Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Why Europe Still Needs Nuclear Deterrence

RIGA/VILNIUS/WARSAW – In recent months, we have joined discussions led by former United States Senator Sam Nunn, former British Minister of Defense Lord Desmond Browne, and others to find a way to reduce nuclear weapons in Europe. Although we fully endorse the aim of working towards a world free of nuclear arms, we firmly believe that NATO must remain a nuclear alliance so long as these weapons continue to exist around the world.

At NATO’s summit in Chicago this month, determining the appropriate mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile-defense capabilities to ensure a reliable level of nuclear deterrence will undoubtedly be an important item on the agenda. But, even before those discussions take place, it is abundantly clear that there are a number of powerful reasons for maintaining NATO’s current mix of capabilities, including the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe.

For starters, there remains an overwhelming disparity between the US and Russia on non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, with roughly 200 for the former and an estimated 2,000 for the latter. Every effort must be made to reduce these numbers, but only by reciprocal measures.

Indeed, there are serious doubts that unilateral withdrawals by NATO would encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to review his country’s deepening reliance on nuclear deterrence. Given that our countries are very close to Russia’s deployed nuclear arsenal, an increasing nuclear disparity between NATO and Russia resulting from NATO reductions would be of paramount concern to our fellow citizens.

That ongoing disparity should and must remain a concern for NATO as a whole. Let us not forget that, only a few years ago, Russia and Belarus conducted joint military exercises according to a scenario that included a nuclear attack on Poland.

Second, it seems unlikely that there will be much progress in talks with Russia on reducing tactical nuclear weapons in the near future, and certainly not until after November’s presidential election in the US. We regret this. Our countries welcomed the ratification in 2011 of the New START agreement between the US and Russia – a positive outcome of US President Barack Obama’s policy towards Russia of reducing strategic nuclear weapons, and we hope that there will be no backtracking on this treaty.

But the fact is that there is no follow-on process in sight to make good on this goal. Moreover, missile-defense cooperation has stalled over fundamental differences in political approaches, and Putin has indicated that he will not attend the NATO-Russia summit in Chicago.

Nunn has rightly pointed out that US/NATO and Russian threat perceptions will never completely overlap. Yet a great number of the threats facing the two sides are increasingly shared and can often best be confronted together. For this reason, we need to continue to engage our Russian partners with patience, transparency, and a view to enhancing mutual trust and confidence.

Finally, reducing the presence of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would add to the concerns expressed by many European leaders about America’s long-term commitments to the continent. Thanks to US leadership, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and other European countries have enjoyed historically unsurpassed security since joining NATO, but that security should not be taken for granted.

All of the NATO allies must understand that the global security landscape is changing. Cyber threats and energy security have come to the fore. The situation in the Asia-Pacific region requires moving US troops who were once based in Europe to Australia. But we believe that the ongoing reductions of US conventional forces in Europe should not yet be compounded by any possible reduction in America’s nuclear capabilities there. This would weaken the transatlantic link that is essential for Europe’s security and NATO’s cohesion.

Nuclear disarmament needs to remain high on NATO’s agenda, but new and creative approaches are needed if disarmament is to enhance, rather than undermine, the Allies’ security. Only those approaches that ensure reciprocity, transparency, cohesion, and undiminished security for all of NATO’s members have a chance at success.

Read more from our "Deciphering Disarmament" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedTed Seay

      Bravo John Loretz!

      NATO's nuclear weapons lack any credibility as a deterrent force (nuclear gravity bombs loaded on F-16s or Tornadoes? Flying to Russia? Really???) and so cannot offer meaningful reassurance to Allies -- including Latvia.

      Furthermore, those who doubt America's long-term commitment to Europe (or who believe it hinges on the presence of a handful of Cold War relics based in 5 NATO nations) are invited to visit any of 20 U.S. military cemeteries in Europe and explain your concerns to the occupants.

      No hurry, though -- they have all the time in the world.

    2. CommentedJohn A Werneken

      Nuclear weapons have done a good job of preventing both general war and general tyranny. Nothing else has done the job.

    3. CommentedJohn Loretz

      This argument, which seems to take on the qualities of a mantra when offered by the nuclear-weapon states and their acolytes, rests on a tautology: as long as nuclear weapons exist, we will need them. The logical fallacy is that as long as we (you) claim to need them, they will exist.

      Words such as "appropriate" and "reliable" when used to describe nuclear forces can only have meaning if the word "deterrence" has any content at all. Whatever one thinks of the meaning "deterrence" used to have during the US-Soviet Cold War, today the word is nothing more than an empty container that vaguely evokes...something. Ask someone who claims to believe in deterrence to explain precisely who is being deterred from doing what by the existence of someone else's nuclear weapons. Ask again in 10 or 20 years. If the nuclear-weapon states (however many there are by then) manage to hold on that long and deterrence hasn't failed yet, they may have an answer. Or not.

      Of course there is that small problem of deterrence failing, which it must not. Ever. And you can't guarantee that. Can you?

      But I digress. You cite a disparity in numbers between Russian nuclear forces and the US nuclear weapons based in Europe. Aside from the fact that this disparity will exist for as long as the US and Russia have thousands of weapons at all, what difference does it make? Unless you are arguing for a deployment of a couple of thousand US weapons on European soil to correct the imbalance? I expect you want nothing of the kind, and yet you still want to hold on to the 200 that are already there. Why? Is Russia just waiting for those 200 US weapons to be gone so it can attack Europe with nuclear weapons? Are the tanks lined up along the border waiting to roll in? What is the danger waiting in the wings should the non-nuclear-weapon states of Europe suddenly become...uh...non-nuclear-weapon states? Is it the discomfort of thinking that the US won't nuke Russia if there aren't some warheads conveniently located in Turkey or Belgium? Is it a comfort to think that in the present configuration of things it would? Please explain this to me.

      I certainly don't condone Russia conducting exercises involving its nuclear forces and designating hypothetical targets. But NATO doesn't? Or do I misunderstand what NATO representatives have told me about the nature of the "shared responsibility" in operational terms?

      You make a passing reference to European public opinion and the "paramount concern" about an "increasing nuclear disparity." Don't the large public demonstrations in the streets of Germany and The Netherlands and elsewhere, however, cast doubt on your inference that Europeans derive some comfort from having US nuclear weapons in their backyards?

      "Nuclear deterrence," regardless of who claims to be deterring whom from doing what, is a self-referential con game with only one purpose: justifying the possession of nuclear weapons (in certain hands) into an indefinite (but very remote) future.

      Isn't this really about NATO's (as distinct from Europe's) status and self image? Does NATO really matter if it doesn't have a claim (even an extended claim) to nuclear killing power? Does NATO really matter? I suppose we have different answers to that last question, but even a yes does not have to presume a nuclear-armed NATO.

      Many of the other security concerns you've expressed are with everyone at all times. The global security situation is always changing. Your argument collapses in the end, as an argument, because nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the problems the world is facing, other than in the ways they compound those problems.

      I would rephrase your last paragraph as follows:

      Nuclear disarmament needs to be central to NATO’s agenda. New and creative approaches, such as removing the last remaining US weapons from European soil, are needed if the European partners in the alliance are to be taken seriously in their commitment to collective security. Nuclear disarmament enhances, rather than undermines, the Allies’ security. Reciprocity, transparency, and undiminished security for all of NATO’s members will flow directly from the elimination of nuclear weapons. Those benefits will accrue to everyone in the world once nuclear weapons are eliminated and banned everywhere.

      John Loretz
      Program Director
      International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
      Somerville, MA USA

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