The Old Arguments About US Nukes in Europe Aren’t Working. Here’s A New Approach.
Stressing the humanitarian dimensions of the debate over tactical nukes may break a long stalemate.
Opponents of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Europe—currently some 200 tactical weapons—have long argued that it has outlived its Cold War utility and become an invitation to nuclear proliferation, a drain on tight budgets, and a pathway to conflict escalation. These are indeed important reasons to recall these weapons—but so far, these arguments haven’t sparked change. If anti-TNW advocates are to succeed, we’ll need a new approach.
Perhaps this approach is already present in the anti-nuclear community: humanitarianism. While traditional anti-nuclear advocacy focuses on the strategic futility of nuclear weapons—long the centerpiece of the now-stagnated TNW debates at NATO—movements such as Global Zero and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) tend to emphasize a different line of argument. These activists want “the use of nuclear weapons [to] be declared a crime against humanity” and have pushed for ethics and international humanitarian law to take more central roles in discussions about nuclear weapons. Modeling their approach on the humanitarian campaigns that produced the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, this leg of the anti-nuclear movement hopes to use the revulsion at nukes’ massive destructive potential to lead to new restrictions on their use and improvements to global nonproliferation and disarmament regimes.
What would this shift look like? For example, rather than focusing on arguments about deterrence, anti-TNW NATO members could underscore the significance of the humanitarian crises that would be created if nuclear materials were stolen or nuclear weapons accidentally deployed. Such concerns are grounded in reality. A 2008 report by the U.S. Air Force indicated that most European nuclear storage sites were insufficiently protected, while in 2010 peace activists were able to break into Kleine Brogel Air Base and film nuclear storage bunkers without being apprehended, raising questions about whether more malicious actors could obtain access just as easily. There has also been repeated evidence of terrorist networks’ interest in Europe’s TNW sites.
If these concerns can be framed as humanitarian issues—rather than as one more factor in an argument about the strategic worth of nuclear weapons—that might be enough to motivate disarmament. That is, by describing the humanitarian implications of a nuclear accident—from mass deaths to food shortages, cleanup costs to inadequate medical supplies—anti-TNW advocates could provide better context for the costs and consequences of TNWs. Of course, all manner of nuclear incidents would create these horrific problems, but by focusing on non-state actors and accidents, humanitarian anti-nuclear activists can appeal to nuclear weapons states by shifting the conversation away from superpowers’ strategic use of weapons in conflict and towards addressing the more likely, and still dangerous, scenarios that are relevant today. As NATO searches for a way to reconfigure its mission in a world where terrorism, and not the Soviet Union, is the primary threat, a new role for nuclear weapons, one that focuses on safety and disarmament, simply makes sense.
While the United States can be expected to resist anti-nuclear efforts within NATO, it may be unusually sympathetic to the humanitarian cause. The United States has made statements in favor of Global Zero, and the Obama administration even included the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons as a key component of its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. It is supported in this by a majority of the U.S. public: one 2008 poll found that 77 percent of Americans supported Global Zero, while a poll in 2010 put that number at 70 percent. And in March of this year, for the first time, a majority of Americans opposed the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, fearing the risks that nuclear technology could bring.
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Starting at NATO would be a smart choice. The removal of TNWs would be just one step, and one that has been brewing for a while. Removing them, therefore, is unlikely to draw significant American ire and may be an easier target for the humanitarian movement than its current, wider-scale efforts. Thus the humanitarian approach to anti-nuclearism may be both a prudent tool for anti-TNW NATO members and a ripe choice for the humanitarian anti-nuclear movement at large. If humanitarians could crack the United States at the NATO level, then they would have some strong support for their arguments when they returned to the negotiating table on other issues. Moreover, if humanitarians succeeded at NATO, Russia’s longstanding request for the removal of TNWs would have been achieved, and Russia would have less of an incentive to maintain its own offensive nuclear postures. That, in turn, could assist with global disarmament efforts.
But first things first. Focus less on the security calculations associated with nuclear weapons and more on a paradigm shift in thinking, and we could see American nukes finally brought back to American soil.