The NATO Summit: Recasting the Debate over U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe

By Meier, Oliver; Ingram, Paul | Arms Control Today, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The NATO Summit: Recasting the Debate over U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe


Meier, Oliver, Ingram, Paul, Arms Control Today


During their April 18-19 meeting, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed on the drafttext of the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review report. According to diplomatic sources, the draftcontains several elements to enable continued discussion toward a new consensus on the role of nuclear weapons within the alliance.

For example, the allies are prepared to offer Russia a substantive dialogue to increase transparency with regard to tactical nuclear weapons. NATO also is likely to revise its nuclear doctrine to make it more consistent with the postures of the United Kingdom and the United States. The report-provided that the heads of state and government at the May 20-21 Chicago summit approve it-could therefore establish important guidance for future debate over NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements and for a stronger role for the alliance in nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Yet, some still maintain that the forward deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe should not be reconsidered, citing worsening relations with Moscow, the ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis, and the constraints on defense budgets as a result of the global economic and financial crisis. In reality these developments only highlight the need for a long-overdue revision of NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements and for further reductions in the role of nuclear weapons.

In October 2009, the German government triggered an unprecedented debate within the alliance on the value of nuclear sharing arrangements by expressing a desire for withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany. For political, technical, and financial reasons, maintenance of the nuclear status quo is not feasible. Yet, consensus solutions to this problem were elusive at NATO's Lisbon summit in November 2010 when a new Strategic Concept was adopted. The allies therefore agreed to conduct the posture review. The underlying debate continues, clearly exposing the problems and contradictions associated with NATO's current nuclear weapons policy. The report that is to be adopted at the summit covers "the range of NATO's strategic capabilities required, including NATO's nuclear posture, and missile defence and other means of strategic deterrence and defence."1

As observers have pointed out, the review for some time had been "proceeding with little real political engagement from national capitals and with almost no reference to the wider conditions of economic crisis and reduced defence resources."2 If the review were simply to reconfirm the formulaic compromise agreed at Lisbon, NATO would appear inflexible and stagnant, and the alliance would have fallen short of its self-proclaimed goal of encouraging the "creat[ion of] the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons."3 Certainly, one recent paper argued, NATO could consider options to evolve its nuclear policy in the interests of NATO cohesion and contribution to global disarmament.4 The leaders in Chicago need to demonstrate their leadership by moving in that direction.

NATO would be well advised not to skirt a debate over its nuclear posture. Below are some proposed elements for an agreement in Chicago to frame a meaningful discussion of nuclear issues within the alliance beyond the summit.

A Good Time to Talk

Some observers argue that "[t]he time has now come to reaffirm and for the time being [leave] alone" the conclusions reached in the Strategic Concept.5 Yet, none of the arguments that "[t]his is not the right time to let down the nuclear guard"6 stands up to scrutiny.

Deepening conflicts with Russia. Under NATO's new Strategic Concept, changes in the alliance's nuclear policy must be reciprocated by Russia. Reflecting particularly the concerns of central and eastern European countries, the document states that "[a]ny further steps" on NATO tactical nuclear weapons "must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.

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The NATO Summit: Recasting the Debate over U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe
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