It took the Belgians 18 months of intense negotiations to procure themselves a new government in 2010 and 2011. The new government, in writing, called for “a ban on weapon systems that have a variable reach and/or cause disproportionate amounts of civilian casualties.” Asked whether this position would logically lead to the removal of US nuclear weapons from Belgian soil, the new minister of Foreign Affairs Reynders said that no, the sentence, “only applies to weapons that are actually used.”
His remark is a perfect exemple of the ludicrous state of the debate on NATO nuclear weapons. It is a debate in which consensus is determined by the few, in which parliaments and the public are kept in the dark, and in which everybody is either hiding behind the mighty Russian boogieman, or under the rug of a political commitment to 'consensus'.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – all three hosts of US nuclear weapons - have acknowledged publicly that they would like to see these weapons of mass destruction removed from their territories. Aware that the issue is sensitive within NATO, they have said from the start that – of course – such a decision can only be made by consensus. Meaning: all 28 NATO allies have to agree that removing the US nuclear weapons is a good idea. If not, the default is that the weapons stay.
It all sounds very reasonable, until you look at it from another side: there is no longer any existing consensual support for the current status quo. Norway, Slovenia, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Iceland, Luxemburg, Greece, Spain and Poland are only some of the countries that have already, in one way or another, let it be known that as far as they are concerned, deployment of American weapons of mass destruction in Europe is no longer necessary, and neither is it a good idea. A majority of experts, policy makers and populations are convinced that the tactical nuclear weapons are not necessary to deter Russia or anyone else. Most states do not believe that the ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons (TNW) help defend Europe and they long for better forms of ‘sharing the burden’ within the alliance. If NATO were going for consensus, the nuclear weapons would be out.
The debate in NATO on this issue lacks appropriate transparency. On May 20 the Allies will decide the outcome of a Defence and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR), the result of more than two years of consultations and discussions. But with only a couple of weeks to go, we - citizens - do not even know what the terms of reference are for the document. Worse: we do not even know precisely what the document will say! The accounts that have filtered through from NATO officials and national governments on the proceedings are – to put it mildly – raising questions on the status, the scope and both the formal and informal importance of the DDPR. Will there even be a public document telling us what NATO has decided? According to statements by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there will be. But sources at NATO HQ refuse to corroborate this. Our governments clearly do not want their citizens to have a say in policies that determine the deployment and possible use of nuclear weapons. If this were a transparent debate, the nuclear weapons would be out.
NATO decision-making processes are an affront to modern standards of accountability. Our governments do not report back adequately to our parliaments and our parliaments are refused a look into crucial NATO documents. Back in the Cold War, when NATO was purely a defence alliance whose tasks were limited to preparing for and operating defence protocols for a Soviet invasion, this was, perhaps, understandable. But now that the Alliance has evolved into a political and military alliance that “balances defensive and expeditionary tasks”, it is a serious flaw in our democratic structures.
The DDPR process is a perfect example of a bad practice that is being perpetuated by NATO. Parliaments cannot see the preparatory documents nor the drafts of the DDPR. The direct consequences of this are felt in 28 national parliaments. Ministers stick to generalities and vagueness, ‘managing expectations’, ‘taking into account the full complexity of the issues’, going ‘step by step and phase by phase’. And after Chicago, no-one will be able to assess to what extent our government leaders have carried out the mandates given by their parliaments. There is no way to assess if they have held true to their national commitments in the negotiations and deliberations. In this ‘alliance of democracies’, we are simply not allowed to know.
With regards to the nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, it isn’t all that hard for government leaders to determine a position. Large majorities of their country’s parliamentarians, policy makers and the public are very clear on the subject: American nuclear weapons are a dangerous anachronism from the Cold War, that serve no military and very little political purpose. Hence the Belgian minister’s remark that no ban is needed for weapons you “don’t actually use.” If NATO were accountable to the countries it represents and their citizens, the nuclear weapons would be out.
The magic formula, after two years of non-consensual discussions in NATO, is that it’s up to the Russians to decide if we keep American nuclear weapons in Europe. It’s the nonsensical way out. The Cold War is over. NATO (officially) no longer plans for scenarios involving offensive Russian aggression. Russia knows this. The NATO argument is that Russia has weapons that look a lot like the US B61s deployed in Italy, Turkey, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia even has more, although exact numbers are unknown. A recent estimate counts 730 Russian weapons comparable to the US B61 and about 835 other offensive non-strategic weapons. But the fact remains that the Russian nuclear weapons have no direct bearing on the military usability of the American weapons. And the American weapons, if they are solely symbolic, can be symbols located in any country – including the US. As the Belgian minister wisely assumes, NATO will not actually use these nuclear weapons anyway. Russia knows that too.
Russia is a perfect excuse for inaction. And an appreciative one at that. Russia does (erroneously) believe that it needs its ageing battlefield nuclear weapons to deter conventional NATO pressure or aggression. The fact that NATO keeps a bunch of useless nuclear weapons in Europe is militarily irrelevant but politically it provides Russia with the perfect excuse not to engage in further arms reductions: Russia can – and does – point to these weapons and says “You see, you have them too, and on someone else’s soil”. NATO continues to point to Russia and say “You have more than we do!” NATO and Russia are, ironically, keeping each other’s obsolete weapons in place. If NATO took a realistic approach to dealing with Russian battlefield nuclear weapons, it would start by relocating the American ones back to the US.
In the end, it is about political will, and the lack thereof. Belgian, Dutch and German governments, parliaments, public and experts have been saying for a long time that the weapons need to go. There is no consensus supporting the continued deployment of nuclear weapons on their soil. If any of these countries were capable of standing up and making removal a demand that is part of finding a new consensus, they would certainly be successful. The US will not force its nuclear weapons on any country. Other allies may show concern and they will certainly ask the question what, in exchange, these countries will do instead for NATO assurance and solidarity. There will surely be a price to pay. But as previous removals from Greece and the UK have shown, that price will by no means be unaffordable, and removal will certainly prove beneficial in the long run. If our governments properly represent the interests of their populations, the nuclear weapons will be out soon after the NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20/21.