Withdrawal Issues: What NATO Countries Say About the Future of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe

April 19, 2011

By Susi Snyder and Wilbert van der Zeijden

For decades, the U.S. has deployed nuclear weapons on the territories of NATO allies in Europe.  Now, about 200 of these weapons remain – in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.  The weapons were originally intended to be used to put up a wall of radiation to block a ground invasion from the Warsaw Pact.  Their type and numbers were greatly reduced at the end of the Cold War, but they have not been completely eliminated.  Yet.

Between October 2009 and November 2010, discussions within NATO on the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe intensified, taking many off guard. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were among those to speak out against continued deployment. As a result, the tactical nuclear weapons issue became one of the most contentious debates in the consultation process leading to the November 2010 adoption of the NATO Strategic Concept. In the face of conflicting — and shifting — reports on the discussions from the media and experts, Netherlands-based IKV Pax Christi set out to interview all 28 NATO delegations, as well as NATO staffers concerned with nuclear planning and deployment, to ask how they assessed the future of tactical nuclear weapons deployment in Europe.  The result of these interviews is available in the report: Withdrawal Issues: What NATO countries say about the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Removal of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

The key findings of the report demonstrate that there is sufficient political will within NATO to end the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.  Fourteen, or half of all NATO member states actively support the end of TNW deployment while ten other countries say they would not block a consensus decision to remove U.S. TNW.   Only three NATO members (France, Hungary and Lithuania) say they oppose an end to the TNW deployment.  Even the U.S. has made it clear that it is ready for change.

Despite oft-repeated assumptions, there are no quick and easy formulae that accurately portray national positions.  There is no clear relation between the duration of NATO membership and position on the TNW issue, the “new” NATO members are not more, or less, attached to the U.S. weapons than the “old” members.  Likewise, proximity to Russia is no explanatory variable. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the more active a role the country has in nuclear sharing, the more vocal they are about wanting to end TNW deployment.

NATO member countries give many reasons to end the current deployment.  Half of NATO members (14 countries) believe that these weapons are militarily and politically redundant or obsolete. Many countries recognise that TNW were historically “the glue that holds the Alliance together.” Most now say they prefer “more useful” forms of burden sharing, or “more visible” forms of Alliance solidarity. Missile Defence could replace TNW as a practical and useful way of burden sharing according to roughly half of the Alliance. The other half disagree. Obsolescence, more practical burden sharing and a desire for visible demonstrations of alliance solidarity are reasons given for why the majority want to end TNW deployment, though safety concerns – sometimes mentioned in literature – are not shared by NATO members.

French Resistance to TNW Removal Provides Obstacle

Alliance cohesion, Russian reciprocity and French resistance are the three main obstacles countries list that need to be cleared before TNW can be removed. Ending nuclear burden sharing should not lead to a weakening of the transatlantic link. It must be replaced by other forms of burden sharing and visible alliance solidarity. Only six countries mention Russian reciprocal steps as a necessary precondition. 11 more say they “would prefer” or “would welcome” Russian reciprocity. One country regrets the link made with Russian TNW. Ten countries pinpoint French resistance as a main obstacle. No clear idea of how to overcome it was presented to us in the interviews.

The process of deciding the future of TNW deployment is currently at an impasse. The Strategic Concept dictates that NATO first needs to “aim to seek” Russian agreement on reciprocal steps towards a TNW free Europe. But Russia refuses to talk about its TNW until the U.S. first relocates all its TNW back to the U.S. To break the impasse needs careful planning by multiple actors in multiple arenas.

To break the reciprocity impasse, NATO should mandate the U.S. to approach Russia with the offer to relocate all its TNW to the U.S. if Russia is willing to include concerns about the role of its TNW in comprehensive disarmament talks to be held in 2011 and 2012. As the Nuclear Planning Group is responsible for questions of deployment and force status, it should be this group that mandates the U.S..

NATO members have agreed to undertake a comprehensive Defence and Deterrence Posture Review before the next NATO Summit (expected in early 2012).  During the consultation phase of that review, a special round should be planned to allow all member states to share their concerns about – and proposals for – maintaining strong Alliance solidarity and the transatlantic link.

Lastly, the report looks at how to overcome French resistance to the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.  While the diplomats interviewed had no solution to this problem, the report recommends that special emphasis should be put on reassuring France that its independent nuclear capacity and role will remain unchanged after ending TNW deployment.Φ

The full report, Withdrawal Issues: What NATO countries say about the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is available at www.NoNukes.nl.

About the Report Authors:

Susi Snyder is the Nuclear Disarmament Programme Leader for IKV Pax Christi. Previously, Susi served as the Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, based at their International Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, where she monitored various issues under the aegis of the United Nations, including sustainable development, human rights, and disarmament.

Wilbert van der Zeijden is a political scientist with a MA in International Relations from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Since early 2010, he’s worked as a Researcher for the No Nukes Programme of IKV Pax Christi. Previously, he worked for the Dutch think-tank Transnational Institute as Peace & Security program coordinator. He lives in Utrecht, with his two sons Jonathan (9) and Ruben (8).

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