Nukes in Europe: Coming Home Soon

The B61 tactical nuclear weapon.The last U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe may be on their way home, ending more than 50 years of their deployment abroad. A new report on the future of these weapons shows that 24 NATO members seek to end deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe or will not block a NATO consensus decision to remove them. Only three countries are holding out, and only one is actively trying to break the emerging consensus. The coming months will be decisive for the future of the 200 or so U.S. nukes in Europe.

IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch peace and security NGO, interviewed all 28 NATO member delegations to find out exactly what they think about the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). The resulting Withdrawal Issues report confirms minimal support for future TNW deployment in Europe. Many delegations deem redundant the B61 gravity bombs designed to be dropped from fighter aircraft.

With growing momentum toward a world without nuclear weapons, many regard the TNW as the low hanging fruit, “the first ones to go.”

Contrary to oft-repeated myths, the so-called new NATO countries are not more reluctant to have the bombs removed. Countries closer to Russia are not more likely to want to keep these nuclear weapons. Nor did any delegation mention the persistent assumption that Turkey would build its own nuclear bomb in the event of TNW withdrawal.

Throughout 2010, the United States remained remarkably flexible, saying that it would leave any decision on the future of these TNW to European allies. Officially, the United States had no preference. Behind the scenes though, U.S. diplomats in Brussels are quite openly denouncing the relevance of the TNW for current and future NATO defence and deterrence policy and posture. It is a public secret that U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder favors phasing out the TNW.

Clearing the Obstacles

The countries that want the TNW gone usually do not expect them to be out today or tomorrow. NATO countries list a number of obstacles that need to be cleared prior to a consensus decision to return the TNW to the United States. Three obstacles top the list.

First, TNW withdrawal should not undermine alliance cohesion. The visibility of the transatlantic bond needs to be guaranteed. In addition, current nuclear burden sharing needs to be replaced by new forms of burden sharing. This should not be a difficult obstacle to overcome. Countries have already suggested a range of plans for “more practical” or “more useful” forms of burden-sharing.

Second, 10 NATO delegations mention France as a key obstacle by. In the run up to the November 2010 NATO Strategic Concept, France went out of its way to make sure that both the nuclear posture (force deployment, numbers, and locations) and policy (continued nuclear sharing) of the alliance remained unchanged. For a long time, France blocked NATO plans for missile defence. France also objected to a NATO civilian capacity. It was France, apparently, that most vocally opposed the adoption of a “negative security assurance” or similar nuclear weapons declaratory policy. According to some sources, France took these conservative positions to be able to trade them off one by one, only to get an unchanged nuclear posture in return.

Finally, according to half the delegations, TNW withdrawal cannot be achieved without first seeking some form of reciprocity with Russia. Russia maintains a large stock of TNW, some deployed close to NATO territory. Six NATO countries say they will only agree to TNW withdrawal if Russia relocates at least part of its TNW arsenal. Others are less attached to the idea, saying that some form of reciprocity “would be preferred” or “would help to speed along the debate within NATO.” Only one country admitted to being disgruntled about the link made with Russia, reasoning that this way Russia and NATO are offering each other excuses to keep their TNW arsenals.

For now, the conservative French strategy has prevailed. The Strategic Concept reflects the failure to come to a conclusion on NATO’s nuclear policies and posture. Unable to take a clear position on TNW, the text remains vague and essentially pushed the issue onto the “Defence and Deterrence Posture Review” that should conclude by 2012.

Changing Nuclear Policy

Russian reciprocity remains the biggest concern. NATO says it will only relocate the TNW back to the United States if Russia gives up something too. Russia says it will not even start talking about its TNW until the United States brings its nukes home. The United States basically says it would be willing to do so, but only if backed by NATO consensus. How to move beyond the Russia- NATO-U.S. loop of reciprocity is central to any forward progress on removing U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.

Although the United States took a back-row position in the TNW discussions in 2010, in 2011 it seems determined to regain a leadership role. In his message to the U.S. Senate, on the occasion of the New START ratification, President Obama wrote that he will seek to initiate negotiations with Russia on TNW “following consultation with NATO allies but not later than one year after entry into force of the New START treaty.” The deadline is clear: European allies have one year to deal with their internal division on TNW. If the allies fail to come to a conclusion, the United States will decide.

The evidence cited in the IKV Pax Christi report suggests that the allied decision can’t be anything but withdrawal. There is simply not enough support for continued deployment. The U.S. deadline and the process of the Defence and Deterrence Posture Review give NATO the time to discuss new ways of burden-sharing and to reassure France that ending the TNW deployment in Europe will not affect the autonomous French nuclear status. The year also offers NATO a chance to lay the groundwork for the United States and Russia to discuss the last remaining tactical nuclear differences of the Cold War.

The Obama administration has the historical opportunity to end TNW deployment outside U.S. territory. It would be a major contribution to the ultimate aim of a world without nuclear weapons, and it would bring the number of countries with nuclear weapons on their territory down from 14 to nine. It is time to put the Cold War nuclear posture of the alliance to bed, and to bring the U.S. weapons home.

Wilbert van der Zeijden is the researcher for IKV Pax Christi’s Nuclear Disarmament program. Susi Snyder is the program leader for IKV Pax Christi’s Nuclear Disarmament program. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.