Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

It's Time to Fold America's Nuclear Umbrella

| Mar. 23, 2021

Using Washington's nuclear arsenal to protect its allies no longer makes any sense.

A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, "Preventing Nuclear Proliferation and Reassuring America’s Allies," took a small step in a rather surprising direction. The title captures its main theme perfectly: To discourage its allies from acquiring their own nuclear weapons, the United States needs to counter doubts raised during the Trump administration and reassure its allies about the strength of the United States' commitment to their security.

Given that the report was written by a multinational group of well-known foreign-policy insiders, most of their findings and prescriptions are unproblematic. But the following recommendation caught my eye:

"Europe needs to build up the nuclear dimension of its defense efforts, including by retaining and modernizing capabilities for existing NATO nuclear missions and by France and Britain working together to extend their nuclear deterrents to their European allies."

Why is this statement so intriguing? Because it shows the authors of this report recognize that Europe as a whole might be more secure if it could rely on a locally based deterrent instead of continuing to shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And if that is true for the nations of Europe, then it might well be true for others. Although the report's authors are opposed to new states joining the nuclear club (Britain and France are already members), their statement clearly implies that deterrence would be strengthened if states facing serious external threats had a nuclear guarantee that didn't depend on Uncle Sam.

This is hardly a new issue. Since fairly early in the nuclear age, the United States has used nuclear weapons to "extend deterrence" and shield some of its allies. It sought to convince potential adversaries that the United States might use its formidable nuclear arsenal if these allies were attacked, even if the United States was not. Of course, there was always some chance that a war involving one of the United States' allies might escalate to the nuclear level, either by accident, through inadvertence, or via deliberate decision, no matter what U.S. leaders said in advance. Even so, Washington went to considerable lengths to make its nuclear umbrella credible, partly to discourage enemies from attacking but also to convince its allies not to get nuclear weapons themselves....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“It's Time to Fold America's Nuclear Umbrella.” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt