- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Elmar Hellendoorn: U.S. Nuclear Strategy and the Protection of Europe

  • Jonathan Edel-Hänni
| Spring 2018

While his grammar school classmates gleefully followed sports cars and soccer stars, Elmar Hellendoorn would get excited about the newest airplanes and tanks. No surprise, growing up next to a U.S. airbase in Soesterberg, Netherlands. “F-15s were always flying over and as a young kid you would stand on a hill so you could see the planes taking off,” he recalled.

“I was very consciously living the last days of the Cold War—I felt it.” says Hellendoorn. He remembers the excitement of running into the kitchen as a five-year old in 1989, yelling “‘Mom, mom, people on TV are saying the Wall has fallen!’”

With the Cold War over and the former Soviet Union cooperating with the West to secure its nuclear arms, it was easy to see nuclear strategy as a declining priority. “For many years there was a lot of optimism about nuclear disarmament,” Hellendoorn said.

The euphoria over the supposed “end of history,” however, did not take into account the post-Cold War reality of a more diverse global nuclear landscape.

With a more crowded nuclear playing field, there are new threats and dynamics. In Hellendoorn’s words, “many of the basic premises of deterrence are still very actual, but the context has changed massively.”

As a post-doc Research Fellow at the Project on Managing the Atom, Hellendoorn explores this new landscape with a focus on European policy. “Europeans are pondering whether they can always trust the U.S. to use nuclear weapons for the defense of Western Europe, even if that’s going to cost the destruction of U.S. cities,” Hellendoorn said.

With his research on the early days of NATO, Hellendoorn examines how Europe and the U.S. approached this question in the 1950s and 60s. He explains that at the time, the thinking in the U.S. was that “If Europe were lost to the Soviets, then the entire Cold War might be lost.”

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. pivot to Asia, and the Trump presidency, some observers believe that the U.S. may no longer consider protecting Europe a vital interest. Hellendoorn is also examining the history of European-U.S. nuclear cooperation because “You see parallels with the contemporary situation.”

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For Academic Citation:

Edel-Hänni, Jonathan. “Elmar Hellendoorn: U.S. Nuclear Strategy and the Protection of Europe.” Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Spring 2018).

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