This week NATO charted in detail a new direction for the strategic alliance. Secretary General Rasmussen laid out the strategic concept NATO will follow in the future along with a detailed and highly secret report on NATO responses to a wide variety of war scenarios. Details of the two reports are just now starting to reach the public and significant questions are being raised around the world.
The biggest issue appears to be the deployment of US nuclear weapons throughout Europe. Most Americans don’t even know that they have somewhere between 200 and 400 nuclear bombs with American flags stamped on them sitting on US bases in Europe. Apparently European governments do know about the nukes and some aren’t too happy about it. While both France and Britain already have their own nuclear arsenals and don’t mind the US having a few spares in Europe, Germany appears to be leading the denuclearization group of alliance members.
The nuclear bombs in question are the medium-to-small variety, often called tactical nukes because they are meant for use during large-scale combat operations. The bulk of American nuclear weapons in Europe are reported to be B-61’s that fit onto a wide variety of US military planes, as well as many varieties of European fighter jets. The nukes were a main pillar of any NATO defense strategy against an overwhelming tank superiority that the now-past Soviet Union held over NATO.
While early reports are that Germany is pushing for NATO to move towards nuclear disarmament, it is widely reported that many alliance members do not support that position. It is much more likely that Germany is pushing to become a nuclear-free country, including banning US nukes on US bases inside Germany. This doesn’t mean that the B-61’s will be going home however. Early reports have long-nervous Balkan countries happy with the new “response to threats” package NATO prepared; likely meaning an increased US presence in those countries. While that may not include tactical nuclear weapons, it’s doubtful such a main pillar of defense would be removed from Europe and NATO entirely. There simply isn’t a viable alternative against thousands of aging, but hard to stop, Russian tanks.
NATO’s strategic concept moving forward will also likely include some vague hope of nuclear disarmament; something US president Obama dreams about. However it is very unlikely NATO has any plans to formally engage nuclear powers around the world to make nuclear disarmament a reality. France has openly stated it is not interested in NATO discussions that would impact its sovereign control of nuclear weapons. Britain hasn’t been so direct; however, it is also very unlikely to entertain NATO countries having the ability to limit its nuclear deterrent. Of course the US wouldn’t even consider any other group of countries directing its military size or scope, so ultimately NATO having any significant role to play in world nuclear disarmament isn’t very likely.
A much more subtle issue slowly emerging from NATO’s new direction is the use of force by the alliance around the world in pre-emptive strikes without UN approval. It appears that NATO will expressly retain the right to do exactly that; something that Russia and a multitude of other countries are concerned about. This is clearly taking NATO beyond its traditional role of a defensive alliance, and into more of a military police force outside UN control; something started by the 1999 NATO-led attack on Yugoslavia. It is still unclear how many alliance members fully accept this strategic direction, or if the concept will be extended far beyond Europe. Given the number of territorial disputes on the edge of Europe, from the Balkans to Moldova and Georgia, the issue of potential NATO military involvement is very significant. Farther from Europe, the ongoing issue of Iranian development of nuclear weapons may also be on the edges of NATO’s radar.
Even with these important strategic concerns being voiced already, Russia hasn’t even raised the missile shield issue that dominated Russia–NATO relations for the past year! President Obama’s withdrawal of missile bases in Eastern Europe calmed the issue somewhat last year, however US plans for ballistic missile interceptors simply shifted to Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Turkey. It is clear that the US fully intends to bring NATO into missile defense, with the new NATO strategic direction expected to include missile shield development and deployment. How Russia responds to this emerging strategic disadvantage isn’t entirely clear yet. Russia’s most likely response is a large-scale renewal of its aging nuclear missile stockpile. Other options are improved delivery systems such as submarines, air and possibly even space-based platforms. Any of these responses would lead the world farther away from nuclear disarmament and into a world-wide renewal of nuclear stockpiles.
Over the next few months, more and more details of NATO’s new strategic direction will become public. The future of European security that firmly rests on NATO is changing, taking hundreds of millions of Europeans and the rest of the world along with it. Whether those changes are good or not will be hotly debated, not only in Europe but around the world.