The public discourse around nuclear weapons policy can be deceptively binary: countries should retain nuclear capabilities or they shouldn’t; nuclear weapons provide security and strategic stability or they don’t. However, it is generally only the tip of the iceberg that makes its way into mainstream debate. In reality, a web of incredibly technical, expert discussion takes place below the surface which defines how substantive nuclear policy decisions are taken.
Not much surprise there: this is, in effect, how most democratic public policy is formed - politicians, leadership and the general public provide direction, and a select group of experts define the detail, often with limited public engagement or understanding. The recent debate over the US government shutdown is a prime example. Ask any member of public outside Washington D.C. what their own views are on inter-related issues such as public spending, taxation rates or health policy and they will likely be able to tell you. But ask them what exactly the politicians in Congress are butting heads over - to the extent that all public services deemed “non-essential” have been halted - and there’s a very real chance they will find it hard to articulate.
Nuclear weapons policy falls into exactly this trap. It is an issue of vast public significance: think not only of the humanitarian, environmental, economic and health impacts of a nuclear attack, whether by intent or by accident, but also how deeply nuclear weapons policy reaches into our daily global economic, trade and foreign relations (underpinning, as it does, how Europe interacts with Russia; how the US engages in the Middle East; how countries in the Middle East view each other; and how the UK sees its future relationship with the US). Yet the exclusivity of the discourse, with its own specific language, carries with it the risk that hugely significant decisions are determined by very few, and that we become so tangled in the detail that we lose sight of what it is we are trying to achieve. Limiting the diversity of debate risks hampering our ability to develop innovative, forward-thinking policy.
Opportunities exist to break this mould. Recent years have seen Europe consumed by economic and political uncertainty. President Obama’s announcement of a US “pivot to Asia” in late 2011 exacerbated the European sense of vulnerability, raising questions about the future of the transatlantic relationship. American policy prioritization has begun to look beyond traditional European interests. This has been compounded by economic vulnerabilities on both sides of the Atlantic, with the Eurozone crisis on one side and the US emerging from a recession with the weakest recovery rate since the Great Depression on the other, which are forcing even steeper prioritization. Doing something because “we’ve always done it that way” is unlikely to hold sway for much longer.
Two committees in the European Parliament - one on Security and Defense and one on Foreign Affairs - will meet this week to discuss, among other things, the implementation of the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy. On its current course, we can expect this to be a technical, expert discussion evaluating current priorities and achievements and suggesting incremental improvements. But this meeting, and others like it, could provide an opportunity to harness recent geopolitical developments, look beyond the constraints of technical discourse, and find the courage to stick our heads above the bureaucratic parapet.
The paths are starting to converge for Europe to think more courageously about how it stays relevant, including through its defense and security policies. The future of NATO will be central - as will the European Union’s relationship to it. At the core lie questions over the maintenance of an ageing fleet of B61 nuclear bombs and their delivery systems, currently stationed in five countries across Europe. Enthusiasm for the weapons within a number of the host countries is starting to wane, as officials are increasingly unable to see their relevance. The US Congress is beginning to ask why the American taxpayer is set to invest over $10 billion in a refurbishment plan for the bombs, when there are questions around their military utility and the European desire to host them. Proponents of making this investment often cite the reassurance of Eastern European allies as the main reason for retaining the weapons in Europe. But even those allies may be starting to focus more heavily on the concept of reassurance - a sense that the Americans will be there for them when they really need it - rather than exactly how it is delivered. The B61s, with their limited military utility, may be starting to look less and less comforting.
What is more, NATO’s demand for reciprocity from Russia before they will make further movement towards removing the B61s from Europe may lead Russia to perceive these weapons as a source of doubt and division, and to view their existence as a liability for NATO, and therefore an asset for them. There has also been a failure on all sides to address the existence of tactical nuclear weapons, which are a concern for all European states, both in and out of NATO.
Further afield, the ongoing presence of B61s in Europe risks undermining the EU’s wider non-proliferation efforts. If European states themselves resist the withdrawal of weapon systems that arguably serve no purpose beyond political symbolism, it is hard for those same states to credibly promote non-proliferation in countries with more precarious and unstable strategic situations.
Taking a more active role in addressing these issues may be precisely the opportunity the EU needs to reaffirm the relevance of the transatlantic relationship. Creative engagement by the EU, including working with NATO, could present an opening that has so far been unexplored. Technical and bureaucratic dialogue will remain undeniably necessary. But bringing about change will require innovative, bold thinking - and to do that, we need to get better at translating the nuclear debate into something more accessible, enlisting a diversity of view that will help to push us beyond our current limitations.