Nukes Europe

From Franklin Miller at Brookings: [The NATO Deterrence and Defense Posture Review] fundamentally is not about nukes. It is about nothing less than the future of NATO, whether this, the most successful alliance in modern history—and perhaps throughout history—will continue to exist and function.


What we are witnessing increasingly today in many of the original members of the Alliance is the growth of a cynical and beggar-thy-neighbor approach to the collective good, a re-emergence if you will of the self-centered nationalistic politics and policies of the Europe of the 19th and early 20th centuries which twice nearly destroyed the continent. It represents a craven moral failure by those who once sought collective security—and even asked the US to put its very existence at risk to deter a Soviet attack on their countries.

Now, however, feeling safer and more secure, they—and here I speak of the German government and those within the Dutch and Belgian governments and political elites who support their view—they would deny to the newer members of the Alliance the very security they once so desperately sought and are prepared to shift to the United States the full burden of protecting them from nuclear and conventional attack.

The new members understand this and doubt the older members’ willingness to support the Article V commitment, and, as a result, strongly desire the continued presence of US nuclear weapons in NATO Europe as a political symbol of the total commitment of the United States to their defense. As Steven Pifer wrote: "Indeed, for many of the Central European members located closer to—and still uncertain about the intentions of- Russia, NATO’s nuclear umbrella, made concrete by US nuclear weapons in Europe, was a principal reason for joining the Alliance."

Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium— nations which currently host US nuclear weapons and which are actively seeking their removal—have therefore failed the new allies, the US, and the Alliance. By seeking to force the removal of nuclear weapons from NATO Europe, they would remove from the new members the symbolic security they once so deeply believed they themselves needed. By shirking the responsibility for nuclear risk sharing and burden sharing-but not the need for nuclear deterrence-they are asking the American people to put the US homeland at risk while they get a free ride. There can be no more cynical expression of this than the statement attributed to Foreign Minister Westerwelle last year that NATO needed a nuclear umbrella but that that umbrella should be based in the United States.

This attitude assumes that America’s willingness to defend NATO is a constant; it ignores the fact that American internationalism is an historical aberration: isolationism, rather than engagement, has been the dominant theme throughout most of our history. Try explaining to a freshman Congressman why the US homeland should be subject to nuclear attacks to deter aggression against NATO while NATO allies are unwilling even to share the risk and burden of basing a very small part of the deterrent on their soil. And good luck in doing so.

Equally, those Americans who sought and wooed the nations of Eastern Europe to join the Alliance now have a responsibility, both political and indeed moral, to listen to and understand and appreciate those new Allies’ concern about their security. It is extraordinarily patronizing for Americans in both official and private positions to tell the new members of the Alliance that, contrary to their fears, contrary to the saber-rattling threats they have heard and the exercises they have observed, contrary to the 2008 land-grab in Georgia, and contrary to their history that they really need not worry about Russia. And it is outlandishly arrogant and patronizing to tell the new members, most of whom joined the Alliance to be able to be under the nuclear umbrella, that the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe wouldn’t mean anything because we can do it all with central strategic systems based in the United States.

Will we ever learn? "Consultation" means listening to our allies, not lecturing them. If anyone in the audience is old enough to have lived through the "Euro-missile" debate of the late 1970s/early 1980s, they will recall that when our allies—the original 15 at the time I would uncharitably point out—expressed concern about the Soviet SS-20s, the Pentagon’s first reaction was to say: "Don’t worry, we will allocate additional Poseidon warheads to SACEUR." That approach did not work then and it will not work now.


The Netherlands and Italy are still committed to buy the Joint Strike Fighter and the JSF will be nuclear capable. Belgium is undecided. It is therefore incumbent upon those Alliance members who believe that the continued presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe is vital to NATO’s security to make that point clearly to Brussels, The Hague, and Rome, and to underscore that collective security means exactly that. They can and should emphasize to those capitals that the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept calls for "the broadest possible participation … in [the] peacetime basing of nuclear forces."

With respect to Germany, it would not be impossible technically to maintain a squadron of Tornados operational for a considerable period of time; what is lacking currently is the political will and the realization that the self-centered policy now being pursued has significant implications for NATO—and for Germany’s  and Europe’s-future security. Failing a decision to keep its own DCA, the German government should consider detailing German pilots to other allies’ DCA squadrons; that, at least, would keep Germany sharing the nuclear burden to some degree. And while, thanks in part to the "3 No’s" policy which NATO adopted during its first expansion in the mid-1990s—a policy in which I and others in this room are indeed implicated—and in part, thanks to today’s political realities it will not be possible to establish nuclear deployments on the soil of new members, there is no reason why their air forces’ pilots could not become qualified on the JSF and also be integrated into other allies’ DCA wings.  That applies equally to pilots from other allies’ air forces.

Let me note quickly, in closing, what would not be credible solutions.

First, the idea that the US could withdraw its weapons now but retain the ability—and even the infrastructure—to redeploy them in a crisis is a political and military non-starter. This would not reassure new members; in fact, it would deepen their doubt and distrust.

Second, closely associated with that idea, is the notion of negotiating the total withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe in the context of a US-Russian arms control agreement. Because the threat perceived by the new members is not confined to Russian nuclear weapons but is also driven by Russian conventional forces, some forward deployments will be necessary to provide substance to the Article V guarantee until the new allies perceive that the Russian threat, not just the Russian weapons, is gone. Remember, as Steve wrote, "Although the steady decline of Russian conventional forces over the past 20 years means that NATO has overall advantages, Russia has local advantages in conventional forces in the Baltic area. Many in the Baltic states and Central Europe question whether NATO conventional forces have the ability to deploy rapidly to their defense, something that NATO has not exercised since they became Alliance members…Assurance of these allies is an important objective."

Indeed so. As it was with respect to Bonn when the Group of Soviet Forces Germany sat menacingly on the inter-German border. It was for this reason that in February 2010, when Lord Robertson, Kori Schake and I advanced the notion of a US-Russian arms reduction treaty for tactical nuclear weapons—the first time this idea was put forward I might note—we advocated a non-zero solution. A residual deployment of some size is needed. Risk sharing and burden sharing and all that. As true now as then.

Is NATO vital to European security? Of course. Do our allies recognize this and have the courage to return to collective security? We will have to wait and see, won’t we?

Franklin Miller, an Atlantic Council Board Director and staunch supporter of NATO and Germany for over three decades, served 31 years in the US government.

Photo: USAF/Staff Sgt. Jonathan Steffen