Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
A FRENCH VIEW
IF we look back at the year 1962 to see how it affected relations between the Atlantic powers, we find emphasis on a search for ways to put into more effective practice the spirit of partnership called for by President Kennedy in his speech of July 4. In this search, the obstacle over which both statesmen and writers have stumbled has nearly always been connected with nuclear problems and specifically with the sharing of responsibilities for the control and use of nuclear weapons.
Of the various attempts to find practical solutions to these problems, the two particularly worth mentioning are the offer of the United States to commit several Polaris submarines to the NATO Command and the proposals made at the Bahamas meeting. In the course of the past year, too, the doctrine that inspires United States policy has been more sharply defined than ever before-at President Kennedy's press conference of December 18, in Mr. McNamara's statements at the Athens meeting of NATO and at Ann Arbor, and in Mr. McGeorge Bundy's address to the Atlantic Treaty Association on September 27 at Copenhagen-all of them official statements containing official proposals. It would be impossible to list all the articles by private individuals who have dealt with the subject in the course of this year. For example, the first three articles of the January 1963 issue of Foreign Affairs were concerned with just this question-how to deal with nuclear problems in order to improve the Atlantic partnership.
It is always difficult to summarize without running the risk of distorting. However, it is probably fair to say that the United States Government sees no need for national nuclear forces in Europe and that it believes there is a danger of such forces being used in case of war in a way that might precipitate rather than ward off a nuclear catastrophe. Yet it recognizes two facts: namely, that two European nations have embarked on the national production of atomic weapons; and that there is a growing desire in Europe to share in the responsibility for deciding whether such weapons should be used or not. In consequence, it is felt that the United States could support the building of a multilateral nuclear force fully integrated into the American force, and that it could help in the procurement of national delivery systems under certain conditions.[i]
It is on these views about how to deal with nuclear problems and improve our partnership that we propose to comment here. This is not easy, because the application of atomic energy for military purposes has had contradictory effects on the relations between the United States and some of its allies. First and foremost, of course, the American nuclear effort gave Europe the guarantee of security which was the cornerstone of its political and economic reconstruction. On the other hand, the fact that the American effort was shrouded in secrecy, and that attempts by NATO allies to equip themselves with modern weapons were strongly opposed, was not very well received in Europe-the more so because the first results obtained in the United States were based on scientific achievements which came mostly from European laboratories. Similarly, the American effort to arrive at an agreement on the suspension of tests, sometimes described as an agreement between opponents against friends, was resented in at least some quarters of Europe. For its part, the United States has viewed with concern the nuclear policies of some European countries on the ground that they were useless by military and technological standards, wasteful of resources that could be better used elsewhere and misconceived politically in so far as they might be taken to indicate that the countries in question either wanted to be in a position to hold a match to the powder keg or hoped to equip themselves to follow a third-force policy in the neutralist sense.
The foregoing is probably enough to make plain that the military application of atomic energy has presented Western governments with problems, and that efforts to solve them have not always promoted the growth of the spirit of partnership. These problems will be discussed here in the clear recognition that difficulties exist on both sides and that no solution will work which suits the Europeans but not the Americans, or vice versa. We therefore shall not discuss this or that specific proposal but rather try to bring to light what seem to us the basic factors relevant to any proper appraisal of the whole issue.
The question that needs an answer is whether or not there is a security problem which is peculiar to Europe. If it were generally agreed that the nuclear defense of all the members of the Alliance is completely indivisible, there would be no need to set up such complicated and costly machinery as a multilateral force, just for the sake of pretending that we are more equal partners. If, on the other hand, there is a security problem which is peculiar to Europe, then a solution must be found to meet it.
It is with some diffidence that a Frenchman embarks on this discussion. For reasons all too easy to understand, the American authorities and public are extremely sensitive to any argument that tends to dissociate the defense of Europe from that of the United States, or the problem of deterrence as it presents itself to Europe from the problem of deterrence as it presents itself to the United States. They jump to the conclusion that anyone who tries to discuss the matter questions the U.S. pledge, or forgets the hundreds of thousands of Americans permanently stationed in Europe and the vast number of atomic weapons deployed there and earmarked for use by European forces in case of war.
So our purpose is to try to show that the case for independent nuclear forces in Europe is separate from the answer to the question which Mr. Dean Acheson, writing in these pages, reported that Europeans were asking: "Could the United States be relied upon ... in view of the possible consequences to itself, to use nuclear weapons unless the security of the United States itself was immediately in danger?" In spite of Mr. Herter's statement in April 1959,[ii] in spite of the countless books and articles written by American soldiers, analysts and commentators who have expressed the view that in a state of atomic balance the credibility of the use of these weapons is inevitably diminishing, the attempts of European governments to build national deterrent forces need not be understood in America or justified in Europe by a mistrust of United States action if ever the chips were down. It is possible to have no doubt that the American pledges would be honored, to be convinced that the presence of six American divisions and the nuclear deployment now existing in Europe are the best guarantee of European security, and yet to fear that there may still be a small percentage of cases where the defense of the old and the new continents might not be one and the same thing. This contention will seem less controversial if we remember that geography has put 3,000 miles of ocean between Europe and America and that Western Europe can be attacked by land with a variety of means, while the United States and Canada can be attacked only with the full-scale nuclear panoply.
The reason why there is a security problem for Europe distinct from that of the United States has nothing to do with what the Americans would or would not do under particular circumstances, or with what Europeans think. It has unfortunately to do with what the Soviet leaders believe and will believe for many years to come. War by error or miscalculation is a possibility often debated in America. It is not abnormal, therefore, for Europeans to ponder that eventuality. Either we credit the Soviet leaders with infallible political and military judgment or we must admit that they can make mistakes. Since Cuba, that is an admission which many people will be ready to grant. If the Russian leaders believed that in certain circumstances the United States would not intervene in a conflict in Europe, this might well be an error of judgment. But it would be an error beyond the control of anyone in the West and would create a situation which American commitments toward Europe and American warnings would, ex hypothesis, be helpless to prevent. An efficient force deployed in Europe and not subject to an American veto would serve as a warning that whatever might be expected from the United States there was another nuclear force that could strike at the Soviet Union. We say emphatically that such a force must be efficient and shall explain later what that means. But we claim that the existence of such a force would add to the deterrent posture of the whole West, and that by diminishing the danger of war by miscalculation we increase the security of all of us, including the United States. This is not to challenge the opinion that the security of the West is indivisible.
In order to be quite clear, it should perhaps be stressed that this description of the European security problem implies no criticism of the present deployment of nuclear weapons on the Continent. Nothing in our reasoning is meant to say that this should be altered or that better security could be bought by replacing the nuclear weapons now there with European ones. Nor do we think that such weapons as may be produced in Britain and France are a substitute for conventional forces. It can be said that present dispositions cover at least 90 percent of our security risks, and that the mission of national nuclear forces is to give us all a few additional percent. From this it follows that we would be correspondingly alarmed by any serious thinning out of the nuclear forces now in Europe, or any major shift of nuclear missions from SACEUR to the U.S. Strategic Air Command.
So much for the justification of national nuclear forces under the heading of deterrence. There is another duty, however, which they are expected to perform. In a very fair analysis of European views on these problems, Professor Henry A. Kissinger denned it when he wrote: "They [the national nuclear forces] are a device to gain an influence on our [the U.S.] planning."[iii]
An example taken from the last war will show what the stakes are in this matter. In June 1940 the British Government refused to throw the R.A.F. fighter forces into the battle of France in spite of French demands and although remnants of British forces were still fighting on the Continent. It is not inconceivable that a somewhat similar situation might develop in the future between Washington on the one hand and European governments on the other.[iv] In that case the problem would be how the battle of Europe was to be conducted; whether nuclear weapons were to be used and, if so, what sort; and what to do if Europe were confronted by the choice between Soviet occupation or nuclear devastation. Good coördination between the various nuclear forces should help to make such decisions less unilateral responsibilities. For although it may be argued that the Soviet civilian population is a hostage to the U.S. strategic forces, there is more than a slight difference between the conditions of a potential (and therefore spared) hostage and that of an occupied country.
Perhaps this explanation will help make clear that if one speaks of a defense or a security problem for Europe which is different from that of the United States, it is not through mistrust. As was pointed out by Mr. McGeorge Bundy in his Copenhagen speech, "The problem of defense in the nuclear age is as much psychological as military."
It is not clear whether in the minds of American officials a multilateral force deployed in Europe would be the only strike force remaining there after the change has been made from fighter bombers to rockets. Before discussing the pros and cons of such a multilateral force we should perhaps make clear that, in our mind, there is no question but that medium-range rockets ought to be deployed in Europe. Yet it seems that American defense authorities do not see a pressing military need for this, since the long- range rockets stationed in America or deployed at sea are able to do the job just as well.
This is a point which raises a big question mark in the minds of many Europeans. Knowing as they do that they are threatened by hundreds of medium-range Soviet missiles stationed a few hundred miles from the Iron Curtain, they wonder how the counterforce blows delivered by rockets several thousand miles away would come in time. They are also inclined to believe that the longer the range of a rocket the higher the explosive yield that is required to offset greater inaccuracies in aim. And although in any nuclear battle the devastation of the Continent might be crippling for scores of years, there still is a case for fighting with kiloton rather than megaton weapons.[v]
There are some, too, who think that the Cuban affair has to a certain extent vindicated their argument for M.R.B.M.s in Europe. Since the installation of some 40 Russian medium-range rockets close to the American territory was considered a threat to the defense posture of the United States, they are tempted to infer that the same would apply to the threat from the Communist bloc to Europe. With one difference, however: while the threat to America was a new thing, in Europe the new factor would be the lifting of the close-range threat to the Soviet rockets and airfields. For the air forces of SACEUR are deployed to neutralize the offensive power of the potential enemy, while the shifting of this mission to forces deployed outside Europe would seem to work exactly in the opposite direction from that in the Russian attempt to establish bases in Cuba. In our opinion, therefore, the missions now earmarked for planes deployed in Europe should be entrusted to rockets similarly deployed in Europe. It is not our claim that these rockets should be under a different system than that which now exists and which, as we have said, takes care of the great majority of European defense problems. The only new formula we seek is to take care of those few additional problems which we believe are not covered by present arrangements.
In this context, the multilateral-force solution should attract those who are more concerned with the political than with the military aspects of defense, in relation to the problem of European political unity. The hope may even be entertained that the creation of a multilateral or rather multinational force might help to promote such unity. In favor of the scheme one should also mention that it is the only one that could open the field of nuclear responsibility to those nations which are not engaged in a nuclear effort of their own, either for political reasons or because they think it would overtax their resources.
It therefore is not to be denied that such a proposal has some merits. On the other hand, the idea that it would solve the security problem mentioned earlier is questionable. For if the force is genuinely multilateral the question arises as to how the decision to use it is to be made.
There are only two answers. Either the governments make the decision in advance as to when and under what circumstances the button should be pressed; or they reserve decision until the last moment. In the first case, one comes up against the problem of the delegation of power. The military can put forward many good technical reasons for suggesting that their governments should, in certain well defined circumstances, delegate power to them in order that the reply to an attack can be delivered in time and effectively. Yet this view has never been pressed very hard, let alone accepted; the supreme civilian authorities in all our countries believe that this decision is theirs to make and theirs alone.
The alternative is therefore for the allied governments to make the decision at the moment when it is needed. It is the old problem of several fingers on one trigger. In the absence of a solution, it is not likely that the deterrent value of such a multilateral force would be very high. And once actual fighting has begun, it is not easy to imagine how consultation among several capitals can be made really workable. No doubt this is well recognized, which explains why no one has proposed a solution although several governments have said they were open to suggestions from others.
Another aspect of Washington's proposal is that the multilateral force should be effectively integrated with American forces. The implications of this proviso have not been elaborated upon. But if it means that the force cannot be used without American concurrence, then it would not solve the problem of European security which, we believe, is not entirely covered by the mutual pledges of the nations on both sides of the ocean. And it would diminish the political advantages which we admitted earlier; for there would be no real sense of responsibility on the part of the European owners of the force if its multilateral character were limited to its financing and manning, and if integration meant that it could not be used unless all the forces with which it was integrated were also ordered into action. This is probably the most important factor on which the future of this proposal will depend.
If there is a particular European security problem, and if the proposal to create an integrated multilateral rocket force does not provide a complete answer, there remains to be considered how the national nuclear forces of Britain and France come into the picture.
These national forces stand in great disrepute in America. Ineffective, useless, dangerous-these are the tags generally given them. Since the Nassau meeting these disparaging adjectives are reserved to us. Why that is may depend on the content of the agreements between Washington and London that will implement the idea of integration. But the fact that a force is small does not mean that it necessarily is ineffective, as the Cuban affair has shown. Furthermore, it is not because it is national that it is useless; one hardly believes that if the rockets deployed in Cuba had belonged to Fidel Castro's government Washington would have considered them harmless. So what happened in the Caribbean in late October 1962 is not likely to lead the French and British governments to believe that their nuclear efforts are doomed to absolute futility.
The answer will of course be that the Soviet weapons in Cuba were of an advanced type and therefore had a military value that European forces might never achieve. But this is precisely where the discussion seems ill- grounded. In American eyes, the European programs are bound to be abortive, because of the magnitude of the technical and financial efforts involved. Our contention is that the problem is not whether the European countries can manufacture an efficient force but whether there is a need for a non- American deterrent in Europe. We would agree that inefficient forces are useless. But this would not diminish the need for efficient forces. And if efficient forces are needed it is as much a problem for Americans as for Europeans.
In any case it seems against logic to disagree about the merits or demerits of national versus multilateral forces before discussing whether the need for them exists. But any study must lead to the conclusion that whatever solution is suggested must be militarily efficient and politically acceptable to most of the governments concerned.
A force that would meet Europe's special security problem need not be large. It is not designed to take over the missions assigned to American weapons in the United States or deployed at sea and in Europe, nor to match the Soviet forces. Its purpose should be to serve notice that no war can be started in Europe without running the risk of bringing into play either the forces of America or the European forces which, even though limited, would none the less be capable of inflicting unacceptable destruction. Let us be more explicit. If these European nuclear weapons (whether national or multilateral) can be used independently, and if they are so effective as to be capable of inflicting damage that would seriously handicap the Soviet Union in its over-all competition with the United States, the additional risk they represent does cover our problem. As military instruments their value is only relative and depends upon the competition between the two super-states in the political, economic and military fields. But we assume that this rivalry will go on and for the Soviet Union will be the paramount political factor.
Obviously, of course, should one of the two achieve a breakthrough in the technological field and establish an unquestioned military supremacy, the forces which we are talking about here would no longer be useful or needed. But in that case the whole fabric of present international relations would be altered and the entire security of the West would be profoundly changed one way or the other. As long as the present situation remains, we assume that the Soviet Union will continue to try to match the United States in the economic field some time after 1970; that it will be bent on winning the space race; and that it will have to give some help to the underdeveloped countries. By purely military standards the non-American forces deployed in Europe might look puny. But if they potentially can delay or frustrate the fulfillment of these Soviet goals, they are not negligible. Therefore they add to the deterrent posture of Europe and of the whole Alliance.
Certain consequences follow from the tasks which such forces would have to perform. First, they must have strategic capability. The deployment in Europe of tactical nuclear forces is an obvious necessity, but it does not meet the problem we are discussing here. Neither does a system of weapons entirely devoted to an anti-force strategy. A natural objection to the concept of a limited force with strategic capability is that it might create an additional danger of triggering off a full-scale nuclear war. But one fails to see why anyone in Europe would be trigger-happy with such a limited force when the retaliation would be devastating. The possession of atomic weapons does not necessarily develop a taste for suicide.
This is so true that some writers use it as an argument against national deterrents. They say that the smaller country could not be credibly expected to use its nuclear weapons because it would risk utter destruction while inflicting only limited damage on the bigger one. Such reasoning may have very dangerous consequences. For it may mean that the threat to use these weapons will be taken seriously only if one's own people are not thereby endangered. This brings fuel to those who contend that in a state of atomic stalemate a big country cannot protect or defend a smaller one. And it would force one to a rather gruesome form of accounting, by which one could accept nuclear war involving up to a certain number of millions of prospective dead, but not over that number. The risks involved in nuclear war will always be fearful. If one wants both friends and foes to believe that those risks are accepted, one must not doubt the determination of others to do so.
Another argument sometimes advanced is that Europe's possession of weapons with strategic capability would or might invite Soviet preëmptive action. This is understandable coming from French or British opponents of their countries' nuclear policy. To everybody else such action on the part of the Soviet Union would appear to be a deliberate act of aggression that United States commitments toward their allies would forbid.
Another consequence is that, although the actual use of national strike forces could-and in most cases would-be coördinated with that of the other forces of the Alliance, the additional deterrence which is sought can be secured only if they are not integrated with those of the United States- that is, if the decision to use them does not depend upon the concurrence of Washington. In other words, the potential aggressor should know that in those cases where he might misjudge the determination of the United States to use its nuclear weapons the Europeans would be at liberty to use theirs (whether national or multinational) and that they could use them for strategic missions.
It goes without saying that in all other cases, all the nuclear forces should be used according to the plans which, as was said earlier, would have been discussed and agreed on in advance. Thus there would be no need to fear a conflict between two strategies. The European forces (national and multilateral if these are independent of the United States) would be designed primarily to perform the additional deterrent mission which we have described.
If deterrence fails and an attack is launched against Europe, the question would then be whether the aggressor was right in thinking that the U.S. forces would not be brought into operation. If he was wrong, the defense plans of the Alliance would be implemented, and this would involve the national forces. If he was right, it would mean that American atomic weapons would not be fired. In neither case do we see a possibility that the non-integrated nuclear forces might split the strategic operations of the West. To be sure, we are sometimes told that we do not understand the intricacies involved in the use of atomic weapons. This may be so, though probably through no fault of ours. Yet it is not so much our knowledge upon which doubt is cast as the sanity of our judgment; indeed, it is our instinct for self-preservation which is called in question when critics say that we might disregard previously agreed plans and childishly throw a few nuclear bombs all over the place precisely when those plans are to be put into effect.
It is difficult in the present circumstances to expect a meeting of minds on these problems. Misunderstandings have reached the point where motives are being questioned. Probably, then, the least said about the latest developments the better. But if, forgetting present difficulties, we try to look into the future, we need not be too gloomy-that is, if we assume that the progress of Europe toward unification is still our common objective. For it would not be realistic to assume that European nations (whether they are six as of today or more) will unite their economies, coöperate more closely in the political field and leave out defense matters altogether.
No one can know how things will evolve in Europe between now and the time when the commitments of the Atlantic Alliance will have to be reconfirmed for another period. Perhaps political unification will have developed to the point where we shall have a confederate or even a federal government to deal with defense matters. In that case, the problem of several fingers on one trigger would be solved. Any multilateral force that might be created would easily fit into such a pattern. Perhaps things will not be so far advanced. National strike forces will then continue to make a positive contribution to the security of the West as a whole.
These questions must, inevitably, be left unanswered, and the best we can do is to look after the defense problem of our own time in such a way as to prepare for, or at least leave open, tomorrow's solution. Maybe this is what, in spite of our disagreement, we are doing.
[i] At the time of writing, the exact relationship to be established between the British and American deterrent forces as a result of the Nassau Agreement is not fully clear.
[ii] As quoted by Mr. Acheson, Mr. Herter said, "I can't conceive of the President involving us in an all-out nuclear war unless the facts showed clearly that we are in danger of devastation ourselves . . ."
[iii] "Strains on the Alliance," Foreign Affairs, January 1963, p. 278.
[iv] It may also be recalled that in the early days of January 1945 the German offensive caused General Eisenhower to call for the evacuation of Alsace. General de Gaulle, for political reasons, forbade the First French Army to obey this order and give up Strasbourg. He was thereby able to cause a reversal of the strategic movement originally planned. This incident is probably not without relation to the situation discussed here and to the whole problem of integration.
[v] This raises also the question whether such a shift increases or decreases the deterrence position of the West and whether it does not increase the danger of unleashing full-scale atomic war. These questions, important as they are, are not specifically linked to the security problem of Europe and therefore will not be enlarged upon here.