is there still a reason for European states to have nuclear weapons? What will the role of nuclear weapons be in the future? And should Europe be a “nuclear-free zone”? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Pierre J.

95 comments Post a commentComment


  1. Jovan Ivosevic

    No country which has developed nuclear weapons has been attacked on its own soil since developing nuclear weapons. The only exception to that are India and Kashmir but that has only been limited to Kashmir, whose territory between those two is disputed. Why on Earth would Europe want to get rid of the biggest and best deterrent for war?

  2. Nuno de Magalhães

    No. Only specific countries shall be allowed nuke weapons. The most rich of course, because they are expensive and they need to protect themselves from poorer countries, which by their nature will become even more poor.

  3. catherine benning

    Yes! If they cannot be used, and they cannot be used by Europeans, then please explain the waste of our money on purchasing them? And, who are we purchasing them from?

    In the UK we are once again buying Trident from the USA at a cost that would take the head off anyone with reason. First of all, we don’t know if it works. Secondly, we cannot use it without US approval. They hold the key to it firing. Which means if the war we are going to is against them, or, one of their satellites it cannot be used. We can only use it with their good wishes and assistance. What a joke, and we are paying them through the nose for this. Can anyone ready this accept that situation is sane?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjwsFZwQGCk

    And here is the truth about this ridiculous nuisance to us all that is costing us a fortune for nothing.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw4TPBMkc-M.

  4. Ana Georgieva

    Really, what about USA and its child Britain? Or we all have to wait until they destroys the whole world. Well, I have to dissapoint them, but they will not!

  5. Lawrence Michael

    Why nuclear weapons? Deterrence. Against whom? Against mortal enemies who may be able to overpower a concerned state practicing the deterrence doctrine. Who is a mortal enemy? In terms of states here – can be your cousin tomorrow. This means France may need nuclear weapons to deter a Spain of tomorrow. But do they mean something? For functional states, they do. For ‘ostensible’ & failed states – the risks become global.

  6. Minne Wiersma

    we already have nuclearboms in holland from 1980 till now ?why nuke free do you want russia walk al over us like hitler did in 40/45 ?

  7. Levente Biro

    Of course. Nuclear energy is too dangerous, and when create problems it don’t give a second chanse. Just think, it can persist in environment over 30.000 years.

  8. Tiago Miranda

    Nuclear weapons may be tools of war, but combined in a global network they can be used as last resort space demolishers. Who knows if we could use nuclear warfare to tear apart a slightly big rock than that which hit Russia recently?

  9. Steve Patriarca

    the short answer is of course – No. Look what happened to Ukraine. But the long answer is that nuclear weapons are not the whole answer as they cannot be used for any low level encounters.

    For example it makes no sense to have a nuclear force to protect an eastern European country with a Russian minority which Moscow chooses to arm and use its agents to create a civil war.

    What is needed to liberate Eastern Ukraine and to secure Eastern European states is a strong conventional force, well led and well trained.

    Finally Europe must be equipped for an underground war – whether with Russian agents or Islamists extremists – how to achieve that – how to root out enemy agents without a McCarthyite witch hunt – how to protect ourselves against fanatics who play by no book of rules – and how to do so without compromising our own liberties – those are the big questions for debate.

    We could start by not letting our own allies sell their souls or their warships to the enemies of the free society.

  10. Ephraim Schulze

    No until those Third world countries understand that dangerous of it then we can proceed meanwhile the teaching will continue

  11. Jaume Roqueta

    I think we have allready enought nuclear weapons to destroy the earth twice!… In order to promote peace we should…. first, arrest all the europeans and americans that conspirate to produce wars in third countries for their natural resouces… this is the seed for terrorism… and second, we should do a policy for military training the people by playing PaintBall between population and armies, this makes people of the army to feel closer to civilians and this will prevent any civil war in our territory… (Like in ukrania now) it could be like a sport leage and put in TV…

  12. ObservateurBxl Brabançon

    Nuclear weapons on the territories of (and with the agreement of) European Nato member states remains under command of US Defense. The right question should be : Do want the European States support themselves their common sovereignty by the setting up of a Federal power along the European Defense capabilities (including nuclear deterrence) ?

  13. Gatis Gailitis

    I do somewhat trust European countries that they wouldn’t go out war at someone in Europe. However, I don’t trust nor Chinese, Russian nor American governments and their interests. I don’t trust anyone giving up their billion dollar weapons and destroying them. I’m not taking anyone’s word for it.

  14. Theharmonicaman

    Dear Debating Europe,

    Once again an intresting articel with good questions. I wonder who Wouter is, because I would like to meet him. No I am just joking. Nevertheless, intresting answers from those whom were interviewd.
    I believe that WMD’s, in the hands of reasonable states, have been responsible for peace rather than war. However, If mad men come to power, or terrorists get there hands on WMD’s, it would be a disaster. Therefore we sure do need a cooperative program to secure our WMD’s.

    Greetings Theharmonicaman

  15. Aleksandros Ho Megas

    YES, and only then we can seriously complain about anyone else having and/or producing nuclear weapons!
    Same goes for biochemical weapons.

  16. Al

    Get rid of them and we are at greater threat from other parts of the world that won’t. What happens when a rogue country such as Iran or North Korea develop them but we don’t have them. Nuclear weapons are there to insure we aren’t attacked, other regions of the world that we consider a threat, we pressurize them, not to develop nuclear weapons through various sanctions.

  17. Paul X

    Nutters who can fly planes full of people into buildings full of people would not spare a second thought about using a WMD if they had any. So if they manage to develop one whilst everyone else in the world has abandoned theirs then god help this planet

  18. Nikolaos Sotirelis

    So young people, but so naive, so ignorant and so arrogant! I’m really shocked!
    I suggest to anyone to watch the film “The day after”! All the horror of a nuclear war, is imprinted in the scene where the soldier of a nuclear missile base, says frightened to his colleague after they’ve just pressed the button, “let’s leave this place immediately. We pressed the button… so they did, too!… The war is already over!”

    • Paul X

      Naive is believing Europe will be a safer place without a nuclear deterrent

    • catherine benning

      @Paul X:

      Naive is believing Europe will be safer with it.

  19. Paul Niland

    The world should be free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear power needs to have more safety measures inbuilt to avoid another Chernobyl or Fukushima.

  20. Jonathan Gaskell

    We could follow the Ukrainian model and have our neighbours, say Russia, sign an agreement, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of the EU. Seems an effective solution.

  21. Nicolas Bardio

    C’mon, I can’t even believe that this question is real and someone can seriously think about it!

    Nukes are a living insurance, Nukes avoided a 3rd world war. No nuclear nation was never invaded, or attacked, even those ones considered as “evil” like North Korea or China.

    There are no war victims from Nuclear Weapons since 1945 (except for some nuke test that, anyway, are not done anymore)

    Nukes are our guarantee to don’t be invaded as Ukraine, to dont be threatened or backmailed, to have a place and a safety.

    I would rather ask: Does France transfer (I assume UK is going to leave at a moment the EU) its weapons to the European Union and create some kind of Nuclear Defense Strategy?

  22. Pedro Redondeiro

    They could if there were no threats to its security, but that is not the case. So, Europe should NOT ditch its nuclear arsenal. In fact it should organise itself, to a common nuclear arsenal! ;)

  23. ironworker

    Should all European countries give up nuclear weapons?

    No. UK and France should keep them, you never know when you need them.

  24. Giuseppe Sergi

    We can not do so unless other global powers do the same. Otherwise we’d potentially be at the receiving end of nuclear blackmail!

  25. Gioacchino Giorgio Nastasi

    Europe must have a credible nuclear deterrence, otherwise it will be held hostage by other nuclear powers and type of rogue states with nuclear power :Iran, North Korea, etc … I would add to this list of unreliable states : India, China, Pakistan,

    • ironworker

      You personally should convince 김정은 (Kim Jong-un) and صدر مملکت پاکستان‎ — Ṣadr-e Mumlikat-e Pākistān to ” just give up on Nuclear weapons !!!”
      Good Luck !

  26. Rui Duarte

    As Jane Austen would surrely put it: «It is a truth universally acknowledged that a powerfull man in possession of a good weapon must be in search of a war».

  27. Rui Duarte

    As Jane Austen would surrely put it: «It is a truth universally acknowledged that a powerfull man in possession of a good weapon must be in search of a war».

  28. Alex

    YES,and for piece they should stop trade in weapons and armaments.

  29. Andre Mura

    Yes only for nuclear energy.
    We must go beyond this kind of energy;
    While, nuclear weapons, in a world like this, like now, is a weapon that we must (regrettably) keep.
    World is not yet ready from a nuclear – weapon-free nations;
    Too much menaces.

  30. Jaume Roqueta

    ey Debating Europe… any debate on what is going in GAZA these days? Does Europe have to say something with this? it makes you feel more european looking how israel is bombing muslims and say nothing?

  31. Nikolaos Sotirelis

    As I’m able to see, several young commenters, especially from Eastern Europe but not only, would love to push the button to eliminate Russia or China (along with any living creature)!
    Extremely humanitarian thought!!! As long as they have in mind, that several Russians or Chinese might also love the same thing!

  32. Leo

    Wars will be fought. Better not to have nuclear weapons around then. That is largely 60s technology. Would you bet the future of humanity on the reliability of a 1960s technology car? A rusty, old car? With thousands of 24/7 hair trigger alert weapons in thousands of different facilities, human and/or technical failures will eventually lead to a detonation.

    The only way to make sure nuclear weapons are not used is by eliminating them.

  33. proactive

    “The dilemma”: applying the existing “deterrence theory” (mutually assured destruction) has worked during the cold war. Nowadays, the greater danger is suicidal or psychotic opponents and rouge states who are not deterred by anything!
    How to deal with this new threat?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism

    The only European States having nuclear weapons are France & the U.K. http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/nuclear-deterrence

    Countries acknowledged having nukes are: USA, U.K., France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel & North Korea. Iran, Syria & suicidal terrorists are seeking them!

    Under these circumstances nobody will ever give theirs up. Arms control- yes!

  34. George Yiannitsiotis

    There is only one way to give up nuclear weapons: to settle international disputes in peace, sharing our common wealth/poverty or eliminating the ones that constitute “surplus” population. In the former case, nuclear weapons are of no use; in the latter, they can’t be used without threatening the existence of life on earth.

    The rational outcome would be that nuclear weapons are useless and shall be abolished by all nations on earth. Therefore, unilateral abolishment would only weaken the possessors of such weapons undermining their diplomatic potential for a full, unconditional abolishment of such weapons of mass destruction all over the world.

    Solution: an international agreement (following the pattern of US-USSR agreements of the 1980s) to control and gradually abolish such weapons from around the globe.

    Countries that possess such weapons are: the USA, Russia, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and N.Korea (South Africa abolished them in the 1990s due to a wise political decision by Nelson Mandela). Iran is trying to acquire such weapons but a direct pact with the USA could avert such a development. In all cases, the key is in the minds of peoples around the globe: are we ready to share our common poverty??

    • proactive

      George, a correction please: It was “1993 joint Nobel Peace Prize laureate FW De Klerk” & his outgoing government who ordered the dismantling of SA nukes in 1989- “preventing them falling into wrong hands”- before a negotiated settlement was reached with the ANC under Mr. N. Mandela & his later election in 1994 as State President.

      http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/01/abandoning-nuclear-weapons-lessons-from-south-africa/

    • George Yiannitsiotis

      Correct: However, Nelson Mandela was against nuclear weapons on ethical grounds. FW De Klerk did the job and got the credit (similar to Gorbachev’s analogous gathering of USSR nuclear weapons to Russia proper, Belarus and Ukraine before the fall of the USSR empire). Both politicians are to be mentioned for their wise, cautious handling of the matter.-

  35. Francesco Nicoli

    Ukraine DID give up nuclear weapons, under the assurance from US and Russia that its territorial sovereigny would have been always preserved…
    Not a smart move.

  36. catherine benning

    To be ‘for’ nuclear weapons of any kind is the deranged thinking of madmen. This documentary deals with the underlying issues we rarely discuss or even know about. The opening film lasts just a couple of minutes.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5tfPnnTlGk

    And where it leads. What it’s aims really are.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3oSS_FP-cA

    Does it occur to you people who love the idea of nuclear weapons that the crazed leaders of Israel have hundreds of these weapons today, which is why the world denies what they are dong today in Gaza. This lunacy used against the poverty stricken area of Gaza could be any region of the world they decide doesn’t suit their and US modus operanadi. Israel is armed by the USA and simply a cover for that countries military expansion. What they are doing is one step away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Europe be smart and think well ahead.

    • Alex

      And yet you can think,if they would dare to do this if the other side had nuclears?
      As i always said.The strong don t really need nulears.They r strong.They could just beat their enemy without it.Well if you know you re weak,nuclears cauld be usefull,if you know you can t compete in conventional aspects.I call it the “make em pay” doctrine

  37. Kevin

    When you say ”should European countries give up nuclear weapons? ” do you mean remove USA nuclear missiles (sited in Belgium , Germany , Italy ) or just European countries that have them . If its the later we are only talking of France and UK . It will have to be a unilateral disarmament agreement worldwide before the UK goes down that road .

  38. Tassos Kotsiras

    The only smart move that Ukraine had ever done in its history was its nuclear disarmament
    don’t forget that Ukraine is in economic collapse since then (more than 20 years)
    so it couldn’t spare extra cash for maintaining a nuclear arsenal or worst they could sell to the highest bitter

  39. @petergottwald

    Why does Europe undermines the very existence? Why does Europe secretly killed 200,000,000 children? Why Europe is stealing trillions of euros every day out of 170 nations on the planet? Why Europe support rape of childs for suporte national vomiting reality shows ? Europe is now officially the biggest cold-blooded, vomiting, a mass murderer in the history of mankind. Why does Europe behaves political prisoners? Why Europe wants to go by strategies which can kill more than three quarters of humanity or exterminate all of Europe with nuclear weapons.

  40. Chris

    I think that the EU should have control over the nuclear arsenals of the UK and France, and of course of any other member states’ nuclear weapons arsenal if they choose to build one. I as a german citizen would accept the acquisition of nuclear arms by my country, though only on submarines and as I said under EU control. Such control for me means in detail, control by the European Parliament, elected by EU citizens, with a veto right for each of the member states. Such control should also extend towards other weapons of mass destruction, like chemical, biological or incendiary weapons. The latter is officially not a WMD, but in my opinion it is. I think that Europe should not be free of nuclear weapons for I believe it to be unfeasible from a geopolitical point of view, since the EU and other european countries, are located between Russia and the USA, with an unstable southern and southwestern neighborhood. I also believe that the US arsenal should be removed from the continent and that Europe, meaning the EU and its member states should act with more independence from the USA. The removal of US arms would be one step towards such independence.

  41. Alex

    You guys should realize that there are big and small ,strong and weak countries.In a world withour nuclears,the big would be still able to let s “fuck up” the weak,so those weak countries would just not win anything and only lose something,when they give up nuclears.What advantage would north korea have from giving up it s nuclear.They r probably the only reason why there ain t yanks marshing trough pyongyang yet.The US can still beet anyone,with or without nuclears.Well the likes of north korea are screwed without em^^

  42. Carles

    It is a matter that affects the whole of the world, is would that convening a Global Conference of the Civil society, to seek solutions to Comprehensive Nuclear disarmament.

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