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NATO exists under the shadow of the US “nuclear umbrella.” It is, like most strategies, a kind of euphemism. What the “umbrella” does is allow the United States to guarantee that its nuclear arsenal will deter nuclear threats against other NATO members without those countries needing to develop their own weapons (though France and the United Kingdom both have their own nukes). To guarantee this, in part, the United States deploys nuclear weapons at bases in European countries, such as Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Anatolian Turkey.
While the ultimate decision over whether or not to use nuclear weapons will come down to governments of host countries, and, additionally, to the US president, the people living under the nuclear umbrella have divergent opinions regarding their use, which can, in turn, shape the policy of countries hosting nuclear warheads.
In “Ideology and the Red Button: How Ideology Shapes Nuclear Weapons’ Use Preferences in Europe,” authors Michal Onderco, Tom W. Etienne, and Michal Smetana, examine the beliefs of citizens of Germany and the Netherlands on the use of US nuclear weapons, especially as informed by partisan belief.
In both countries, the researchers asked survey respondents if they support or opposed four different scenarios of possible nuclear weapon use by NATO in Europe. These were a demonstration explosion over an unpopulated area in response to a Russian conventional invasion of the Baltics; a direct use of a nuclear weapon against the Russian military in a shooting war; a demonstration detonation in response to a Russian demonstration detonation; and use against Russia’s Kaliningrad in response to a Russian nuclear strike on NATO troops.
Importantly, the authors found that in “none of the four scenarios did the willingness to use nuclear weapons exceed 24% of the population, and in two scenarios it reached only 10%”
That matches with other research indicating that European public opinion is more broadly opposed to nuclear weapons use than people in the United States. Of the scenarios, the use of nuclear weapons against Kaliningrad in retaliation to a Russian nuclear strike received the most support, approved by almost 25% of survey respondents in the Netherlands.
“Our results indicate that right-wing voters, including those on the far-right, are more willing to consider the use of nuclear weapons,” the authors write. “While there are similarities between how German and Dutch voters see nuclear use, there appears to be a difference between them when it comes to centrist voters. Whereas German centrists lean toward the rest of the right in favor of nuclear use, Dutch centrists lean along with the left wing in opposing nuclear weapons.”
While the authority to use nuclear weapons ultimately rests on the US president, the continued storage of nuclear warheads in Europe is a political question left up to the countries. It suggests that those in the United States are more eager to threaten thermonuclear oblivion and share a political alignment with the right and far-right voters in NATO countries. At the same time, attitudes toward nuclear disarmament remain an international left-wing project — even in places where they have centrist appeal.
Related: Left unresolved: Part I
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