When the German Government became explicit in calling for the removal of nuclear weapons from German territory[i] some energetic backlash was to be expected. Now it’s started.

Most thought strong reaction to removing the remaining US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe would come from the likes of Poland – an east European country not yet fully confident that its alignment with the west has left it permanently beyond Moscow’s grasp. But now some exaggerated push-back has come from a former alliance Secretary-General – one safely ensconced in the UK. The former NATO leader George Robertson, also a former British Defence Minister, has authored a new briefing together with two US security analysts to give urgent voice to alarms deeply rooted in the 1980s.[ii]

Their bottom line is that the defence of the North Atlantic region, in spite of it being in possession of almost two-thirds of the world’s conventional military capacity, still requires nuclear weapons in Europe. Furthermore, if Germany wants shelter under a nuclear umbrella it needs to have nuclear weapons on its soil – anything less is “irresponsible.” The latter is a judgment that will come as a surprise to the likes of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Norway, and, incidentally, Canada, none of which has nuclear weapons on its soil and all of which are nevertheless gathered within the arc of America’s extended nuclear deterrence – to the genuine chagrin, it must be added, of majority populations that repeatedly tell pollsters they want nuclear weapons and umbrellas permanently eliminated.

Germany, having actually noticed the escalating demand for nuclear disarmament, and having absorbed an appreciation for the risks to the nonproliferation regime that come with a refusal to disarm, took a second look at the Cold War relics it hosts in the form of US nuclear gravity bombs and decided it could advance two policy priorities through a single initiative. By removing nuclear weapons from Europe, NATO could advance the pursuit of disarmament in sub-strategic weapons and it could shore up respect for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by bringing NATO states into full compliance with Articles I and II.[iii]

Pressing both of these issues in advance the NPT Review Conference coming in May, the German government explained that “we want to send a signal and fulfill our commitments under the NPT 100 percent.”[iv]

Robertson et al regard that as a dangerous signal. They further worry that officials close to President Obama also support the repatriation of US tactical nuclear weapons back to the US mainland. No doubt Mr. Robertson and his co-authors would be even more troubled by the views of the late Michael Quinlan, a former Permanent Secretary of Defence in the UK who shared many of George Robertson’s assumptions about deterrence. Despite his commitment to nuclear deterrence, Quinlan expressed doubts about the value of US nuclear weapons in Europe – “I doubt whether their permanent presence remains essential nowadays either in military and deterrent terms or as a symbol of continuing US commitment to the security of its European allies.”[v]

Quinlan also rejected the argument advanced by Robertson that reductions to tactical nuclear weapons in Europe should be negotiated to win reciprocal and greater reductions in Russia’s larger arsenal of such weapons. Quinlan argued instead 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.”[vi]

But Robertson puts the onus for reductions primarily on Russia, expecting it to reduce down to levels that produce Russian-American parity, ignoring the huge imbalance in conventional forces between Russia and NATO. Russia accounts for less than 6 per cent of world military spending while NATO states collectively account for more than 60 per cent.[vii] As long as Russia regards this overwhelming conventional force as, if not necessarily an overt enemy, then a challenge to its regional interests, it is unlikely to be amenable to significant further reductions to its substantial arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

Robertson and his co-authors make a number of additional arguments why NATO nuclear weapons must remain in Europe, but their ultimate and surprisingly frank appeal is to what they regard as the shared interests of all nuclear weapons states – and that boils down to regarding partial arms reductions as tactical moves designed to ease disarmament pressures in the interests of long-term nuclear retention. “Russia, like the US and other nuclear powers, has an interest in preserving its right to hold nuclear weapons under the NPT while stemming their spread to other states” (emphasis added).

Mr. Robertson needs to check in with his own Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who sent the following message to the just concluded Global Zero meeting in Paris: “I believe that a world free of nuclear weapons is not only achievable, but one of the most important policy objectives of our times.”[viii]

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[i] Oliver Meier, “German Nuclear Stance Stirs Debate,” Arms Control Today, December 2009,http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009_12/GermanNuclearStance.

[ii] Franklin Miller, George Robertson and Kori Shake. “Germany Opens Pandora’s Box,” Briefing Note, Centre for European Reform. February 2010. http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/bn_pandora_final_8feb10.pdf

[iii] Article I requires nuclear-weapon states (in this case the US) not to transfer nuclear weapons to any other state, and Article II requires nuclear weapon states (in this case German, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Turkey) not to receive nuclear weapons from any state.

[iv] See note #18.

[v] 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), http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591=0C54E3B3-1E9C-BE1E-2C24-A6A8C7060233&lng=en&id=31221.

[vi] See Note i.

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

[viii] Messages from President Obama, President Medvedev, and Prime Minister Brown to the Global Zero meeting are available at: http://www.globalzero.org/en/opening-day-statement-global-zero-leaders.


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