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Commentary | 21 March 2012

The Chicago Summit has More Urgent Priorities than Nuclear Theology

Image of George Robertson

George Robertson |Former NATO Secretary General, Former Secretary of State for Defence

Defence Deterrence NATO Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

For the past 3 years NATO has spent an inordinate amount of time engaged in an internal, often ideologically-driven, debate about the Alliance’s nuclear weapons policy. Frankly, I had hoped that the publication of the Strategic Concept in November 2010 — which contained fairly clear and direct language on the continued importance of extended deterrence and widespread participation therein — would have resolved the issue, but domestic politics in a few NATO countries has resulted in its being revisited once again in the on-going Deterrence and Defence Policy Review (DDPR). The time has now come to reaffirm and for the time being leaving alone the sound policy conclusions reached in the Strategic Concept.

I believe that in present circumstances extended nuclear deterrence continues to have a role in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and in the NATO area of responsibility more broadly. In this regard, I believe that participation by as many allies as possible in the Alliance’s current overall nuclear posture, including, as appropriate, hosting U.S. nuclear weapons earmarked for Allied delivery systems, strengthens significantly the political credibility of both the reassurance provided Allies and the deterrent effect demonstrated to potential adversaries. I believe that the great majority of NATO governments also believe this to be true. Furthermore, I believe that the continued demonstration of NATO’s European members’ willingness to participate in the Alliance’s nuclear posture reaffirms to American policy-makers and politicians, many of whom are not as familiar with the Alliance as were their predecessors, that burden-sharing and risk-sharing remain valuable concepts even today.

I fully agree with NATO’s 2010 Group of Experts and with the Strategic Concept in that (1) there is scope for reducing the size of NATO’s forward-deployed nuclear stockpile and (2) that such thinning should be accomplished in the context of an arrangement whereby Russia provides transparency into its vastly bloated stockpile of short-range nuclear weapons and reduces that stockpile to a size appropriate to the twenty-first century. I also believe that until all short range nuclear systems leave Europe, there is a strong case for a continuing presence of some US nuclear weapons on the continent.

Finally, while I acknowledge the intellectual attraction to many of the philosophy of “leading by example”, I believe it is high time to note, with some sadness, that it has failed to produce desired results in the field of nuclear deterrence. The hugely significant unilateral reductions undertaken by NATO under the leadership of U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1991-1992 were matched rhetorically by Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin but Russia’s actual performance has fallen far short of what was pledged. NATO’s policy pronouncements reducing the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy have neither diminished the desire of rogue states to proliferate nor have they prevented Russia and others from making nuclear weapons absolutely central to national security strategy. The time has come to recognize these inconvenient but stubborn facts and to halt the internecine warfare which entertains Western nuclear weapons philosophers and distracts Western national security experts. This has no obvious result other than creating strains and rifts within NATO.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

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