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May 19, 2021
NATO Chief’s Remark Highlights Policy Rift

Oliver Meier

A comment by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on the importance of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe has put a spotlight on disagreements among member states on the alliance’s nuclear posture.

On the first day of an informal April 22-23 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia, Rasmussen said at a press conference, “I do believe that the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent.”

Diplomatic sources emphasized in interviews late last month that Rasmussen’s statement did not represent a consensus within the alliance. A senior U.S. official said April 27 that “we were surprised by the urgency with which Rasmussen emphasized the importance of not changing NATO nuclear policies.” According to officials, several NATO members subsequently made clear to Rasmussen that they disagree with his statements on the necessity of continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.

Because the Tallinn meeting was informal, NATO did not release an official communiqué on its results. In an April 23 press briefing, Rasmussen summed up the meeting by saying that ministers had agreed “that a broad sharing of the burden for NATO’s nuclear policy remains essential.” In contrast to his statement the previous day, Rasmussen did not specifically mention the need for continued forward-basing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. He said he expects discussion on nuclear issues among NATO’s 28 members to “continue right up to November when the new Strategic Concept will be agreed,” referring to the next NATO summit in Lisbon, scheduled for Nov. 19-20.

The current debate about the future role of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe was triggered by the German government’s October 2009 initiative for a withdrawal of remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and Europe. (See ACT, December 2009.)

Under NATO nuclear sharing arrangements, the United States keeps an estimated 150 to 200 nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These countries would provide aircraft that could deliver U.S. nuclear weapons to their targets in times of war, although the strike mission of the Turkish air force probably has expired. NATO does not provide details of nuclear deployments, but officials in the past have confirmed that “a few hundred” U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed in Europe. (See ACT, September 2007.)

In addition to forward-deployed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, NATO relies on the nuclear arsenals of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States for nuclear deterrence.

The Tallinn meeting marked the first time that NATO foreign ministers were officially discussing NATO’s nuclear posture, a precedent apparently viewed with trepidation by some in NATO headquarters, who would have preferred to leave discussions on nuclear matters in the hands of defense ministers.

Rasmussen had been forced to put the issue on the agenda by an open letter sent to him by the foreign ministers of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway on Feb. 26, in which the five countries argue for a “comprehensive discussion” of NATO’s contribution to nuclear disarmament. Officials said in interviews that the letter, which had been initiated by the Dutch government, was mainly motivated by fears that existing differences among NATO allies on nuclear issues would be papered over in the new Strategic Concept. (See ACT, March 2010.)

By and large, central and east Europeans appear to be content with the status quo of NATO’s nuclear posture. A March 2010 Royal United Services Institute report, based on interviews with NATO diplomats and officials, concludes that new NATO members generally see no reason “to change existing arrangements.” France, which does not participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group but did join discussions in Tallinn, is consistently cited as also not being interested in changes to NATO’s nuclear posture. Several officials said these positions did not fundamentally change in Tallinn.

“The only thing we could agree at Tallinn was to disagree,” the senior U.S. official said April 27. He emphasized that given existing differences among NATO members, “that was the best we could expect at this point in time.”

In an April 20 interview, a senior German official drew a distinction between “discussions on Germany’s position to work for a removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and the debate about NATO’s nuclear posture.” He said “the former is a more practical and limited issue, although of high importance to Germany, while the latter relates to the question of how NATO fundamentally will view the role of nuclear weapons in the new Strategic Concept.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in an April 21 parliamentary debate that he does not “see the need for having U.S. nuclear weapons on Dutch territory as a security guarantee.”

Arms Control Linkage

In an April 22 dinner speech at the Tallinn meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlined “five principles” that should guide NATO’s approach to nuclear weapons. According to the written excerpts of her statement distributed at the meeting, they are:

•  “[A]s long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”;

•  “[A]s a nuclear Alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities widely is fundamental”;

•  A “broad aim is to continue to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons” while “recogniz[ing] that in the years since the Cold War ended, NATO has already dramatically reduced its reliance on nuclear weapons”;

•  “Allies must broaden deterrence against the range of 21st century threats, including by pursuing territorial missile defense”; and

•  “[I]n any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members, and include non-strategic nuclear weapons in the next round of U.S.-Russian arms control discussions alongside strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons."

The recently released U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) states that talks on reducing the arsenals of nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons should only commence after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty has entered into force (see page 38).

NATO allies support the inclusion of tactical nuclear weapons in a future arms control agreement, but Russia has sent conflicting signals on its willingness to include its stockpile of several thousand short-range nuclear weapons in any future arms control regime. (See ACT, April 2009.)

Deliberate Ambiguity

The senior U.S. official on April 27 strongly rejected the notion that Clinton wanted to tie changes in NATO’s nuclear posture to a possible arms control agreement with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. “This is a complete misunderstanding of Secretary Clinton’s statement,” which was “deliberately ambiguous” on the future of the U.S. nuclear posture in Europe, he said. “The last thing we wanted to do was give a timeline for any changes,” he said.

The NPR states that, with regard to “future decisions within NATO about the requirements of nuclear deterrence and nuclear sharing,” Washington wants to “keep open all options.”

In response to questions at a press conference on the exact connection between NATO and Russian nuclear reductions, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on April 22 that “what NATO decides, it decides on its own, but it does not take its decision in a vacuum.”

Similarly, the senior German official said that Berlin does not support a linkage between NATO’s nuclear posture and a future agreement with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. “The decision by NATO to revise its nuclear posture should be based on an internal assessment of changed circumstances. Of course, removal [of tactical nuclear weapons] would also send a signal that we are serious about the objective to constantly further reduce the nuclear arsenals,” he said.

Other sources said that, by linking withdrawal to an agreement with Russia, NATO would relinquish the initiative on arms control. Instead of waiting for Moscow to move, NATO should strive to actively shape the international environment in order to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, they said.

By contrast, Foreign Ministers Radek Sikorski of Poland and Jonas Gahr Støre of Norway in an April 9 joint open letter argued that, in the field of tactical nuclear weapons, “reciprocity and mutually agreed measures are called for.”

On March 29, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reported in his Web log that the NATO Group of Experts, which is currently developing a first draft of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, would recommend in its report that U.S. nuclear weapons should only be removed from Europe as part of a quid pro quo with Russia. “You cannot get rid of them without reciprocity,” a member of the Experts Group is quoted as saying.

It appears that the reciprocity requirement has subsequently been challenged by at least one NATO member state and that discussions on this point could be reopened or the issue avoided altogether. Other officials additionally cautioned that the Experts Group will not determine the outcome of the Strategic Concept discussions on nuclear issues. Thus, the senior U.S. official on April 16 emphasized that the report will “help to inform the debate about the new Strategic Concept but it will only precede the actual drafting exercise.” The Experts Group report was supposed to be delivered to Rasmussen on May 1, but that date has been postponed for at least two weeks, officially because the flight ban imposed in Europe after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in April prevented meetings of the group.

Rasmussen on April 23 summarized discussions among ministers by saying that they had agreed “that NATO must continue to maintain a balance between credible deterrence and support for arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.” He reconfirmed the consensus view that NATO would decide on any changes to its nuclear posture only on the basis of an alliance-wide agreement and that missile defense “will not replace deterrence, but can complement it.”

The Obama administration in the NPR had stated its intention “to increase reliance on non-nuclear means,” such as missile defenses, for deterrence in regional security arrangements.

The NPR says that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if those countries are complying with their nonproliferation obligations, but officials differed on how this new policy would affect NATO.

The senior German official said the NPR “should trigger an interesting debate” in the alliance “on its own new nuclear doctrine, which, as the NPR [does], should—from a German perspective—further restrict the circumstances under which NATO might use nuclear weapons.” Other officials were skeptical as to whether the alliance would be able to mirror new U.S. security guarantees. The senior U.S. official said April 16 the Obama administration will “want to wait and see how allies respond to the new nuclear doctrine” as outlined in the NPR “before we see whether we can align NATO policies with U.S. nuclear policies.” The issue of restricting the circumstances under which nuclear weapons could be used has not “come up yet in discussions,” he said.