The NATO Alliance: Rethinking Reassurance

Recently, BASIC hosted two events centered around NATO’s nuclear posture and burden-sharing. One of the underlying concerns from representatives of NATO member-states was that of reassurance. As the current security landscape evolves within the context of an increasingly austere defense spending environment, some NATO partners continue to seek assurances that the Alliance remains committed to the principle of collective defense. Currently, many member states look to the U.S. B61 bombs still hosted in five NATO member countries as a tangible symbol that the United States, in particular, remains committed to the security of its NATO allies. However, this reliance on nuclear deterrence stems from outdated ways of thinking. New and existing alternatives to nuclear reassurance should be considered, if we hope to move away from the status quo and towards greater stability.

The concept of reassurance comes from Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which outlines the principle of collective defense. Several Central and Eastern European (CEE) states, in particular, are looking for reassurance that the Alliance would intervene in the event that a NATO state is attacked, and view the B61 bombs stationed in Europe as a symbol of that commitment to collective defense. As the debate in U.S. Congress continues over whether, and to what extent, an investment in a Life Extension Program (LEP) for the B61s should be made, NATO allies have voiced different views on the ongoing necessity – not to mention the utility – of these weapons. Western European states have shown more openness to the reduction or even removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from European soil. CEE states remain more hesitant. For them, the presence of these Soviet-era weapons in Europe have become a symbol of commitment to NATO defense.

The CEE states’ concerns for reassurance stems from a changing security landscape, a decrease in U.S. defense spending, and a lingering concern of a resurgence in Russian aggression. While Western European states have begun to look to Russia as a future security partner, many CEE states remain skeptical about Russian intentions. Memories of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, and the largely absent international presence in the conflict, continue to feel close to home. The United States’ “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific has raised concerns about what this means for its interests in Europe, and some doubt the United States’ ability to stay committed to Europe while increasingly focused on Asia-Pacific relations. Compounding this, the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan – which has been an area of joint NATO cooperation – is causing some within NATO to question the likelihood of continued commitment to the Alliance. These changes come at a time of increasing austerity measures with impacts on defense spending. Questions have been raised about what this means for U.S. participation in joint exercises, which have also traditionally acted as an additional symbol of U.S. commitment in the region.

However, there is nuance to the CEE states’ position which is often overlooked: the point is that they are looking for reassurance. How NATO achieves that should surely not be limited to one rapidly aging tool. Little creative debate is being had about what alternative reassurance measures might look like. Continuing to rely on nuclear weapons as a means of reassurance runs the risk of NATO failing to adapt to a new security context. In the event that there was an attack against a NATO ally and collective action was expected, the likelihood of a nuclear weapon being used in a military response is minuscule – to the point of unthinkable. Which begs the question: why do these weapons continue to be considered in either a deterrence or reassurance context? Ironically, the B61s are perhaps the least reassuring option for the Alliance because they have the least utility.

NATO’s energies would be better spent considering alternative reassurance measures that move beyond high-risk, expensive – and arguably ineffective – political symbolism. There has been a lot of thinking on possible alternatives for reassurance, including missile defense, contingency planning, joint exercising and increased participation in the NATO Response Force. Missile defense, in particular, has been cited as an opportunity for potential cooperation between Europe and Russia. Transparency in areas such as technology sharing could play a vital role in the creation of a credible area defense system and help to reduce Russian nervousness over missile defense. Detailed contingency planning outlining the logistics of a conventional military intervention with each NATO member state – in practice, the most likely response by the Alliance to any attack – may also assuage any doubt of U.S. commitment to NATO defense. The NATO Response Force, which was announced in 2002 at the Prague Summit, would signal an investment in the security of NATO members and a continued interest in collective defense.

Reassurance measures within the Alliance will continue to be an area of uncertainty, so long as the primary source comes from antiquated nuclear technology and a reliance on Cold War principles. The symbolism associated with nuclear weapons must be broken in order to break the short-sighted attachment to these current reassurance measures and create space for new ways of thinking. Fortunately, alternative perspectives for reassurance exist and should be considered, as they present an opportunity for a stronger transatlantic relationship, a more cohesive security environment, and a more stable Europe.

The author would like to thank Rebecca Cousins, Rachel Staley, Chris Lindborg and Ted Seay for their comments on this piece.

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