Why is NATO Stuck?

The recent publication of Nuclear Policy Paper No. 14, Countdown to Chaos?, marks the completion of a series of cooperative reports by BASIC, the Arms Control Association (ACA) and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) on NATO’s nuclear weapons and their future. Previous reports have focused on:

The current report details the timelines for, and implications of, procurement decisions for NATO’s next-generation dual-capable aircraft (DCA).

What has not been examined, however, is the most basic (pun intended) question of all: Why, 59 years after the introduction of U.S. nuclear weapons into Europe, and 22 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, are American nukes still based on the territory of five NATO Allies?

The answer is simple: NATO as an institution may not be broken, but it sure is stuck.

When it was created in 1949, NATO appeared to solve several serious problems for West European democracies: Keeping the Soviet Red Army at arm’s length, encouraging the development of democracy in Allied states, and maintaining a U.S. military presence in Europe in order to bolster the first two points. By 1954, however, it had become apparent that Allied conventional capabilities might not be adequate to the job of deterring Soviet conventional attack, especially following the detonation of the first Soviet thermonuclear weapon in 1953. The U.S. moved to install shorter-ranged, smaller-yield nuclear weapons in Europe in the form of artillery rockets, early cruise missiles, and eventually even artillery shells and other truly tactical-range nuclear weapons.

Whether one gives credence to the effectiveness of these various weapons, to the class of theatre nuclear weapons in toto, or indeed to nuclear deterrence itself, the fact remains that for the next 37 years no nuclear weapon was used in anger, in Europe or anywhere else. With the 1991 formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, the way was made clear, it appeared at the time, for the eventual removal of theatre nukes from Europe. The Presidential Nuclear Initiative actions taken by the U.S., the Soviet Union and its successor state the Russian Federation from October 1991 through January 1992 could have, and in the opinion of many experts should have, spelled the end to theatre nuclear weapons in Europe. What happened instead, however, was due directly to NATO’s course of action over the subsequent 17 years.

So what does the world’s premier political-military alliance do once its raison d’être disappears? That’s right – it expands!

From 12 Allies in 1949 to 16 in 1990 (albeit with a united Germany replacing West Germany as a NATO Ally), the Alliance had expanded slightly during the Cold War. With its end, however, the urge to grow proved both irresistibly strong and widespread: NATO added a further three Allies in 1999, seven more in 2004 (including three former Soviet republics), and a final two in 2009. Along the way, “America and the 11 dwarves” gave way to a 28-headed monster that retained the consensus rule for all Alliance decisions. (Among other things, this means that no NATO decision is possible without the consent of a number of small and obscure governments in Europe – a sobering thought for some.)

Along the way, obtaining consensus at NATO on controversial issues has grown from a formidable task into a near-impossibility. NATO agreed to base U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe in 1954; to admit a German state only 10 years removed from National Socialism in 1955; to raise its alert levels during, inter alia, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; and to offer Article 5 mutual defence assistance to the United States following the events of 11 September, 2001.

By contrast, by 2011 NATO was unable to agree that WMD and ballistic missile proliferation represented a challenge to NATO; nor could 28 Allies agree during the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review to do more than note the declaratory policies of the Alliance’s three Nuclear Weapon States, France, the UK and the U.S. No hope existed for meaningful change to NATO’s nuclear posture, and none will as long as Allies are fundamentally divided on the question of getting U.S. theatre nukes out of Europe.

In fact, the problem runs deeper still – there is no one definition of NATO’s reason to exist in the 21st century, and no reason to believe that one can be agreed upon. Enlargement has placed “Old Europe”, which favours using NATO as a de facto world police force, at direct odds with “New Europe”, which prefers to emphasize the Article 5 pledge of mutual defence support in times of crisis. Lacking existential agreement in a way that, say, the European Union does not (“ever closer union”, anyone?), NATO cannot hope to agree on issues as fraught as nuclear policy and posture.

All of this leaves one current hope for the removal of the 180-odd B61 nuclear gravity bombs which the United States maintains in Europe: Political leadership from the United States, based either on President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world, or on the unilateral political action of one or more of NATO’s five B61 host nations.

(File downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_NATO_chronological.gif#filelinks on 22 July 2013.)

These are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

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