Skip to content
Report | 7 December 2017

Changing Nuclear Weapons Policy in the Trump Era: Implications for Europe

Image of Maxwell Downman

Maxwell Downman |Analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

Global Security

This report, co-published by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the European Leadership Network (ELN), examines the impact of US nuclear weapons policy for European NATO allies. It argues that President Trump’s policy on nuclear weapons challenges strategic stability, arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation within Europe. With President Trump promising to be a disruption to established interests and relationships; he is having a profound impact on US strategic relationships. As such Europeans need to take action to help shape a more responsible US nuclear weapons policy and create the conditions for a sustainable security NATO-Russia relationship that is cooperative rather than adversarial.

The report argues that President Trump is redefining US nuclear weapons policy at a time of heightened tension with Russia. To date his actions have worsened problems on a number of key strategic areas. There is a risk that the deteriorating US-Russia relationship could hold negotiations on existing and future arms control agreements hostage, to the detiment of European security. President Trump is presiding over a crisis of European arms control, having failed to coordinate a NATO response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty, signed 30 years ago on 8 December 1987, casting doubt on the future of New START and decertifying the Iran nuclear deal.

At the same time the United States is continuing its nuclear modernisation programme and contemplating whether or not to reintroduce new sub-strategic nuclear weapons systems. Given the current crisis in arms control, without carefully calibrated signalling to reassure Moscow this could be interpreted by Russia as an attempt to assert strategic dominance and re-establish nuclear warfighting capabilities. Of specific concern are upgrades to the US’ existing B61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe which would appear to make these weapons more usable, and the emphasis on nuclear cruise missiles. Nuclear weapons designed which are designed to be used in escalation scenarios would increase the risk of conflict in Europe going nuclear and would likely provoke countermeasures from Russia.

The report continues to argue that these problems have been exacerbated by US signalling. President Trump has been deliberately ambiguous in his nuclear signalling, and simultaneously indicating the centrality of nuclear weapons to US diplomacy as a form of leverage. This both undermines NATO cohesion and makes negotiations with Russia more difficult, and raises the risk of a new type of nuclear insecurity emerging in Europe.

Because of these risks it is incumbent on European allies to take action. The report argues that, despite internal differences, European allies are uniquely positioned to influence the United States and shape Europe’s security. While this report does not offer an exhaustive set of solutions to these problems, it makes a number of recommendations for Europeans.

  • Establish a more holistic dialogue on arms control, that accounts for the linkage between strategic, sub-strategic weapon systems and ballistic missile defence. This may include urging the United States to convene the Special Verification Commission and sharing intelligence to help resolve the INF crisis, working on confidence building measures with Russia on BMD and pressing the United States and Russia to pursue strategic arms control.
  • Consider how new US nuclear weapons systems contribute to or harm European security. Specifically new nuclear cruise missiles and forward-deployed B61-12 gravity bombs, and leverage the influence of the host-states as well as through the Nuclear Planning Group on these systems.
  • Consider how NATO could improve its signalling with Russia and, whilst maintaining the need to deter Russia, develop an engagement strategy that gives Russia a greater stake in European security and stability in the longer term


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.