Report: Advancing Strategic Risk Reduction in Europe

This report arises from a roundtable on ‘European strategies for strategic risk reduction’ on 1 October 2019, hosted at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris and under the sponsorship of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Held under the Chatham House Rule, the discussion included representatives from European governments, the European Union, NATO and think tanks, and was facilitated by Maxwell Downman (Co-Director, BASIC).

This was a European discussion of nuclear risks in Europe and proposals to mitigate them. The G7 Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament Group plans to improve and spread an understanding of strategic risk reduction measures, especially in the context of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. It is impossible to eliminate risk between technologically advanced states that rely upon strategic balance and deterrence strategies for their security. Nuclear deterrence does not pretend to eliminate that risk; indeed the credibility of nuclear deterrence requires states to signal preparedness to use nuclear weapons. But this effort to reduce strategic risk rests upon the assumption that just as risks can get worse, deterrence relationships can also be improved with particular measures that do not undermine stability or the credibility of postures.

Rising strategic risks today can be attributed to several factors, including but not limited to:

  • international tensions between the nuclear-armed states;
  • the further erosion of the existing nuclear arms control regime;
  • particular dimensions of the modernisation of nuclear arsenals including new and exotic systems ranging from dual-capable delivery systems and lower-yield nuclear weapons that imply a lower threshold of use;
  • new forms of autonomous delivery systems with warheads that could disrupt and destabilise the strategic balance, or undermine confidence in it; and
  • potential escalation pathways exacerbated by the entanglement of nuclear and conventional systems, particularly command and control.

These risks have particular impact in Europe, where there are multiple security actors and a deep level of distrust between NATO and Russia. Communication between civilian and military leaderships atrophied. Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty and the subsequent US decision to withdraw has deepened doubts around the future of nuclear arms control and driven public fears of a renewed arms race.

The interest in nuclear risk reduction has been growing globally. NATO and states in the wider European community would do well to show they are responding to this by drawing other nuclear-armed states into the international discussion on measures to reduce nuclear risks, something that would directly benefit NATO security

Proposals to reduce strategic risks arising from the Paris roundtable include transparency and dialogue on nuclear doctrines and postures, military-to-military dialogues, hotline agreements among nuclear weapon possessors, “accident measure” agreements, and notification exercises, as well as missile launch notification and other data exchange agreements.

It was agreed that there was scope for further consideration of SRR ideas. They all have problems and challenges, which need to feature in the discussion and be fully understood. Some may not appear realistic. The relationship with Russia and conceptions of what is possible within that dialogue had a huge impact upon perceptions. But the SRR agenda, the attempt to find common ground, and the willingness to understand others’ perspectives in this process, are crucial elements in finding progress in addressing the existential nuclear risks. This can establish common ground with other states, whether strategic rivals or anti-nuclear states and critics who are usually allergic to giving any credence to nuclear deterrence at all. This could be a worthwhile contribution to wider efforts to avoid an acrimonious crash at the 2020 NPT Review Conference, which could result in lasting damage to Treaty.

 

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