Changing the narrative on U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe


A couple of events in Washington this week arising from a new report will focus attention anew on the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, as NATO foreign and defence ministers prepare to meet in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of next month’s NATO summit.

The Brookings institution is hosting expert panelists at an event today, including a discussion of European, Russian and American perspectives on the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, as well as arms control options for the tactical nuclear weapons. Tomorrow, there will be further discussions over dinner at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Carnegie, in association with Brookings and the Royal United Services Institute, has just issued a nuclear policy report proposing a range of solutions covering the main objections that have surfaced over the possible removal of the estimated 200 gravity bombs located in five European countries – Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. The problems concern for example how burden-sharing, one of the notions at the heart of the NATO doctrine, can be sustained if some countries no longer host the weapons. Another central issue is how to reassure central and eastern European nations, who remain wary of Russia which has some 2,000-4,000 tactical nuclear weapons, in case of the U.S. weapons’ withdrawal.

The report’s title, “Looking Beyond the Chicago Summit: Nuclear weapons in Europe and the future of NATO”, suggests that “NATO is unlikely to resolve the question of what to do about its forward deployed nuclear weapons before the summit.” It’s no secret that the administration, aware of the rift in Europe over the possible removal of the tactical nuclear weapons, is prepared to wait until after the November elections for a meaningful new round of arms control talks with Russia, if President Barack Obama is reelected.

But beyond the issue of what to do about the tactical nuclear weapons, is how the issue has been handled by NATO. Some statements by government and military officials reflect the view of arms control advocates that the U.S. weapons in Europe have no military purpose. Some states regard their presence as incompatible with Article I of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Unfortunately, the sound and fury of the debate has only served to raise the status of a weapon whose salience should have been played down. Countries like France, whose diplomats admit privately that the weapons have a purely political value, find themselves defending the role of these obsolete weapons which, in turn, only erodes the deterrence value of France’s own nuclear arsenal.

These weapons will only be removed once we find a different way of talking about them. The most urgent need is to change the narrative on U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

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