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The glue is old and crumbly — US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe

June 8, 2011

by Inga Blum

Two weeks ago I had the chance to attend a meeting of NATO representatives and civil disarmament experts in Brussels. The meeting was jointly organized by four institutes for peace and security research. Its intention was to create an exchange on the role of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in NATO’s Defense and Deterrence Posture review (DDPR). The DDPR is currently developed in NATO and shall be released by May 2012. Its task is to flesh out NATO’s new strategic concept which was agreed on in Lisbon in November 2010.

The core principles of the new strategic concept are:

  • Defense against all kinds of threats
  • Solidarity among the allies
  • Prevention of all kinds of crisis

And last but not least the intention to:

  • Create the conditions for a world without Nuclear Weapons.

The strategic concept remains very vague on how these principles concretely shall be implemented.  This is understandable because it is the lowest common denominator between 28 nations who had to find consensus. It remains to be seen how they will come together on the more concrete questions of the DDPR, like what type of and how much weapons they want.

An example for the vague phrasing of the NSC is the statement that the allies shall participate in burden sharing in the “broadest possible way.”

While some participants of the Brussels meeting understood this as “a raw hint that the status quo shall be kept,” others thought that the statement leaves a door open for defining what is “broadest possible.” If, e.g., a country could not politically afford to continue the deployment of NATO Nuclear Weapons on its territory due to economics and public opinion; keeping the status quo seems practically impossible.

This situation does not seem unlikely in Germany at the moment. Obama’s Prague agenda, public pressure, economic considerations and surely also rationality have led the German government to nearly unanimously agree to work for the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons in Germany in April 2010. The only concern that keeps them from realizing this is that their NATO allies might be upset.

Therefore I was very happy to hear a NATO representative saying that it is really up to the nations to decide in what way they want to participate in Nuclear burden sharing.

But then he finished his sentence by saying: But because Nuclear Sharing concerns the security of the whole alliance all decisions have of course to be discussed carefully in the Nuclear Planning Group.

When I confronted him with this contradiction and asked him about the concrete consequences of Germany asking for the withdrawal I couldn’t really follow his answer but a US representative said that the consequences of a unilateral decision would definitely be serious.  My German representative then rushed in and said that Germany would of course only act in consensus. At least he asked when the time for discussing such questions would be.

The dominating concerns of the meeting, which were addressed repeatedly were:

a)  That the withdrawal of NATO nuclear weapons from NATO non-nuclear weapon states would decrease burden sharing in a way that would destabilize the alliance;

Or on the contrary

b)  That keeping the status-quo would be a source of constant conflict within NATO that could split the alliance and that could be exploited by others.

What unites the proponents of both arguments is the fear that the solidarity within NATO could be damaged. I agree with the disarmament expert who said that the debate on TNW as a glue in NATO is really a proxy for a debate on solidarity in NATO.

I think if other means of solidarity are found TNW could become redundant, event in the eyes of traditional NATO people.

I could, for example, imagine that the NATO states who are forefront in the current NATO wars in Afghanistan and Libya, especially the US but perhaps also France, could be more willing to decrease nuclear burden sharing if other NATO countries would take more responsibility in these wars.

A representative of a defense ministry said that the DDPR was about much more than nuclear weapons:  About finding the right mix of conventional and nuclear forces and missile defense. I had the impression that in his opinion a withdrawal of TNW would definitely be possible if NATO’s principles would stay guaranteed.

Given the importance that all official state and NATO representatives at the meeting attributed to cohesion and solidarity in the alliance it becomes clear why the voices of the NATO states who are against the withdrawal of NATO TNW from Europe have so much weight.

The new Pax Christi report shows that only three of the 28 NATO countries are against the withdrawal of the TNW. The other states either support the withdrawal of would not block a decision for withdrawal.

Two examples of states who are against the withdrawal were discussed in Brussels: France and one of the Baltic countries.

The French representative said that France:

  • Thinks that everybody else in the world is investing in military therefore we can not lower our guard
  • Nuclear Weapons can never be replaced by conventional weapons
  • The US might abandon Europe therefore we have to keep the TNW in Europe
  • Missile Defense is not reliable enough
  • Nuclear Deterrence depends on the perception of the enemy that the alliance is ready to hit, therefore the current discussion harms the alliance.

The Baltic representative said that his country:

  • Is still afraid of Russia
  • Is worried that NATO would not help them if Russia attacked
  • Is afraid of Russia’s TNW which are very closed to their border
  • Thinks that NATO TNW deter Russia’s TNW
  • Thinks that Nuclear Weapons are the ultimate symbol of solidarity

NATO itself does not regard Russia as a threat and the importance of good relations with Russia is often stressed. But despite of that the new strategic concept makes disarmament dependent on Russian reciprocity. This makes the intention for good relations seem quite half-hearted.

To define what “reciprocity” concretely means is another big task left for the DDPR.

Many representatives of the civil disarmament movement criticize this conditionality. Russia has withdrawn all it’s TNW from the countries of the former USSR years ago and is not willing to discuss further reductions before all NATO TNW are gone from Europe. Linking the disarmament of NATO TNW to Russia’s TNW is therefore a big, self-made obstacle on NATO’s new found path to create the “conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

While most official and civil society representatives at the Brussels meeting supported the recent initiative of Norway, Poland, Germany etc. to engage Russia in transparency measures on TNW in Europe (European part of Russia and European NATO countries), someone countered that too much comparison between NATO’s and Russia’s TNW could also fuel new tensions.

Due to some experts at the meeting it is not very likely that Russia will directly engage with NATO on TNW. They assume that the Russian TNW could become part of the next round of bilateral arms reduction talks between the US and Russia and that subsequently the US could negotiate with NATO under which conditions the TNW can be withdrawn.

When someone noted that it would perhaps be better to directly speak with Russians than to ruminate about all the “what they would think about what we would thinks-” one of the organizers of the meeting said that this was exactly what was planned for the next couple of dialogues on TNW’s in Europe.

My overall impression from the meeting was that the withdrawal of TNW from Europe is more complicated than I had thought.

Perhaps that is because I am part of the public who tends to look at these issues in a simplistic way and should therefore not take too much part in the debate, as one of the officials said. I would rather say that looking at these issues exclusively in the light of diplomatic and military strategy permanently refuels the problem.

So who should lead that debate? Those who call each other “rational thinkers?”

Some say that the cold war was a success because in those days fortunately they all were “rational thinkers.” When I once asked an official US delegate at an NPT PrepCom for the rational behind the 10th of thousand Nuclear Weapons in the cold war he said that he really had no idea, that there was no strategic logic behind that.

Isn’t that rather paranoid?

I also find it concerning that often national delegates at UN or NATO meetings are not well informed. It happened to me again at the meeting in Brussels: When trying to embark in an interesting discussion with a national representative he soon told me that he was just placed in this department and hadn’t yet had the chance to read up on much.

So what are the options? Will our national representatives decide on something they don’t really understand? Will a group of semi-democratic NATO experts decide while we try to peek through the keyhole?

An open debate among all who are under the consisting Threat of Nuclear Annihilation is unavoidable. Meetings like the one in Brussels are an important part of that. But fortunately it seems likely that economic restraints and public pressure will take the decisions sooner or later anyhow.

NATO would be smart to recognize the signals now. Otherwise it will look very old when reality passes by.

Inga Blum is a member of IPPNW-Germany and a former coordinator of the IPPNW-student-led Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project.

















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