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The Placebo Effect – US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe

May 5, 2011

This post is not about the Royal Wedding, nor is it about the killing of Osama Bin Laden (or a photo of such). Having said that, you may wonder what else there is in the world to talk about. Certainly you might have got the impression lately that one issue fell neatly off the world agenda: the topic of “tactical” nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe.

However, IKV/Pax Christi in the Netherlands was determined to stop that happening. About a month ago they published a report entitled “Withdrawal Issues” (note the addiction pun). The report was really a snapshot of NATO member state positions at the time of the debate on a new Strategic Concept. These positions were anything but hard and fast and have invariably altered somewhat since the Concept was agreed upon, and in light of the report itself. But the general message that the report gave was this: that the remaining 180 US TNW in Europe were no longer of value and that most countries would be in favour of withdrawal if certain conditions were met. The problem was that there was, and is, no agreement on what those conditions should be.

Last week I attended a small – but very good – meeting in Helsinki, organised by the Finnish Peace Union and BASIC, entitled “NATO Nuclear Deterrence and Defence: A Nordic Perspective”. It was an informal dinner and a seminar with government representatives from the Baltic States, Scandinavia, Eastern and Central Europe, think tanks and NGOs. Gunnar Westberg and I were there for IPPNW. The meeting was “behind closed doors”, so I can’t attribute any comments to anyone in particular, but I can tell you a little about what I gleaned from the discussion.

It seems that most are in agreement that there are no actual present threats to Europe’s security from other countries (barring terrorism). All threats are only potential or may emerge in the future. The question of the likelihood of these potential threats becoming real threats seems to be a most subjective point, depending on whether you live within reach of certain missiles and how insecure you feel. Iceland feels completely safe in comparison to Lithuania, who is watching carefully. Turkey belies this theory, however, in that it is in reach of Iranian missiles but also the country most in favour of a negotiated settlement of the conflict with Iran.

The discussion on threat potential reminds me of the story of the fox and the big busy road. In my house, the parents (actually the mothers) became alarmed when they saw a fox in the garden. We grow raspberries, red currants, blackberries and gooseberries in our garden. There have been a couple of cases of fox tapeworm in Berlin in recent years, so the mothers began to talk about getting rid of the berries, or even the fox, in order to protect our children. To the front of our house is a very big road with heavy and fast traffic. Now, I ask you: which of these two dangers poses the greater threat to our children and requires action? We decided to teach our children how to safely cross the road and left the berries and the fox alone.

The question of why the threat perception in some countries is greater than others is, however, more complex than just measuring the trajectories of missiles. There are some countries with fears that are deeply rooted in historical oppression. The Baltic and Eastern European States’ distrust of Russia was exacerbated by the conflict in Georgia. They want Article 5 of the NATO constitution to be strengthened by boots on the ground, exercises, deployments. This would be their idea of “burden-sharing”. Instead they are getting a placebo from NATO in the form of outdated nuclear weapons that don’t even reach Russia’s borders.

There is a real fear of Russian TNW and many claims about how many and where they are. The truth is, and SIPRI will confirm this, that we simply don’t know. It could be that there are only about 500 Russian TNW that could be operational and deployed for use (excluding those involved in the missile defence of Moscow). Are any of the Iskander missiles nuclear-tipped or not? Are they deployed in Kaliningrad or Luga? How many brigades have already been developed and/or deployed? There is an urgent need for transparency in order for neighbouring states to feel safe enough to agree to the withdrawal of US TNW, even though the US weapons do not provide a deterrent against Russian TNW, unless they were relocated.

A “non-paper” (meaning an unofficial paper for discussion) was submitted to NATO last week by Poland, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands and supported by Belgium, Hungary, Czech Republic, Iceland, Slovenia and Luxembourg calling for transparency and confidence-building in order to improve systematic dialogue between NATO and Russia. The paper is intended to build on the Polish-Norwegian Initiative of one year ago and contribute to the current NATO Defence and Deterrence Posture Review (D&DPR). It states – quite rightly, in my opinion – that the lack of transparency on TNW is a source of “insecurity” and therefore adds to the risk of proliferation. The hope is that transparency would pave the way to concrete reductions.

But although everyone seems to agree that transparency and confidence-building are a good starting point for dialogue with Russia, it is quite patently not enough. Russia presently has no interest in helping NATO to resolve its security problem. On the contrary, it is to Russia’s advantage that NATO lacks cohesion about its own TNW or what the meaning of “burden-sharing” is. For this reason, the US TNW are increasingly being seen by member states as a liability, rather than the “glue that holds NATO together”. NATO needs new glue.

This is where missile defence comes in. The new nukespeak is “Deterrence by Denial” (Missile Defence) or “Deterrence by Punishment” (nuclear weapons). Many states would accept missile defence as the lesser evil as a trade-off for withdrawal, so long as it doesn’t cost too much, involves Russia in some way – how exactly that will be is a major bone of contention – and doesn’t pose a strategic threat to Russia. Every country, however, has their own security needs. It would be, for instance, in Finland’s interests for Russia to be a part of any future missile defence system for protection against missiles coming from Iran, simply because their flight path would cross Russian airspace.

Alternatives to deterrence (whether by denial or punishment) – like arms control, missile control, dialogue, confidence-building, disarmament – have received little attention so far. Only the German government has consistently promoted the idea that the goal is to make deterrence superfluous and therefore pushed for NATO to establish a new committee on WMD control and disarmament. Despite the disappointment of the nuclear weapons abolition movement that Germany seemingly backed down from its more radical demand of US TNW withdrawal, it does seem that there has been a major shift in thinking about how to resolve the Cold War legacy and build common security in Europe, at least in one Foreign Office department. The understanding that nuclear deterrence is not a well thought-out strategy to provide security but a historical knee-jerk reaction to the development of nuclear weapons that we need now to supersede with a sustainable basis for our security, has apparently been taken on by senior German diplomats.

But Germany is no longer on the “front line”. Even though it was heavily affected through its division during the Cold War, a trauma that still deeply affects the older generation and adds to the previous war trauma of their parents, it is the states that were in the former Soviet Union that have need of more understanding and reconciliation assistance. There is no Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Cold War affected countries where every family was affected in some way by regime oppression. If we want disarmament in Europe, then we need to address this problem as a matter of some urgency.

Reconciliation works both ways and means that trust – which has been destroyed – has to be reestablished. It is not enough to do business with Russia. In some cases that can even increase distrust because each must look to his own profit margin. Europe and Russia mirror each other in their fears – while the fear exists that withdrawing US TNW will mean that Russia will just pocket the advantage and continue modernising its forces, Russia fears that making concessions in its TNW arsenal will only lead to more NATO superiority.

But also the transatlantic link between US and Europe has been likened to a marriage that needs therapy for the fear of abandonment (US will not protect Europe if we they are attacked, or Europe will not continue to support the US in its wars) and fear of entrapment (US coercing participation in wars that are unpopular in Europe, US continuing nuclear deployment that no longer serves its interests). There is a pressing need to tackle these fears in order to develop a sustainable relationship.

Finally, the meeting in Helsinki made me consider the problem of “Groupthink” once again. One hears the same arguments being repeated (sometimes word for word) over and again, mostly assertions that have little basis in truth but are just quickly accepted by the group as being true. Pax Christi said that their report was written to question some of these assertions as to why TNW could not be withdrawn. In doing so, some of the real blocks to their withdrawal have emerged and a real discussion about security is in fact taking place. Whether this continuing discussion will actually lead to a change in NATO (or Russian) nuclear policy remains to be seen, but it seems much healthier than a lot of discussions I have been party to in the past. The food for thought that I put on the table at the meeting in Helsinki was this: The difference between negotiation (through strength) and real dialogue leading to a trustful relationship depends on showing your weaknesses and discovering that the other side has them too.

  1. May 5, 2011 1:02 pm

    Agneta, I believe I was talking about NATO as a whole and I do recognise that Russia feels threatened by NATO superiority, thus the sentence “Russia fears that making concessions in its TNW arsenal will only lead to more NATO superiority”. But the main point I was trying to make was about reconciliation between countries of the former Soviet Union and for us to also understand that this is blocking further progress on common European Security. Only seeing things from the Russian perspective does not help make peace.

  2. Agneta Norberg permalink
    May 5, 2011 10:55 am

    I find i VERY peculiar NOT to talk about NATO as a whole in this context. Russia is totally surrounded by enemy forces.In year 2009 there were 30 wargames round Russias border. They are almost strangeled. Black Sea and Mediterranian Seas are now NATO seas.In Lisbon at NATO Summit,where I were ,in November, it was agreed upon that Europe should take responsability for the missile shield -very threatening to Russia. Additionally- Prime minister Cameron invited all nordic countries to London in January this year to settle a nordic arctic mini NATO.What does it mean? And a huge new base is inaugurated in Reitan close up to Russia in the Northern Norway. Galileo is now also situated close to Kiruna,we all know Galileo satellitnavigation system can be used for military purposes.
    Will nuclear weapons be shared to Sweden and Finland and the Baltic states as well?And talking about the war in Kaukasus why is it NOT mentioned that US and Israel advisers were conducting wargames in Georgia until the day before Shakasviili ATTACKED South Ossetia August 8th 2008, and BOMBED the capital Tskinvali for 6 hours. After that crime Russia went in and bombed- terribly. I am sure it was set up.Beacause Michail Saakasviili knew that the Russians would response in a heavy way.Our minister of defence has again and again referred to Russias new posture for bringing in Sweden to NATO and referring to Kaukasus war. And today- Swedish territory in the North is used as a bombing trainingground for US, British and other fighter jets.If we dont recognise this, Russia will never give up its tactical nuclear weapons, which are their only means to feel safe. US has surrounded the Eurasien continent with 1000 bases. And Trident submarines are patrolling just outside Murmansk in the north and outside Vladivastok , Japan Sea and Yelloow Sea in the East. And nuclear weapons at sea are NEVER talked about.Greetings from Agneta Norberg,Swedish Peace Council


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