NATO Foreign Ministers met in Estonia last week, and the opportunity they missed was the one to rethink the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe.

It was an opportunity occasioned by a somewhat guarded joint letter from the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway,[i] calling on the surface for little more than a NATO discussion on nuclear disarmament. It welcomed President Obama’s disarmament initiatives and then suggested that the Tallin meeting explore what the Alliance might do in Europe “to move closer to [the] overall political objective” of “reducing the role of nuclear weapons and seek[ing] peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.”[ii]

But the context – growing European support for the withdrawal of US non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe – was more interesting than the content. Germany’s new Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, had explicitly supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil.[iii] “We want to send a signal and fulfill our commitments under the NPT 100 percent,” is how a German Government spokesperson put it.[iv]

Beyond that, reports had Turkey accepting the idea that US extended deterrence does not necessarily require forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. Italy had indicated openness on the question. And even Poland, generally regarded as fiercely committed to a European-based deterrent, was reported to be less adamant, with elements of Poland’s security establishment suggesting nuclear capabilities are not the only or even most significant indications of Alliance solidarity. Then, of course, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway all publicly and explicitly oriented themselves toward the German view.[v]

But then came the meeting. The Obama Administration’s formal approach was, as expected, to defer the question of tactical US nuclear weapons in Europe to the fall summit that is intended to approve a new NATO Strategic Concept. The signals sent by US Secretary of State Clinton were, however, more pointed. She insisted that while cuts in US battlefield nuclear weapons still in Europe were possible, they should not all be removed until Russia agrees to cut its arsenals. “We should recognize that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” she said. Adding that, “as a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities widely is fundamental.”[vi]

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a similar line, emphasizing Alliance unity and that "decisions on nuclear policy will be made by the Alliance together,” also reinforcing the Clinton point about nuclear sharing.

These are the hard the line voices. They equate North Atlantic extended deterrence and defence cooperation with the physical presence of nuclear weapons in Europe, and they are out of sync with, not only the sentiments of central Europeans, but also the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).[vii]

The NPR, to no one’s surprise, reinforces US extended deterrence, but it goes on to explain that this “nuclear umbrella” comes in different guises, including “the strategic forces of the U.S. Triad, non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed forward in key regions, and U.S.-based nuclear weapons that could be deployed forward quickly to meet regional contingencies.” The point is there is no intrinsic requirement that extended deterrence, whatever one thinks of it, requires the presence of nuclear weapons throughout the geography of the American nuclear umbrella. The NPR also acknowledges that “the risk of nuclear attack against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members is at an historic low.” It is thus non-prescriptive on the fate of US nuclear weapons in Europe, noting only that “any changes in NATO’s nuclear posture should only be taken after a thorough review within – and decision by – the Alliance.”[viii]

The west European States behind the call for change 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 NATO”  or with an end to US extended deterrence covering Europe.[ix] Their stance essentially follows the model of the US nuclear umbrella over North-East Asia. The latter is a region that is rather less stable than Europe, and yet there are no US nuclear weapons deployed to any states under its nuclear umbrella there.[x] In fact, Japan, while continuing to claim the American nuclear deterrent for itself, insists, through its three nuclear principles,[xi] that no nuclear weapons be on its territory.

Furthermore, progress in reducing Russian stocks of tactical nuclear weapons does not depend on the fate of US nuclear bombs in Europe.[xii] In fact, even the late Michael Quinlan, a British security analyst and former Permanent Secretary of Defence who generally resisted changes to the nuclear elements of NATO’s Strategic Concept, argued that the unilateral removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe would “have the effect of depriving Russia of a pretext she has sometimes sought to exploit both for opposing NATO’s wider development and for evading the question of whether and why Russia herself need continue to maintain a non-strategic nuclear armoury that is now far larger than that of anyone else.”[xiii]

What will be essential to Russian nuclear disarmament will be a new kind of strategic relationship with the US and Europe. The huge imbalance in conventional forces between Russia and NATO is a particular challenge. Russia accounts for well under 5 per cent of world military spending while NATO states collectively account for roughly two-thirds.[xiv] As long as Russia regards this overwhelming conventional force as, if not necessarily an overt enemy, a challenge to its regional interests, it is unlikely to be amenable to significant further reductions to its substantial arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.[xv]

NATO Foreign Ministers missed this latest opportunity to move disarmament forward, but their bosses will get another chance this fall when they are scheduled to set a new strategic direction for NATO – it will be their opportunity to pursue a more imaginative, and practical, approach to NATO’s contribution to “peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.”

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[i] Available from Vrede en Veiligheid: Weblog van Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

[ii] 26 February Letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, from Fopreign Ministes Steven Vanackere (Belgium), Guido Westerwelle (GermanY), Jean Asselborn (Luxembourg), Maxime Verhagen (Netherlands), and Jonas Gahr Store (Norway).

[iii] Martin Butcher, “The Latest Word on NATO Nukes,” The NATO Monitor, 10 December 2009,

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

[v] Martin Butcher, “The Latest Word on NATO Nukes,” 10 December 2009; “No Public Statements on Nuclear Weapons and the Strategic Concept,” 5 December 2009; “Former Dutch Prime Minister Lubbers Calls for Withdrawal of US Nukes from Europe,” 4 December 2009, The NATO Monitor,

[vi] Mark Landler, “US Resists Push by Allies for Tactical Nuclear Cuts,” New York Times, 22 April 2010.

[vii] Chris Lindborg. “Considering NATO’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons after the US Nucleaqr Posture Review,” BASIC Backgrounder, 7 April 2010.

[viii] Nuclear Posture Review Report, April 2010, US Department of Defense, 49 pp.


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

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

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

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

[xii] ‘Extended deterrence will remain, but US nukes could leave Europe,” Disarming Conflict, 27 February 2010.

[xiii] Michael Quinlan, “The Nuclear Proliferation Scene: Implications for NATO,” in Joseph F. Pilat and David S. Yost, eds. NATO and the Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NATO Defense College, Academic Research Branch, Rome, May 2007),

[xiv] International Institute of Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 2008. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2008.

[xv] Ernie Regehr, “NATO’s Strategic Concept, the NPT, and Global Zero,” Ploughshares Briefing 10/1, February 2010.

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