The signs are growing that over the next year there could be an agreement to remove all remaining US nuclear weapons from Europe.

Both the forthcoming US Nuclear Posture Review and the current NATO Strategic Concept Review could set the stage for dispatching at least one Cold War relic -- namely, the ongoing positioning of US nuclear gravity bombs in Europe. It is a policy defended till now as confirming US extended nuclear deterrence and cementing the transatlantic security relationship.

Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy provides a very helpful update on the oft-delayed US nuclear posture review – initially it was scheduled for release in late 2009, then early February of 2010, then early March, and now mid to late March. He reports on inside-the-beltway speculation that while “the document will not call for nuclear withdrawal, …it may say it’s up for discussion or even go so far to say that NATO no longer requires nukes in Europe.”[i] He suggests that the US Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review also seems to point in that direction when it refers to the development of new “regional deterrence architectures” that will “make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”[ii]

At the same time, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Norway are calling for all American warheads in Europe to be returned to the US. Their initiative is pursued within the context of NATO’s review of its strategic doctrine. [iii]

Earlier, under its new Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, had taken up the same call, characterizing it as both a disarmament nonproliferation measure.[iv] The NATO Monitor blog has also reported that Turkey has made it known it “would not insist” that NATO maintain forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, and also that Italy would be open to reconsidering NATO’s nuclear posture.[v]

The west European States behind the coming call have emphasized that they are looking for a collective decision in NATO and are not contemplating unilateral action, and, notably, that they do not equate the removal of weapons from Europe with either the “denuclearization of NTAO”  or with an end to US extended deterrence covering Europe.[vi] Their stance essentially follows the model of the US nuclear umbrella over North-East Asia It is a region that is rather less stable than Europe, and yet there are no US nuclear weapons deployed in any states there.[vii] In fact, Japan, while continuing to claim the American nuclear deterrent for itself, insists, through its three nuclear principles,[viii] that no nuclear weapons be on its territory.

The point is obviously not to champion extended nuclear deterrence, but is to recognize that extended deterrence is not a credible argument, or excuse, for the continued physical placement of nuclear weapons in Europe or on the territories of any States claimed under a nuclear umbrella.

Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada wrote to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton late last year, reasserting the relevance of US extended nuclear deterrence while at the same time welcoming US nuclear arms reductions. He did ask for the US to explain its plans to retire the nuclear armed Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles (TLAM/N), which are in storage in the US but nevertheless linked to deterrence in the North-East Asia region. The Arms Control Wonk blog elaborates with its usual detail and verve. It also debunks the myth that if the US fails to maintain its current nuclear arsenal, extended deterrence will be weakened and Japan will be driven to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.[ix] The Japan Times made the same point in its report in late February that the US had already informed Japan that the Nuclear Posture Review will confirm the retirement of the sea-based TLAM/N – adding that this would not affect the nuclear umbrella.[x]

Now the obvious question is, where's Canada in all this? Will Ottawa be championing the new European initiative?

There are currently estimated to be between 150 and 200 nuclear weapons, all US B61 gravity bombs, held in five countries in Europe – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.[xi] All of the European countries hosting these US nuclear weapons are non-nuclear weapon states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a fact, it is worth noting, that puts those countries and the US, the nuclear weapon state that owns those bombs, in violation of Articles I and II of the NPT.[xii]

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[i] Josh Rogin, “Nuclear Posture Review delayed until mid to late March,” The Cable, Foreign Policy, 25 February 2010.

[ii] Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 2010, Department of Defense.

[iii] “Allied bid for Obama to remove US European nuclear stockpile,” Agence France Press, 20 February 2010. Their letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was made public on Feb 26.

[iv] Meier, Oliver. 2009. German Nuclear Stance Stirs Debate. Arms Control Today, December.

[v] Butcher, Martin. 2009a. Former Dutch Prime Minister Lubbers Calls for Withdrawal of US Nukes from Europe. The NATO Monitor, December 4; 2009b. No Public Statements on Nuclear Weapons and the Strategic Concept. The NATO Monitor, December 5.

[vi] “Allied bid for Obama to remove US European nuclear stockpile,” Agence France Press, 20 February 2010.

[vii] Martin Butcher, Roundtable on Nuclear Weapons Policies and the NATO Strategic

Concept Review, House of Commons, London, 13 January 2010, Rapporteur’s Report.

[viii] The three principles being, no possession, no production, and no introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website.

[ix] “The Strategic Posture Commission Report [a Congress-mandated study which is a forerunner to the coming nuclear posture review] contains at least one outright howler — the claim that the deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles is essential to extended deterrence in Asia: ‘In Asia, extended deterrence relies heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles class attack submarines—the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile/Nuclear (TLAM/N). This capability will be retired in 2013 unless steps are taken to maintain it. U.S. allies in Asia are not integrated in the same way into nuclear planning and have not been asked to make commitments to delivery systems. In our work as a Commission it has become clear to us that some U.S. allies in Asia would be very concerned by TLAM/N retirement. Let’s be very, very clear that as a result of the President’s 1991 Nuclear Initiatives, all TLAM/N nuclear weapons have been removed from U.S. Navy vessels. So, if extended deterrence to Japan relied heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles-class attack submarines, we would be hosed….[L]et’s not pretend these useless relics of the Cold War sitting in a climate-controlled warehouse are all that stand between us and nuclear-armed Japan. Because they aren’t.” [Jeffrey Lewis, Arms Control Wonk (8 May 2009).]

[x] “US to retire nuclear Tomahawk missiles,” The Japan Times, 23 February 2010.

[xi] Kristensen, Hans, “Status of U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe 2010,” Federation of American Scientists.

[xii] See, “Reshaping NATO’s Nuclear Declarations,” DisarmingConflict post, 30 January 2010.

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