Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Latest Word on NATO Nukes

This week I traveled to NATO for a a Public Diplomacy Division-sponsored visit to HQ for bloggers. I was favourably impressed that our speakers were open and honest, not at all like previous such PR visits. While Afghanistan was the main topic, and I'll come back to that later, there was a lot of talk about the new Strategic Concept in general, and nuclear policy in particular.

We learned that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle did raise his coalition's policy of withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany with his colleagues at the North Atlantic Council last week. there was no immediate reaction from his colleagues, but the issue will be discussed as part of the Strategic Concept negotiations next year. Several people told the group that they would not be at all surprised to see an end to US nuclear deployments in Europe as the end result of those talks.

This matches with information coming from elsewhere. Oliver Meier at the Arms Control Association has published an interesting review of the debate in Germany. It stresses that Germany expects a positive reaction from allies (which indeed seems to be the case), and that several nations engaged with germany in the margins of the NATO meeting on the future of nuclear sharing. Meier also discusses the problems that remain.

Amongst others, Westerwelle has held discussions with his Polish colleague during a visit to Warsaw in early November. Unlike other visits,  there was no mention of the nuclear issue at the press conference on that occasion. A comment by the German Defence Minister at a CSIS event in Washington DC explains why:

Last point, because I’ve been asked here again: Some of you have read the coalition treaty of the CDU/CSU and FDP. A remarkable piece of paper. (Laughter.) And there was one sentence that led to, let’s call it, mild disturbances over here. And that was the question of how we handle possible – because it’s still a secret, as we all know – possible nukes on German grounds. And to give you one answer, because I’ve been asked here again, as well, this is not a question we would like to see treated unilaterally or just bilaterally, but it has to be treated, if at all, within the coalition. And it has to be treated within NATO as such, and we have to keep in mind what any step means, as a consequence. And what the consequence could be is – for instance, the three nays within NATO, we could have partners in mind who probably would be glad to offer their grounds and their soil for any weapons. But the question is whether that makes sense, then, for the security structures within Europe. 

Guttenberg is clearly referring to Poland, which is known to have explored with NATO colleagues the possibility of its inclusion in NATO nuclear sharing, and the basing of US nuclear weapons on its soil. NATO gave assurances to Russia, when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were brought into the Alliance, that such deployments would not happen - the so-called 'three nos'. These were reinforced in the US Senate debate during the debate on that round of NATO enlargement.

There is clearly no way that the US will consider deploying nuclear weapons to Poland currently, certainly not at the expense of a renewed confrontation with Russia that would certainly ensue. Moreover, the mood in the Alliance is moving in the other direction. Arms Control Wonk recently reported that a senior advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister  had told them that: As for his own personal opinion, Kalin said, Turkey “would not insist” that NATO retain forward-deployed nuclear weapons. Conventional forces are sufficient, he added, to meet Turkish security needs. NATO Monitor has reported the debate stirring in Turkey, but that is a truly remarkable statement from such a well connected policy analyst. 

There is a shift in the political mainstream opinion on forward basing of nuclear weapons. Poland and the Baltic States have to decide whether they want to stand with the new European mainstream inside NATO, or against it. Opinion is forming that says that at best these weapons do not contribute to European security, and may actually decrease it. Diplomats have begun to look for other ways that the US commitment to Europe can be visibly signaled.

The North Atlantic Council last week was only the opening salvo in this debate, but the NAC (and NATO Monitor) will be returning to the question in the Spring.

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