Time to reconsider U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe

By Bob van der Zwaan, Tom Sauer | November 23, 2009

Often, it seems as though unimportant policy issues are constantly debated, while important ones are forgotten. For those decision makers who want to maintain the status quo, the advantage of the latter situation is the absence of any pressure for policy change. U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are a perfect example. Despite the end of the Cold War about two decades ago, approximately 200 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons quietly remain on European soil. Whether they retain any relevance in the twenty-first century is debatable to say the least.

The U.S. tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe–all gravity bombs for delivery by U.S. or NATO aircraft–are deployed in five NATO countries: Belgium (20 bombs at Kleine Brogel Air Base), Germany (20 bombs at Büchel Air Base), Italy (50 bombs at Aviano Air Base), the Netherlands (20 bombs at Volkel Air Base), and Turkey (90 bombs at Incirlik Air Base). During the Cold War, NATO deployed them to deter the perceived conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact nations. The thinking at the time was that the threat of a smaller provocation escalating into U.S.-Soviet mutually assured destruction would deter the Soviets from initiating a conflict in Europe–for example, by invading a NATO state. Conventional wisdom back then also stated that without the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Washington’s European allies would set about acquiring nuclear weapons themselves.

Today, the political climate is starkly different. NATO currently includes every Central European country plus the three Baltic states that previously were part of the Warsaw Pact. Furthermore, Russia is now a strategic NATO partner–at least officially. Additionally, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands are committed non-nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with little interest in building nuclear programs of their own. The same applies for Turkey–more or less. (Its case is a bit more complicated because some experts claim that Turkish hard-liners might push for a domestic nuclear arsenal if Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability; that said, the hard-line position probably won’t be change by the absence, or the presence for that matter, of U.S. nuclear weapons.)

Thus, there seems to be little justification for keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. (The United States is currently the only nuclear power that has short-range tactical nuclear weapons deployed in other nations.) If anything, continuing this practice could increase the world’s nuclear dangers. For instance, it might inspire nuclear weapon states such as Russia, China, India, Israel, and Pakistan to deploy their weapons in partner countries.

Some other reasons why U.S. nuclear weapons should be removed from Europe:

Security risks. According to a blue ribbon review set up by the U.S. Air Force in 2008, most U.S. nuclear weapon storage sites in Europe don’t meet Defense Department security standards. This is particularly worrisome in view of potential terrorist threats. In Belgium, for example, Kleine Brogel Air Base was on the target list of Nizar Trabelsi, a Muslim extremist with ties to Al Qaeda, according to the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

A burgeoning precedent. In the last few years, Washington has begun reducing the number of nuclear weapons it keeps in Europe, withdrawing weapons from Greece in 2001, Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 2007, and Britain in 2008. Last year, the United States also supposedly removed the nuclear weapons that it had been storing at Ghedi Torre Air Base in Italy.

Their relevance as a status symbol has waned. Nuclear sharing was once considered a privilege by some NATO members because it implied access to NATO’s elite Nuclear Planning Group. But today, this formerly exclusive body is open to all NATO allies, eliminating a significant motivation for hosting nuclear weapons. Additionally, in the years directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, it might have appeared ungrateful for European countries to immediately renounce the U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory. But 20 years later, it is hard to defend such politeness.

The Obama disarmament agenda. President Barack Obama has made an ambitious and impassioned pitch to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Removing the forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe seems like one of the more obvious first steps. Most certainly it would constitute a symbolically meaningful act. Likewise, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Democratic Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn suggested “eliminating short-range nuclear weapons designed to be forward-deployed” as a concrete step toward a nuclear-weapon-free world in their first Wall Street Journal op-ed. Eliminating these weapons unilaterally and unconditionally also could motivate Russia to reduce its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

For international goodwill. Not surprisingly, several non-nuclear weapon states have expressed discontent with the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, arguing that this practice conflicts with the spirit, if not the letter, of the NPT. More largely, many countries throughout the world find the non-nuclear weapon status of the five European nuclear host countries confusing.

NATO’s Strategic Concept, which is currently under review and includes the alliance’s nuclear weapons policy, only adds to the confusion and discontent. The existing Strategic Concept states, “[Nuclear weapons] continue to fulfill an essential role . . . [and provide] the supreme guarantee of the security of the alliance.” But if nuclear weapons are of vital interest to the most powerful alliance in the world, why should they not be of importance to other countries? In other words, the message NATO is sending is that nuclear weapons remain intrinsically valuable–essentially in opposition to statements by Obama and Kissinger et al. Instead, NATO’s new Strategic Concept should support the gradual denuclearization of the alliance, starting with the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.

For domestic goodwill. Political leaders in the host states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) have spoken in favor of nuclear disarmament, including the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. Germany’s former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for their withdrawal, as have four other German statesmen with diverse political leanings. Most recently, the new German coalition government has vowed to discuss the fate of these weapons with its European NATO allies. Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, former prime minister of Belgium, have expressed their reservations about the deployments in their countries in similar terms.

Any one of these five states could advance the cause for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation by expressing a preference to stop participating in NATO’s nuclear-sharing program and by asking to have the U.S. nuclear weapons returned back to Washington.

A few domestic analysts continue to try to legitimize the presence of the weapons by pointing to their political role and arguing that they symbolize a transatlantic link. But their claim is doubtful: It’s hard to believe that the U.S.-European relationship depends more on the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on European territory than it does on social, economic, financial, and historical ties. After all, the weapons didn’t prevent a transatlantic crisis within NATO during 2002 and 2003 over the Iraq War.

For all of these reasons, the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe is long overdue. Better still, their removal would provide a clear signal that nuclear weapon states shouldn’t deploy their weapons in other countries and that Washington takes seriously its commitment to disarm under Article VI of the NPT. (It would be a major boon to the upcoming NPT Review Conference if the United States decided to withdraw its bombs from Europe in the next couple of months.) Best of all, it would bolster global security by devaluing the status of nuclear weapons, reducing the world’s nuclear threat significantly.

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