NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence Posture and Baltic Security

BASIC and the International Centre for Defence Studies convened a roundtable on 15th March 2011 in Tallinn, Estonia to discuss the dimensions of involved in NATO’s deterrence and defence posture review. The current reality is that the risk of nuclear war has evaporated and Russia is a partner; yet there remain strong suspicions of Russia’s intentions, the commitment to nuclear deterrence remains universal amongst NATO’s members, and the Strategic Concept implies continued commitment to the deployment of US theater nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Europe. What lies behind this commitment, and what is the role for these nuclear weapons? The roundtable surfaced a number of diverging perspectives on some of the inescapable contradictions involved in NATO’s deterrent posture.

  • Theater nuclear weapons deployed within Europe are generally assumed to strengthen Alliance security by deterring external threat. However, the confusion over scenarios and secrecy surrounding their deployment (few are aware they remain and their location and numbers are classified) must reduce that deterrence and the strength of public support for deployment at a time of budget pressure.
  • Although NATO staff and militaries plan for the deployment of nuclear weapons in regular joint exercises, there are no genuinely credible scenarios in which the politics could support the deployment of NATO’s theater nuclear weapons in a crisis, further weakening the credibility of their deterrent value.
  • The deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe is seen widely as a glue to strengthen Alliance cohesion and burden sharing, but increasing domestic pressures in some states may mean these deployments only highlight radically different attitudes to nuclear weapons and drive the allies apart. This negative impact could come to a head if certain allies block the evolution of Alliance policy and host Parliaments block investment in modernized systems.

In simple terms, it is clear that member states and their populations remain keen on membership of an Alliance that can provide security, and that nuclear weapons are often assumed to play an important role in providing the ultimate guarantee for the Alliance. The debates within the Alliance have not been on whether it should retain a nuclear deterrence posture, but rather how much and how quickly that posture and force structure can evolve in a diplomatic environment where there are significant calls to move away from any dependence on nuclear weapons.

Digging below the surface we found a level of complexity and disagreement that was hard to overcome. But they are inescapable. The current compromise simply weakens the Alliance in its negotiations with Russia in the immediate term, and threatens cohesion in the longer term.

This roundtable, held on March 15, 2011 at the International Centre for Defence Studies, Tallinn, Estonia, was jointly organized by the British American Security Information Council and the International Centre for Defence Studies, with support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (part of a project involving Arms Control Association and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy Hamburg)

Further reading:

NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence Posture and Baltic Security by Paul Ingram.

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