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“The transparency of politics – the expertise of Thomas Jäger”: Does the EU need its own nuclear briefcase?

Many were astonished when Herfried Münkler demanded in an interview that the EU must have a nuclear briefcase that is passed from country to country. “Europe must develop nuclear capabilities,” he said, continuing on to say, “The British may have nuclear submarines, France has the bomb, but will they really use it to protect Lithuania or Poland? This may be doubted from the Kremlin’s point of view. We need a common briefcase with a red button that travels between major EU countries.”

It is true that there are two nuclear powers in Europe, Great Britain and France, and one nuclear power in the EU: France. Since nuclear weapons are considered “national weapons” that are only used when their own existence is threatened and otherwise serve as a deterrent to military opponents, the concept of “extended deterrence” for other states is problematic in itself.

The United States has been providing this for the European NATO states for decades. However, doubts have repeatedly arisen as to whether the American government would risk its own nuclear security for the security of the European NATO states. For this reason as well, the nuclear weapons were made “smaller” and a flexible response was considered, designed as a nuclear escalation communication.

Europe’s nuclear weapons are hardly a deterrent to Putin

French President Emmanuel Macron has at times offered, at times rejected, such extended deterrence through French nuclear weapons, formulated in a way that could be viewed as reliable. On the other hand, geographical proximity could push France towards the threat, but will that be enough for the Baltic states, which have been openly listed by Putin as a possible target for Russian occupation?

Probably not, which is why the USA is indispensable for deterrence here. But are they reliable? Just mentioning the name Donald Trump and pointing out that he has a good chance of returning to the Oval Office in January 2025 makes this question urgent.

However, it is not the consideration that the EU needs nuclear deterrence that has caused astonishment, but the idea of the traveling nuclear briefcase. In view of the different political systems, their partially drastically diverging governments, and the lack of strategic and intelligence infrastructure, this is a floating idea that only marginally touches on the realities of security policy. How does Münkler arrive at this?

A look into his new book titled “World in Turmoil: The Order of Powers in the 21st Century” provides insights. It is a very scholarly book that breathes decades of reading and research and is just as systematically and historically structured. Münkler attempts to bring order to the confusing international relations, categorizing government justifications and complexities of the tasks.

The world of states: Between order and anarchy

Different approaches to establishing and maintaining peace between states are traced back to the history of ideas and are illustrated with many impressive historical examples. The correlation between behavior in the international arena and domestic politics is cited and various elements are discussed.

The systematic development of geopolitical thinking unfolds.

Münkler uses the centuries-long history of ideas to seek orientation as to what international order awaits us in the 21st century. “It is the opposing perspectives… the relapse into a ‘state world anarchy’ and the formation of a new ‘order of powers’ in global relations.”

Münkler sees anarchy and order as the opposing future forms of state coexistence. And this is where the problem begins. Unlike in other languages, order and anarchy in international relations are not opposites; rather, order exists only within anarchy.

International relations are characterized by the absence of an authorized rule-setting authority that identifies and punishes rule violations, and restores rule compliance. Therefore, major states can break rules – wage wars, impose trade restrictions, violate international agreements – without being punished. Because in international relations, law only limits the behavior of states when they voluntarily adhere to it or can be forced to do so by others. Hence, order persists within anarchy.

What does the world order of tomorrow look like?

Münkler’s idea that a world order will emerge from five powers – the USA, China, Russia, India, and the EU – stems from his historically grounded models. He also emphasizes that things can always turn out differently and extensively discusses the internal dangers lurking for the world powers. Yet, there is one element missing, which he addresses and highlights but unfortunately does not substantiate: the ability to exercise power.

It is implied in the models, but it is only made concrete empirically. When the abilities are used as a yardstick for the five powers, it immediately becomes clear that they are currently quite distinct. This may change in the coming decades, with some things foreseeable, such as the decline in China’s population, and some surprises may come.

The EU as a superpower

Order in the anarchy of international relations can only be brought by those who can and want to. Currently, this applies to the USA and China. Russia’s abilities lag behind the desire to rule. India’s abilities are still being developed, currently at one-tenth of China’s economic power. The EU lacks a common will and the necessary capabilities.

Following Münkler’s diverse considerations, his historical explorations, and his categorizations based on ideas is instructive. It is thought-provoking and helps to look beyond the present day. Whether it empirically unfolds as he expects, only time will tell.

Herfried Münkler: World in Turmoil. The Order of Powers in the 21st Century, rowohlt, Berlin 2023

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