Munich Calling - NATO: Whatever happened to nuclear disarmament?

It is rare for NATO to agree over nuclear weapons and disarmament. These two issues have long created tensions in the transatlantic relationship.


NATO has dealt with these divisions by either papering over them or postponing any major debate about the future of the 200 or so American nuclear bombs that are based in five European countries – a well-known fact, though it has never officially been confirmed.


But over the past two years, because of the changing relationship between Washington and Moscow, NATO was forced to confront the idea of making disarmament part of its longer-term strategy. Inevitably, that meant dealing also with the future of its nuclear weapons arsenal.


At the Lisbon summit in November 2010, Alliance leaders committed themselves to helping rid the world of nuclear weapons. The statement was short on details. But it was clear that it reflected the warmer ties and optimism between the Obama administration and Moscow.


By the time NATO held its summit in Chicago last May, the optimism had evaporated.


The final communiqué in Chicago stipulated that “nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defense alongside conventional and missile defense forces.”


It added that its long-awaited Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) review “has shown that the Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture.”


All 28 countries signed on to the Chicago communiqué, even Germany.


Its foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle had called for the unilateral withdrawal of the weapons from German soil when he took office in 2009. He was forced to retreat from that position when he received no support from France or most other countries.


The Chicago summit put paid to Westerwelle’s aspirations of ridding Germany of nuclear weapons. It also negated the Lisbon summit’s intention of putting the Alliance on the path to concrete steps of disarmament.


Even though the outcome of the two summits contradicted each other, their respective outcomes were motivated by one thing: Russia.


Lisbon rode on the back of the ‘reset’ button between Washington and Moscow; Chicago on the back of Vladimir Putin’s visceral opposition to NATO’s anti-ballistic missile shield plans, and NATO itself.


Putin used outdated anti-Western Cold War propaganda during his campaign last March to be re-elected president of Russia. Perhaps he hoped that this would split the Alliance. If so, he miscalculated.


In fact, Russia’s tougher stance was enough to convince NATO allies in Chicago to sign up to keeping nuclear weapons as a deterrent for the foreseeable future. The B61 gravity bombs are the symbol that guarantees America’s commitment to Europe’s security.


The outcome of the Chicago summit also means that the U.S. spending up to $4bn to modernize the B61 bombs. Germany will have to come up with the money to extend the life of its ageing Tornado aircraft that are equipped to carry and drop the bombs a longer lease of life.


Some analysts see the Chicago summit as a fillip for transatlantic relations because the Alliance could agree on something as emotionally and politically charged as nuclear weapons.


But there is a downside to this new-found consensus. NATO has yet to agree on the threats it faces. Nor does it have any ideas which role the nuclear bombs could play to counter them.


Russia, despite having a far larger stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, is not going to attack Europe or the United States. The Cold War is long over. In its wake, Europe, the United States and Russia have become vulnerable to new, complex and non-state threats.


Certainly, neither the Europeans nor Russia can ignore Iran’s own nuclear ambitions. It is far from clear whether NATO’s proposed missile defense shield could protect the European allies against such threats. But nobody is suggesting, either, that NATO’s nuclear weapons could serve as a credible deterrent against a country like Iran.


To these worries, Chicago provided no answers.


Yet one thing is clear as Barack Obama fights for his re-election:


The future of disarmament is in the hands of whoever is elected the next President of the United States. So is the future of missile defense. The Europeans are waiting for November. So is Putin. Who knows what cards he will then deal.


Judy Dempsey is writing regularly about major topics in international security policy for Ms. Dempsey brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to her analysis. She has been a foreign correspondent for many years, reporting from Central Europe, the Middle East and Brussels for the Financial Times and more recently in Berlin for the International Herald Tribune.             

14 September 2012, by Judy Dempsey