NATO: fiddling with nuclear bombs while the planet burns

Next month NATO members meet in Lisbon to agree on a new Strategic Concept. Rebecca Johnson argues that if we treated nuclear weapons as the previous century’s problem to be disposed of, instead of fetishizing them as instruments of high strategic value, we would stand a far better chance of maintaining global security
Rebecca Johnson
6 October 2010

In 1949, NATO was constructed as a military alliance under the American nuclear umbrella. The joke that it was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down was uncomfortably close to the truth. This nuclear bloc became one half of an aggressive arms race that divided Europe, nearly annihilated the world on several occasions, distorted the politics and economies of many of its members and beggared the Soviet Union. The last, at least, precipitated the end of the Cold War. Now, 20 years after the Warsaw Pact collapsed and Germany reunified, what is NATO for?

Leaders of the 28 NATO members will come together in Lisbon 19-21 November to agree on a new Strategic Concept. This should reflect the fundamentally different conditions in the 21st century world. The signs, however, suggest that for the sake of putting on a unified public face, NATO will yet again fail to address both its role and purpose in international security developments and the contradictions stemming from its structure and relations with the United States and European Union.

NATO’s Danish Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has just issued two classified documents, which are now circulating among member states. The first will be the basis for a short public communiqué that is intended to set the principles for NATO’s future policy, while the second is a much longer operational document which “sets out in detail how NATO would react and assign units and forces to respond to a range of attacks”. The detailed operational scenarios played out in this latter document will remain secret, but for NATO governments these will divert attention from the empty platitudes likely to be trotted out in the communiqué.

When the West appeared to emerge victorious from the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact dissolved. NATO should have dissolved too, but was instead enlarged to accommodate some but not all of the Warsaw Pact’s members. That decision has resulted in an unresolved identity crisis and a squandering of opportunities to construct more appropriate ways and means to support European and international security. Article V, the Musketeers’ Commitment at the heart of NATO (all for one and one for all), took NATO countries into Afghanistan after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Notwithstanding political spin, after a decade of fighting, killing and dying, that war has been lost in every significant aspect, while Al Qaeda has regrouped elsewhere, including Pakistan and Yemen. For the best part of a decade, NATO has been papering over a series of widening cracks, with diminishing coherence.

The divisions over Afghanistan were exacerbated by the US-UK war on Iraq, which was not a NATO war as such because of the opposition of a number of prominent members, including France and Germany, who considered it illegal and unnecessary. Two other internal contradictions have divided NATO since the Cold War ended. The Europeans resent the perennial American complaints that they are not sufficiently ‘sharing the burden’ of defending Europe, while the US-led demand for military ‘interoperability’ has poured money into its defence industries, which marketed most of the arms and technologies necessary to bring European military forces into operational synch with the superior US equipment. The other, which is the subject of this article, is what to do about nuclear weapons in Europe.

Depending on how they are counted, there are around 200 US nuclear weapons in Europe, stored at US bases in five countries: Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Turkey. These are B-61 bombs – misleadingly called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ – intended to be launched out of aeroplanes. Many of the countries that they were initially designed to be dropped on are now members of NATO. As Germany, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg push once again within NATO to get rid of these insecure nuclear relics and minimise the role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance, it is a number of former Eastern bloc countries, including Latvia and Poland, that appear to be most desperate for NATO to maintain nuclear business as usual. Since nuclear weapons cannot be deployed in former Eastern bloc territories without breaching an important commitment made by NATO in 1996 (confirming US Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s “Three No’s”), it seems paradoxical to find governments pushing to maintain a two-tier nuclear NATO that consigns their own countries to the political back seats.

A few days ago, an impressive list of 35 European heavyweights, including Germany’s former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and British Defence Secretaries Michael Ancram, Tom King and Malcolm Rifkind, endorsed a statement published by the European Leaders Network (ELN), coordinated by former Defence and Foreign Secretaries Des Browne and Margaret Beckett. This group argued that in order to reduce the roles and risks of nuclear weapons globally, NATO needed to “make disarmament a core element of its approach to providing security”. At a time when insider reports suggest that NATO is having great difficulty reaching consensus on anything other than the fudged language of past agreements, the ELN statement warned the Alliance not to avoid debating nuclear issues, as it had done in 1999, but to adapt its strategic policies to address the real security challenges of our present and future. It argued for a more constructive relationship with Russia, posed several useful questions about nuclear deterrence, and pointed to inconsistencies between the declaratory policies currently espoused by NATO and its three nuclear members, Britain, France (which has not yet joined NATO’s nuclear planning group (NPG), though President Sarkozy has taken France closer to NATO than before), and the United States, particularly since the Obama administration formulated its Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year. However, the ELN itself shied away from questioning the validity, role, costs and opportunity costs of this nuclear alliance.

The issue is not just that NATO’s nuclear weapons are a useless anachronism. NATO itself has outlived its security relevance. The majority of its members are well aware that they are irredeemably bogged down in Afghanistan and that there are no realistic scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used that would possibility enhance NATO members’ security and survival or be consistent with international law. They resort to vague mantras about Alliance “cohesion”, ultimate “insurance”, and the need to reassure states that are worried about terrorism, Russia or Iran.

Some say they support President Obama’s pledge to seek the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons, but then quickly repeat the other bit, where Obama said that as long as any nuclear weapons exist, the US would maintain its arsenal. Sadly, that contradiction will probably re-emerge in the Strategic Concept as a rhetorical desire for disarmament and non-proliferation coupled with a promise to keep NATO nuclear as long as anyone else might have one. What do you say to a tobacco-addicted friend who tells you “I want to give up smoking, but not in my lifetime”?

This is the dilemma for NATO, its nuclear weapon states, and the world. It’s not enough just to bring the overall numbers of nuclear weapons down, though that’s desirable. If we want to stop the next generation of proliferators, we have to devalue and delegitimize nuclear armaments for everyone. Reducing the numbers and roles of nuclear weapons are worth pursuing as interim steps, but they still treat these weapons of mass destruction as if they are highly valuable, which maintains their attractiveness for others. Stigmatizing them as inhumane and repugnant would pave the way for outlawing their use, and therefore pave the way for nuclear weapons abolition, the surest way to eliminate nuclear threats. NATO has a chance to demonstrate that nuclear weapons are a useless, dangerous legacy of the cold war incompatible with our fundamental security and humanity, and that there are other, better ways to build mutual security and deter aggressors.

If we treated nuclear weapons as the previous century’s problem to be disposed of, instead of fetishising them as instruments of high strategic value, we would stand a far better chance of engaging with Iran not to take the risks of acquiring a nuclear weapons option, for no benefit or good could come of it. And the fact that Russia has ten times more of these inhumane objects becomes a pity but not a threat, particularly since Russia could not contemplate using any of its 2,000 ‘tactical’ nuclear bombs without enormous risk to its own people and environment.

Like voodoo, belief in nuclear deterrence only works if all sides collude in the fantasy. Not only would European and global security be much better off without NATO’s nuclear weapons, but we would all be better off if NATO would transform itself out of existence and open up a space for genuine collective security approaches to grow. That’s what we need to tackle real terrorism, climate chaos, poverty and transnational trafficking in arms, drugs and vulnerable peoples, which disproportionally harm women and young people.

Sadly, NATO’s internal arrangements are so divided and dysfunctional that though some may ask the right questions, no-one will be able to pilot through the necessary changes. Expect the Lisbon Summit to paper over the cracks once again and present a smiling image of lowest common denominator unity, fiddling while the planet burns.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData