Supporting President Obama on Nuclear Reductions

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The year 2013 has not been an easy one for President Barack Obama. A formerly friendly media has started to ask hard questions, his supporters on the left accuse him of  following the policy pathways of George W. Bush, and the right excoriates him for, well, living.

Things are not completely gloomy, however – the President has followed up on his seminal April 2009 speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague with a call in June from Berlin for further reductions to nuclear arsenals. That speech included a call for further reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the Russian Federation, as well as an intention to “seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” This is significant: the U.S. has never attempted to negotiate controls on this class of weapon, and interested parties the world over will be watching Washington, Moscow and Brussels carefully for signs of progress. There are powerful interests that must be overcome first, however, demanding strong leadership by President Obama.

The U.S. maintains some 180 nuclear weapons in Europe, hosted by five NATO allies: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. The northernmost three host nations are keen for domestic political reasons to remove U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs from their territory, and public support for their presence is also low in Italy and Turkey. Pollsters in 2006 found that only 36% of host-nation citizens knew American nuclear weapons were present in their country; when so informed, almost 70% called for their removal.

Support might be higher if the B61 made military sense, but it lacks the fundamental feature of a nuclear deterrent: credibility. NATO pilots concede a B61 mission, undertaken in aging, non-stealthy fighter-bombers with limited range, would amount to suicide. Nor do the Russians fear the B61 "deterrent" force - their concerns are for advanced American precision-guided conventional weapons, and for NATO's deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defence technology in Europe.

For distinct political reasons, several NATO allies are opposed to changes in the nuclear status quo. The former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fear Russian coercion. Poland has similar fears, although it actively seeks NATO negotiations with Russia for mutual reductions of these weapons. France, resolutely committed to maintaining nuclear deterrence, fears that the removal of U.S. B61s from Europe will reward and encourage anti-nuclear sentiment among NATO allies and leave its own air-to-surface missiles as the only short-range nuclear weapons in Europe (both France and the United Kingdom possess submarine-launched nuclear missiles).

These concerns are unfounded. NATO allies agree that U.S. strategic nuclear forces (nuclear-armed missiles based in the U.S. and on its nuclear submarines) offer the “supreme guarantee” of their security. They even concede that the only potential use of the B61 is political, i.e. reassuring nervous allies that U.S. security guarantees under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty still mean something. Nevertheless, the nuclear-sharing conservatives within NATO have so far thwarted every effort by those who would reduce or eliminate the B61 presence in Europe. Instead, when change comes, it will be driven by one of two forces: a decision for removal by one or more of the B61 host nations; or as so often in NATO history, American political leadership, which has so far been sadly lacking in NATO nuclear-sharing debates.

Those who remember President Obama’s bold call from Prague in April 2009 for a world free of nuclear weapons have been puzzled by the lack of U.S. leadership at NATO on this issue. An examination of recent-year U.S. military budget requests, even the unclassified public versions, offers some strong clues, however. At a time when drastic budget cuts threaten almost all U.S. military operations and procurement strategies, the B61 is due for a $10+ billion “life extension program” that will do far more than “maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without producing new weapons” as the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration claims: it will in fact create a precision-guided nuclear gravity bomb, a global first.

The reason for the secrecy behind this agenda is simple – new nuclear weapons have been forbidden by U.S. policy since 2010. The so-called life extension program for the B61 is in fact a multi-billion dollar attempt by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy to evade presidential policy. Resistance by NATO allies to eliminating B61 nuclear bombs from Europe can be overcome with firm leadership, tact and diplomacy; but the stealth campaign to thwart President Obama’s Prague agenda threatens to push meaningful nuclear reductions into the very distant future, indeed.

It therefore behoves those who believe in the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons to lend their support to President Obama during his final years in office – there being no guarantee that the next resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be such a firm supporter of nuclear disarmament.

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About the author(s)...
  • Ted Seay, Senior Policy Consultant served at the US Mission to NATO as arms control advisor from 2008 to 2011.
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