The new German Foreign Minister has pledged to pursue the removal of the last of US nuclear weapons on German soil. It’s a move that will either signal the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons in Europe or the beginning of a new political quarrel within NATO.

It seems anachronistic in the extreme, not to mention silly, for NATO to get caught up in a serious quarrel over a few hundred, at the most, US nuclear gravity bombs still kept on European soil. But it could happen, as it did at the end of the 1990s – all in the name of trans-Atlantic NATO solidarity. The New York Times today quotes an un-named NATO diplomat as insisting that US nuclear weapons in Europe “are the foundation of [NATO] solidarity. Take them away and what have we left?”[i]

Just because Guido Westerwelle’s pledge is sensible and long overdue doesn’t mean it will be easy to fulfill. And whatever resistance it meets will not come from Washington. A big part of the resistance will rely on the slightly absurd, to be kind about it, solidarity argument[ii] – the idea that, despite massive Europe-North America trade links, myriad cultural and historical ties, as well as broadly shared political values, it is still only the few hundred Cold War nuclear relics that can successfully bridge the Atlantic. Another claim will be that the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe should not be done unilaterally but should be coordinated with substantial reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons – as if 200 less warheads in Europe will suddenly reverse the Russian strategic calculus.

Nuclear weapons in Europe are still obviously championed in some influential circles, but a more likely scenario is that this German move to remove US nuclear weapons from its territory will indeed be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons in Europe (outside of France and the UK).

Mr. Westerwelle, the leader of the German Free Democrats and Foreign Minister in the new German coalition led by the continuing Chancellor Angela Merkel, has long been an advocate of disarmament, and in this move he has the support of four of the six parties with members in the Bundestag.[iii]

There are similar pressures in the Dutch Parliament[iv] and the Belgian Senate is about to consider a proposal to ban nuclear weapons within its territory.[v] NATO strategic doctrine is now under review and, given that the alliance leader is now firmly and publicly committed to entering a path that leads to zero nuclear weapons, it should be expect, or demanded, that a new NATO Strategic Concept will no longer describe nuclear weapons as essential to its security or essential to transatlantic solidarity. And a NATO doctrine modified in that way will pave the way to the removal of nuclear weapons from the five non-nuclear weapon states that still host them (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey).

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[i] Judy Dempsey, “Ridding German of US Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, 29 October 2009.

[ii] The current NATO Strategic Concept insists in paragraph 63 that “nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe.” [NATO. 1999. The Alliance's Strategic Concept, Approved by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. on 23rd and 24th April 1999.]

[iii] “Germany opts for a farewell to NATO nuclear weapons,” Russia Today, 28 October 2009.

[iv] With the SP, for example, arguing for a non-nuclear NATO strategy. “Nuclear Disarmament: Steps must be taken which inspire confidence,” 27 October 2009.

[v] “Belgian Senate to Consider Nuclear-Weapon Ban,” Global Security Newswire, 16 October 2009.

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