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The US as Europe's nuclear hostage

By Gary L. GuertnerGary L. Guertner is professor of political science at the US Army War College. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the Army or the Department of Defense. / August 12, 1983



The nation's first general and President warned his countrymen against entangling alliances that might tie their security to the ''vicissitudes'' of European politics. The Reagan administration's decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe ties the United States into a complex web of deterrence and war-fighting strategies that neither George Washington nor the contemporary American public could have imagined or desired. These weapons substantially increase the risk that nuclear war in Europe will escalate in intensity and trigger Soviet attacks on the continental US.

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The modern SS-20 missile represents a qualitative change in the Soviet threat to Europe, but by no means is it a new threat. That threat is as old as the Soviets' earliest nuclear deployments in the 1950s.

Why then the political crisis, the arms control deadlock, and the US administration's insistence on proceeding with its own theater force modernization?

The threat to Europe is not Soviet intermediate-range missiles, but the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent in an age of nuclear parity. Europeans, most notably West Germans, fear that the Soviet Union no longer believes the US will retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack on Germany. The Soviet threat of escalation against the US weakens the American nuclear umbrella over West Germany. US missiles based in Germany that can reach the Soviet Union will, it is argued by German officials, reinforce deterrence by guaranteeing that nuclear war will not be isolated to Europe's central front. Through ''strategic coupling ,'' the US nuclear umbrella will create a hostage relationship that links US and German security by making both countries prompt nuclear targets.

The Russians have tumbled beautifully to the German strategy. In a speech before an East German military audience, Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitri Ustinov threatened, ''If Washington thinks that we will reply to the use of Pershing and cruise missiles by hitting targets in Western Europe alone, it is deeply mistaken. Retribution will follow inevitably, and against the US itself.''

The strategy of coupling US and German security through intermediate-range missiles in the Federal Republic serves the greater German interest of strengthening deterrence, but does it serve US interests if deterrence fails?

It has been the US objective since the early 1960s to raise the nuclear threshold through a strategy of flexible response. Flexible response places emphasis on the initial conventional defense of Europe. It has never been popular with West German strategists because defending with conventional weapons increases the likelihood of trading space for time and reinforcements. The use of nuclear weapons is foreseen only if defeat is threatened. By that time the battle will have penetrated deep into the heavily populated West German heartland where collateral damage from nuclear weapons would be highest and credible threats to employ them lowest.

West Germans prefer to think in terms of ''forward defense,'' early use of nuclear weapons, and striking Warsaw Pact forces in their own territory. In short, West Germans understandably emphasize deterrence over warfighting and see deterrence maintained over the long run only if there is a shared US-European community of risk.