Reducing Nuclear Risks in Europe: A framework for action

This review appeared in NATO Watch Observatory No.28: December 2011

Reviewed by Wilbert van der Zeijden, IKV Pax Christi

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) report, "Reducing Nuclear Risks in Europe: A framework for action", is a well timed effort to sum up the state of the debate on NATO nuclear weapons and posture. It provides the reader with an impressive collection of diverse views without promoting any one single proposal. Rather, the report aims to facilitate debate. Whether it also does what the title indicates - presenting a framework for action - is debatable, but the report certainly helps thinking about such a framework.

The centrepiece of the 191 page long report is the initial essay by Sam Nunn who argues that current Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (NSNW) – sometimes referred to as Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW) - deployments in Europe are a dangerous anachronism. He convincingly concludes that "maintaining the current nuclear status quo in Europe runs a high cost and unacceptable risk". After the opening arguments the dire task fell to Simon Lunn to provide a comprehensive overview of the many different strands of debate over the past two years. It is somewhat of a dry read - but very functional in the sense that it allows the other contributors to assume in their writing that the audience already knows the state of the debate.

The other articles then take the audience deeper into specific discussions and analyses. Luckily, the editors have not shied away from allowing varied opinions and conclusions, with three chapters on historic, current and future discussions on NATO nuclear weapons and nuclear posture, chapters on declaratory policy, security and safety of the B61 bombs in Europe, two chapters on nuclear sharing and reassurance, three chapters on cooperation and negotiations with Russia and finally a chapter on NATO in the context of Asian security issues.

The authors manage to adequately reflect the spread and content of discussions in chambers and in the long hallways of NATO HQ in Brussels. None of these discussions are really new of course; they have been intensely debated since the start of the Strategic Concept consultations back in 2009. But the attempt to once again present a comprehensive overview of the current state of the debate is certainly timely, now that NATO is gearing up towards negotiating the Defence and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR).

The NTI report methodically goes over all the interrelated concerns and issues again: Russian reciprocity; Alliance reassurances and burden sharing; safety and security concerns of the nuclear bombs and the bases they are stationed at. This review article focuses on two of those discussions (Russia and burden sharing) and adds a point for discussion that is ostensibly missing from both the report and the general discourse altogether: the bias in the decision making process on these issues.

On Russia

Authors Catherine McArdle Kelleher, Robert Legvold and Alexei Arbatov present a thorough overview of the NATO-Russia relationship, the complexity of discussions with Russia, and Russian perceptions of NATO. Alexei Arbatov's article is arguably the one in the collection with the most 'new' information and analysis. As such, his contribution deserved a more prominent place, not least because it would have allowed other authors to avoid duplicating explanations of the problem of 'how to deal with Russia?'

Summarising heavily, Arbatov breaks apart the oft heard argument that NATO 'logically' needs to pair possible NSNW reductions to reciprocal steps from Russia. He shows us that the NSNW arsenals of the two former enemy blocks are hard to compare. In functionality, but also in political relevance - both real and perceived - linking the two nuclear arsenals is less obvious than it would seem. En route, Arbatov convincingly shows that the perception that Russian NSNW far outnumber NATO's is little more than the result of creative counting on NATO's part.

Arbatov's contribution shows, to my mind, how ill advised NATO's 2010 Strategic Concept (SC) position is in terms of linking NATO NSNW reductions to Russian NSNW reductions. The SC line that "any further reductions should take into account the disparity" is - following Arbatov - at best a questionable representation of reality. 

What's more, the SC left open how much reciprocity is needed if any at all, for NATO to take a decision on its own nuclear arsenal. According to the Lisbon text, NATO should, prior to any decision, "seek agreement" with Russia. It is the word 'seek' that allows quite diverse interpretations. Does it mean that reductions can only come as a consequence of negotiations? Or does it merely mean that NATO should attempt to negotiate before coming to a decision? The first interpretation would have the downside that NATO allows Russia to hijack the discussion on the need and desirability of NATO capabilities. The latter has the disadvantage that if Russia already knows that NATO will get rid of the TNW anyway, why would it offer anything in return?

As some authors stipulate in the NTI report, the bigger question is why Russia would be willing to offer anything in return for NSNW removal anyway? Russia's reliance on NSNW in combination with the knowledge that NATO has no practical military use for its NSNW anymore, logically means that Russia at best doesn't care what NATO does with its NSNW. More likely, Russia values the presence of American NSNW in Europe more than most NATO allies do, as it provides Russia with a virtually 'free' excuse to not discuss its own reliance on NSNW.

Finding glue

The report rightly reserved quite a bit of space for discussing the issue of NATO burden sharing, solidarity and assurances among the allies and how NSNW and their potential removal affect these central concepts in NATO's identity. Karl-Heinz Kamp and C.N. Remkes come to the conclusion that "it is not the physical stationing of US nuclear weapons in Europe that will determine the future credibility of extended nuclear deterrence and the nuclear cohesion of the Alliance". Instead, the two authors argue that nuclear information sharing and a willingness to contribute to other forms of common deterrence are much more important.

In the subsequent chapter, Hans Binnendijk and Catherine McArdle Kelleher argue that security assurances are the primary reason why so many Central and Eastern European countries eagerly joined NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For these countries, the NSNW and the nuclear sharing connected to them are primarily of symbolic importance. In short, the arrangement shows commitment by the US to the future security of the entire NATO territory in Europe. If the NSNW are removed, so the argument goes, what assurances will be left to show for article 5 style joint security?

Looking deeper into this line of argumentation, one invariably hits more problematic questions that NATO is reluctant to get into. For if militarily useless nukes are the primary symbolic show of Alliance burden sharing and assurance, what does that say about the viability of this Alliance? A red thread in this particular debate is that the importance of TNW is relative: nuclear burden sharing is important only because NATO is so poor at sharing burdens in other ways. For example, member countries have not been able to live up to the expressed desire to invest minimally 2% of GDP in defence expenditures. Yet in the current financial climate, it is preposterous to expect this ever to become a reality.

Variable member state contributions to NATO military missions are another example of faltering NATO internal cohesion. Binnendijk and Kelleher offer valuable insights and thoughts on alternatives to symbolic burden sharing through NSNW deployment. Not all of them seem to fit the reality of the current budget crunch though. "Strengthening conventional forces and the article 5 mission" is an example. Their suggestions for more direct military involvement on the ground in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region is a far more viable one if the objective is to promote the perception among CEE countries that their security matters. The authors remind us that this is what the CEE allies have consistently called for.

But then they go on to discuss other options that  seem outright dangerous. They look at possibilities to maximise the deterrence capabilities of remaining US NSNW. These possibilities include, for example, proposals to improve the readiness level of the weapons. The authors seem to overlook that this would likely be perceived as quite a serious escalatory step by Russia - no doubt triggering a fierce response. Moreover, the authors seem to argue that because the current arrangements do not result in a credible threat to Russia, NATO first needs to make it a credible threat in order to force Russia into some sort of reciprocal deal! This is playing with the security of over 500 million Europeans in a way that I hope the readers will agree is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Opening the black box

The topics discussed in the NTI report largely overlap and develop a common list of three main "obstacles to NSNW removal". A similar list has been written on a whiteboard in my office as a reminder for quite a while now: "France and other outliers"; "NATO's hope for Russian reciprocity"; and "NATO's need to reassess burden sharing". However, there is a fourth item in my list, one that is not discussed in the NTI report, nor anywhere else it seems. On my whiteboard it is bluntly called "organisational and process bias".

Analysing NATO is still pretty much calculation formulas with many unknown variables. We researchers, analysts and campaigners keep focussing first and foremost on the political variables. Who is in favour, and who is against? What arguments are used, how strong are those arguments? Which actor is strong enough to voice an opinion, and who shies away? What trade-offs are viable, and which are not? We often end up in discussions that are more than anything about interpretation of language by NATO or NATO officials. On occasion, it is NATO officials who have to point out to us that we pay too much attention to the formulation and not enough to the formulators.

In our efforts, we assume that some weighing of rational positions takes place. That is at least the way we analyse the partial information that NATO provides. Some of the authors of this report - most notably Simon Lunn - have been trying to get beyond the many unknowns by approaching the 'players' within the institution directly. At IKV Pax Christi we took the same route over the past 18 months. It resulted among other things in a publication called "Withdrawal Issues". Lunn and the authors of the NTI report - like us in our own report - fail to address what Graham Allison and many after him would call 'the black box'. In analysing or criticising a complex institution such as NATO, we need more emphasis on the question, who decides? Who controls information flows and who shapes the decision making processes? Who functions as gate keeper? Is the institution flexible enough to break free from vested interests solidified in rusty structures?

The longer I frequent NATO HQ, the more I worry about the dysfunctional decision making processes at the heart of the institution. It increasingly seems that NATO is unable to make the organisational structure and decision making processes act in the service of the Alliance’s goals and functions. The current debates on NATO's nuclear weapons and posture are deeply affected by this state of affairs. First of all, there is the problem that the International staff at NATO HQ generally seem to be more supportive of nuclear deterrence and of US nuclear deployments in Europe than the large majority of national representatives at NATO missions.

A much more pervasive problem is that NATO has again come up with a structure for discussing these issues that is neither transparent, nor unbiased. Apparently, it is the High Level Group (HLG) of the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) that is tasked with preparing advice to the North Atlantic Council (NAC) on the future of the NATO nukes. This is akin to asking the tax office if we need to raise more tax. Of course it is the member state ministers and heads of state that in the end have to support or contest any proposed text. But the selection of criteria and the format in which these criteria are discussed are heavily influenced by those parts of the organisation that have most to lose when NSNW are withdrawn or reduced.

Institutional and process bias provides the best explanation so far as to how it is possible, two years into the discussion, the original German proposals for NSNW withdrawal are still labelled by many analysts and insiders as 'uncooperative behaviour'. And this despite all major studies on the issue, more or less supporting the German position. Indeed, it is a position that has overwhelming domestic support in Germany (among the public, parliament and coalition government), as well as the backing of virtually all arms control experts, Dutch, Belgian and Italian parliamentary resolutions, the director of NATO Defence College, most NATO-related diplomats (when speaking on a personal basis) and most former NATO diplomats. If the discussions within NATO were to reflect the majority democratic opinion of those the Alliance says it represents, consolidation of the remaining B61s on US territory would be a no-brainer.

Wilbert van der Zeijden is an international relations specialist working for the Dutch Peace and security research and advocacy NGO IKV Pax Christi

Steve Andreasen and Isabelle Williams (ed.)
Nuclear Threat Initiative
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