Threat perceptions, the future of the alliance, and thinking differently

President Obama’s foreign policy speech in Berlin yesterday, in which he set out his highly-anticipated second term nuclear agenda, calls on us to change the way we think about European security and the direction in which we want to travel.

The responses have ranged from a warm welcome to hard skepticism. Immediate reactions have largely centered around the feasibility of Obama’s pitch to further reduce the US deployed strategic nuclear capability by a third (bringing warheads down to the 1,000 mark); to continue pursuing negotiated cuts with Russia; and to reduce the role of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

These will be critical steps in moving the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda forward. For the US, the political debate in Washington D.C. will now undoubtedly rage around how much room the President and his Administration will be able to create to actually deliver on these commitments, given the current domestic political climate in the US and the resistance from the Russians to any further talks that do not also include concessions on missile defence and conventional arms control.

However, the broader context of the speech, which may generate less political buzz, is equally critical. Obama spoke (unsurprisingly, given the setting) of the ongoing value of transatlantic ties. The “pivot” toward Asia, which is often interpreted by European allies as a worrying shift in US interest and engagement away from Europe, wasn’t overtly referenced, but played between the lines. The focus, instead, was on the value of using the increasing interdependence of transatlantic relations to tackle new threats facing the Alliance, ranging from climate change to the ongoing global financial crisis.

This broader context is central to how we view the nuclear weapons debate. The President’s emphasis on the centrality of the transatlantic relationship was set alongside his ambition to reduce the US nuclear presence in Europe, bringing to the fore the fact that both the nature of the relationship and the global context it operates in are changing. Threat perceptions are shifting, and the challenges facing the Alliance – looking at is as a whole – are markedly different now from their Cold War era origins.

This is not to suggest that this is a consistently held view among European allies – there is certainly a distinction between threat perceptions across Europe. Nor is this a new discussion: it has been danced around many times before now. NATO’s latest Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, unveiled in Chicago in 2012, reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to retaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe until reciprocal reductions can be secured from Russia. But as financial realities continue to bite, and the global context continues to shift, the argument for maintaining a nuclear presence in Europe, particularly as a means of providing security reassurances, is arguably becoming less and less sustainable.

So while a wholesale withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe may not be an immediate prospect, what all of this does provide is an opportunity to open up more strategic, long-term and creative thinking to better understand the Alliance’s shared objectives, and how it can adapt and pull itself into the current context to deliver them. That is, looking for ways to move away from traditional “extended nuclear deterrence” thinking, toward an “extended assurance” approach – finding ways to meet the same assurance objectives but in different and more contextually-relevant ways.

Possible ways to address tactical nuclear weapons reductions do exist. BASIC, along with its partners, organized an event in Moscow last month to consider the confidence-building measures which might help to move this particular agenda forward – such as broadening the agenda to incorporate regional security issues, focused on Eastern European and Russian concerns and building confidence through increased transparency.

The trick will be shifting how we think about these issues – looking hard at both the end objective, as well as the means to deliver it. If we can do that, we stand a better chance of building a sustainable, relevant and responsive future for the Alliance.

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