NATO’s New Nuclear Policy

May 22, 2012
Miles Pomper

NATO’s New Nuclear Policy:
Consensus without Progress but a Glimmer of Hope for Disarmament

Working Dinner with Heads of State & Government

Working Dinner with Heads of State & Government,

On May 20, 2012, NATO released the results of its Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR), an exercise meant to help resolve an internal alliance debate over the future of fewer than 200 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. The DDPR failed to accomplish that task, putting off key decisions yet again, as expected. On the positive side, the possibility of moving forward on this issue still remains, as the summit did initiate a process of further studies that could provide options to balance a greater alliance contribution to nuclear disarmament with continued requirements for deterrence, reassurance, and burden-sharing.

At the 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO agreed to a new strategic concept which laid out five policy principles concerning the B-61 gravity bombs deployed in five NATO states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. In addition, as a consolation prize to some member states such as Germany who were upset that that the Lisbon Summit had not led to immediate action to reduce the numbers of such weapons, the alliance agreed to conduct the DDPR. Unfortunately, however, the review was hamstrung by the same divisions between western NATO members more inclined to disarmament and those states further east—like newer members in Central and Eastern Europe, along with Turkey—which are more inclined to retain the weapons as a tangible symbol of the Alliance Article V guarantee to their security.

Such equivocation has been the result of a U.S. policy which has prioritized NATO cohesion as a paramount goal at a time that the alliance faces what are seen as more pressing concerns in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As a result, both the Lisbon concept and the DDPR represent diplomatic efforts to paper over differences at the expense of sound, long-term strategic thinking. This is hardly new in NATO’s history: the price of consensus is almost always slow movement or sometimes the absence of movement. Exceptions, such as the 1991-92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), which led to a radical reduction of U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are rare. However, they also demonstrate the value of leadership, which Washington apparently was not prepared to provide, preferring to maintain alliance unity and unwilling to buck opposition from Republicans in the United States.

The United States cannot put off these decisions for long, however, amid growing economic and political pressures that will at the very least ultimately prevent some countries, such as Germany, from hosting the dual-capable aircraft that are needed to fly nuclear mission as well as conventional ones. To be sure, NATO countries have been adept at putting off the looming crisis over new aircraft and may find some means to postpone it still further. Inevitably the issue will return, however, given the alliance’s failure to develop a clear strategy, despite having successfully produced a series of documents on nuclear policy since a 2010 meeting of foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia.

Despite its weaknesses, the DDPR charts a path for providing more information for making future decisions. It calls for the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s main political body, to task relevant committees “to develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned (members of the alliances Nuclear Planning) in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe.” (Emphasis added)

The DDPR also encourages the continuation of efforts with Moscow in the NATO-Russian Council to develop detailed proposals for transparency and confidence-building measures. It further calls on the NAC to task the appropriate committees to: “further consider, in the context of the broader security environment, what NATO would expect to see in the way of reciprocal Russian actions to allow for significant reductions in forward-based non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO.” (Emphasis added)

The fact that NATO will be conducting these studies represents a small step forward, although its is not likely to be determinative. Such studies have been conducted for several years now, but without political will and leadership they can hardly have a discernible impact. A number of steps aimed at other means of reassurance, including agreement to renew air patrols in the Baltics, invigorate the NATO response force, and move forward with missile defense, may also diminish the relative weight of the non-strategic weapons in NATO decision-making (but perhaps at the expense of making Russia even more intransigent with regard to its own nonstrategic nuclear weapons). Nonetheless, in the next few years, economic and political trends are likely to drive NATO—and particularly the United States—to choose between two broad options:

  • Consolidating the European-based planes involved in NATO’s nuclear mission to bases in Italy and Turkey and moving ahead with the deployment of a new generation of more sophisticated and more military credible B-61 bombs. Such an action may be seen as a way of preserving some of the benefits of reassurance and burden-sharing the weapons are claimed to provide to the Alliance. But the decision will also come with attendant costs, both economically and to global disarmament efforts, including making it less likely to have Russia meet NATO calls to provide greater transparency about its weapons, diminish the disparity between its holdings and NATO’s, or relocate its weapons away from NATO’s borders.
  • Withdrawing the weapons to the United States. An action or an offer to withdraw these weapons would support global nuclear disarmament efforts and might force Russia to address concerns about its weapons, rather than simply demand that all nuclear weapons (ie. U.S. weapons) be returned to national territories. But NATO members are clearly far from united about which goal with Russia should take priority—the numbers of such weapons, their location, or receiving information about them. Moreover, if nuclear weapons are withdrawn and remaining means of providing reassurance and burden-sharing are seen as inadequate it could lead to strains about the value and relevance of the alliance.

At some point, the studies mentioned by the DDPR will have to end, and a U.S president will have to choose between these two options or find a creative way to bridge them. One possibility for example, might be to offer to withdraw the weapon in return for reciprocal actions from Russia with a default move to consolidation and modernization in the absence of a Russian response.

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