European Affairs

Nuclear Weapons in Europe -- Long Dormant Debate Brewing Again     Print

Long Dormant Debate Brewing Again

Tensions are slowly building within the Atlantic Alliance about the future role of nuclear weapons in transatlantic security. New questions arise for NATO, the European Union and individual member States. All the pieces of the European strategic “mobile” have been set in motion in the past five years, and a major debate has started. NATO and EU members will have to find ways to maintain a modicum of consensus about this issue if they wish to avoid cracks in Alliance unity on global nuclear issues.

Until 1990, nuclear weapons were at the center of the European security debate. That era has hopefully gone, but nuclear issues have not left the European stage. Four Nuclear-Weapon States coexist on the continent (France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and there is concern about possible proliferation in the Middle East.

Nowadays two contradictory movements are at work on the European scene. The first one goes in the direction of a strong de-emphasis on nuclear deterrence, even moving in the direction of nuclear abolition. The second contends that preserving at least minimal nuclear deterrence is becoming more important than ever for the credibility of NATO and overall Western defense and that only carefully calibrated reductions are possible.

The “denuclearization” argument was publicly triggered by a n article in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007, calling for a global campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Written by four US statesmen (Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz). The theme has been taken up by many of their counterparts around the world. Already, Moscow and Washington are on track for a new series of strategic arms agreements, the first of which may come as early as December. The United States is finishing a far-reaching nuclear posture review and has announced its intention to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was kept in abeyance by the Bush administration. Now President Barack Obama is explicitly promoting, along with the United Kingdom, the idea of a “nuclear-weapon-free world.” The Conference on Disarmament has finally put a treaty on “fissile material-production” on its negotiating agenda. At a historic session of the United Nations Security Council on September 24, 2009, chaired by Mr. Obama, resolution 1887 was adopted, a milestone in the sense of reinforcing non-proliferation norms. Now the global political community is strongly focused on the May 2010 conference that will review the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) at a crucial moment in the history of this issue.

Two other important events within the Atlantic Alliance have increased the pressure for denuclearization. In September 2009, the Obama administration confirmed, with major shifts in technology and rationale, U.S. intentions to deploy a missile defense system in Europe, starting in 2011. The new system will be integrated with the NATO command and control network and aimed at protecting “the territory and populations of all NATO allies” against Iranian ballistic missiles. There is little doubt that among elites and public opinion in NATO member states that missile defense systems (which do not have nuclear warheads) will increasingly be seen as a possible alternative to nuclear deterrence – thus adding to the pressure for denuclearization in alliance strategy. Finally, the new German government, under pressure from the minority coalition partner, the Free Democrats, formally announced as part of the new “coalition platform” for governing together that Germany intends to request the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons based on its soil, [1] It is to be expected that Germany, as one of the most important NATO countries, will encourage others to follow suit: cash-strapped governments that participate in so-called “nuclear-sharing” arrangements (European aircraft carrying U.S. nuclear weapons) will not be eager to find the funds to buy a new generation of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers.

The second tendency on this issue trend is the mirror opposite of the first one: it is a trend of conservatism, strong resistance toward abolition and an emphasis on the need to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence. The evolution of Russia’s policies – including the 2008 invasion of Georgia – are fostering unease and sometimes fears among some NATO members, most notably the three Baltic states and Poland. The Iranian march towards nuclear capability is a subject of increasing worry throughout the Alliance, including in particular Turkey. None of the four Asian nuclear-capable countries – China, India, Pakistan and North Korea, which are all expanding their arsenals – is interested in stopping the production for now. By selling a nuclear reactor to Syria of the same type as the one it is using for its plutonium production, North Korea has proven its willingness to remain deaf to US warnings not to export nuclear assets. The installation in Syria was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2007, but it remains plausible that North Korea could replace Pakistan as the main illicit provider of nuclear technology for weapons purposes. If Iran reaches the threshold of an indigenous program of producing weapons-grade uranium, a slow-motion Middle East nuclear arms race will start -- and the NPT’s credibility will be seriously eroded. Meanwhile, many countries are watching very carefully what is happening in that region. Some of these countries may be tempted to go nuclear for security or prestige reasons if the nonproliferation regime crumbles. Finally and no less importantly, one of the three NATO nuclear powers, France, strongly resists the very idea of a “nuclear-free world”.

As NATO embarks in the drafting of a new Strategic Concept (with a view to adopt it sometime in late 2010, at its next summit to be held in Portugal), it will have to take into account these two contradictory trends. But compromise is the name of the game in the Atlantic Alliance. Though it is uncertain at this point in time where exactly the lines will be drawn, the broad contours of the future compromises may be drawn.

First, the nuclear dimension is to become merely one component among others of the allied deterrence posture. Missile defense will play a stronger role, and the allies will be thus able to claim that they have reduced the role of nuclear weapons in their strategy.

Second, if Germany insists on the withdrawing of nuclear weapons from its soil, it should be expected that other countries will follow suit. And national parliaments will certainly zero in funds for the nuclear capability of the next generation of fighter-bombers. As a result, the most likely scenario is of much reduced, symbolic US nuclear presence, earmarked for American aircraft only, in Turkey and perhaps in Italy – which may be less eager to demand the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons than others. The silver lining is that NATO will then be able to claim that it has made a major contribution to the nonproliferation and disarmament process.

It will be difficult to go beyond that in the direction of disarmament without affecting Alliance solidarity, as well as NATO’s ability to reassure non-nuclear countries and to deter potential adversaries. It is also important that a common culture of deterrence continues to exist both within NATO and within the European Union. So the urgency should not be to complete the denuclearization of Europe – but rather to manage nuclear crises, contain the exports of sensitive technologies, bolster non-proliferation norms, secure fissile materials stockpiles, and reduce the huge US and Russian stockpiles inherited from the Cold war. A policy of “nuclear restraint” for NATO, the United Kingdom and France is appropriate. But allied policies on these matters should not be naïve or exceedingly idealistic.

Bruno Tertrais is a senior research fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique in Paris


[1] According to open sources, the United States deploys several hundred nuclear weapons on the territory of at least five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey), some of them being earmarked for European air forces.