15 June 2023

European Perspectives on the Global Return of Nuclear Weapons

The ongoing disruptions in regional and international security and the breakdown of global institutions and norms necessitate a re-assessment of the emerging and future nuclear order. In the shifting global context, this report shed new light on how European powers speak regarding the emerging nuclear order, what the actual problem is for Europe, and what the future debates over the nuclear order might be. Even though nuclear weapons as material objects never disappeared, the changing international and normative context ‒ with the unravelling of major arms control treaties, political lowering of the barrier in state imaginaries, arms race, and military modernization ‒ have made nuclear weapons matter more than ever before. The report is authored by Military analyst Alexander Høgsberg Tetzlaff and Researcher Cornelia Baciu. 

The global return of nuclear weapons

The global return of nuclear weapons is particularly important for European countries because they have little collective agency on the matter and, thus, less power. The escalations in Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric, military modernization, and Xi Jinping’s endeavors to unify China with Taiwan all contribute to a nuclear deterrence problematique for Europe. This problematique refers to how to obtain the optimal mix of conventional and extended deterrence, on the one side, and the idea of preventing a disaster by threatening with a disaster on the other. The erosion of both crisis stability, understood in the narrow sense of the absence of incentives to use nuclear weapons first, and arms race stability, understood as the absence of incentives to develop competing military build-ups, further exacerbates the European security situation. The nuclear debate has become increasingly important for Europe in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.

The findings of this report suggest several major conceptual debates that could shape the future nuclear order. European powers might take these questions up in the context of Russian threats regarding nuclear escalation. These debates concern the meaning of deterrence in the third nuclear age, debates on preventing a nuclear catastrophe (intentional or non-intentional effective activation of nuclear weapons), instability management, a possible future of the “no first use” policy, and European voices in the nuclear order. The first section of the report examines the political landscape in relation to nuclear matters, explaining the European security problem and the additional challenge posed by the erosion of strategic stability and arms control. The second part outlines the nuclear postures of key actors. Third, it estimates the key thematic debates that will likely shape the European nuclear order in the third nuclear age.


The report gives three recommendations which should be seen as impulses for further reflections and considerations regarding nuclear issues, and it provides specific ideas related to each of the three overall recommendations: These are:

  • Increase public and parliamentary debate on nuclear issues in Denmark
  • Focus on strategic issues in Danish defense planning
  • Options for Danish diplomacy on nuclear issues