NATO, nukes and public opinion: A delicate fusion

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Karl-Heinz Kamp
Karl-Heinz Kamp

This year, as it celebrates its 70th anniversary, NATO is in surprisingly good shape. The Alliance successfully coped with the fundamental changes to the security landscape posed by the Russian annexation of Crimea. All allies rapidly adapted to the new realities of the ‘Article V world’, in which the North Atlantic Treaty’s promise of solidarity is only credible when backed by sufficient deterrence capabilities. NATO has expanded its conventional capabilities and improved its nuclear posture.

While increases in conventional combat power are generally supported, a security policy based on nuclear weapons remains controversial in many member states. The growing gap between the efforts of NATO governments to strengthen the Alliance’s nuclear posture and calls by the general public for a nuclear-free world is problematic.

If this gap between government policy and public expectations continues to grow, public approval of NATO’s entire security strategy will suffer. Therefore, steps to improve the acceptance of nuclear deterrence are urgently needed.

Prior to 2014, nuclear deterrence played only a minor role in the Alliance. While NATO did emphasise its importance in both the 2010 Strategic Concept and the “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review” (DDPR), these moves had few practical consequences. American nuclear weapons remain stationed in several European NATO states, but their numbers dwindled.

Nuclear planning, military exercises and nuclear response times were also cut back. In the case of an emergency, NATO would need several weeks to operationalise its nuclear deterrence posture. Even discussions of nuclear strategy at NATO conferences were reduced to a minimum. In the past, defence minister meetings of the Nuclear Planning Group used to last up to two days and issue comprehensive declarations. In recent years, they shrank to a mere half-hour meeting, with no communiqué issued since 2007.

Since then, NATO has had to re-invigorate its nuclear strategy following Russia’s marked return to revanchist politics in Eastern Europe and its resulting concrete nuclear threats towards the alliance. The first undertaking was to recreate a ‘nuclear mindset’ under which all member states understood that deterrence cannot simply be declared; it must be underpinned with operational and credible nuclear capabilities.

This not only increases the readiness of NATO, it also sends a clear signal of resolve to a possible aggressor

Part of NATO’s credibility stems from a consensus about the nature of the threat posed by Russia. This was not an easy task given that, as late as 2009, a German foreign minister had called for the withdrawal of all American nuclear weapons from Germany. This would have ended the nation’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing scheme.

Credibility also means that nuclear response times have to be considerably shortened. A series of procedural amendments have considerably reduced the gap between conventional and nu-clear response times in crises.

Moreover, the number of nuclear exercises has increased and pivoted to reflect more realistic scenarios. They no longer take place on fictitious islands in the ocean or involve unrealistic assumptions about conflicts. This not only increases the readiness of NATO, it also sends a clear signal of resolve to a possible aggressor.

While many member states still refuse to host US nuclear weapons, more will now contribute their conventional capabilities to support Alliance nuclear operations. During a potential NATO nuclear operation, these countries would carry out support actions such as air escorts and attacks on enemy air defences.

Although NATO has come to pursue nuclear innovation, the public has not. Some member states have even seen calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Indeed, anti-nuclear movements have existed for decades and received official sanction from President Obama when he won a Nobel Peace Prize. However, the President soon distanced himself from this sentiment following developments in North Korea, Iran and China.

Regardless, the idea of complete nuclear disarmament has continued to gain political momentum. In 2017, 122 of the 193 members of the United Nations voted in favour of a comprehensive, world-wide prohibition of nuclear weapons. Although none of the NATO members voted on this treaty, the vote stimulated intense political debates within these countries.

The problem with such initiatives is not only that they ignore the reality of the ever-increasing amount of nuclear states, but that they also erode the idea of nuclear deterrence, especially in democracies that allow security policy to be openly debated. Autocratic regimes, indifferent to public opinion at home and to their reputation abroad, usually remain unimpressed by UN decisions and will continue to possess nuclear weapons. If NATO wants to continue to defend itself against persistent external nuclear threats, it must commit to nuclear deterrence.

The objective cannot be to achieve broad public approval across the Alliance. Many NATO states might have good reason for disapproving of nuclear weapons. However, leaders should aim to explain how nuclear deterrence is a necessary evil that can act as it disincentives for hostile actions that lead to war.

Arms control should focus above all on transparency, confidence building and stability

Additionally, members need to publicly acknowledge their support of the Alliance as a nuclear one. A good start would be with the five non-nuclear countries involved in nuclear sharing.  These countries – Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey –  are not explicitly named in a single official NATO document related to this project. Some of these countries hide behind NATO secrecy rules to avoid having to announce their nuclear status to their own citizens and risk public backlash.

Subsequently, the large number of NATO nations that do not host US nuclear weapons, but do offer conventional air support, should show a similar degree of honesty. These so-called ‘SNOWCAT’ states (Support for Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics) are still not publicly mentioned by name. An exaggerated use of Alliance secrecy rules and the timidity of governments stand in the way of a much-needed broader debate.

Moreover, NATO must stand behind efforts to strengthen nuclear arms control because arms limitations are an important part of security policy for many European NATO members (and their voting publics). However, given Russia’s traditional inclination for nuclear weapons as means for warfighting, true disarmament might currently be unachievable, Hence, arms control should focus above all on transparency, confidence building and stability.

Finally, NATO must agree on a new fundamental nuclear strategy document. The DDPR was drafted in 2011 and reflects an optimistic worldview back when Russia was still seen as a partner, the Arab Spring a success story in the making, and NATO primarily focused on far-flung crisis management activities. This has little in common with the current strategic environment that demands a return to preoccupation with national and Alliance defence against Russia.

Many NATO states are still apprehensive to undertake such a project because it would likely entail uncomfortable discussions with the public and would expose divergences on certain issues. The Alliance is surprised when it is unable to provide the public with a coherent line of reasoning, yet it continues to use outdated documents and strategies. NATO would inspire much more confidence in the power of its convictions through an openness to the general public for rational thought.

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