Op-Ed Contributors

The Challenge for NATO in Chicago


Published: May 17, 2012

NATO leaders meet this Sunday and Monday in Chicago for a summit that is likely to be dominated by Afghanistan. This is a vital issue, and we hope all alliance members will honor the outstanding service of our military and civilian personnel by agreeing to both a common exit strategy and the necessary resources to implement it.

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The summit itself, however, needs to be about far more than that.

Summit participants will receive the results of a Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, set up at the Lisbon summit in 2010. This has been conducted against the backdrop of substantial cuts in defense expenditure across the alliance, during a period of more troubled relations with Russia, and in the context of lessons that must be learned from operations in Libya.

For the summit to be of any value, participants must reflect on and respond to these developments, while producing a strategy that will reduce nuclear risks in Europe, strengthen NATO’s overall defense capabilities against 21st century threats, and chart a course toward genuine strategic cooperation with Russia. If it does not do so, the summit will be an ineffectual meeting of little historic consequence.

That is why we join about 40 of our colleagues across Europe today in calling for urgent NATO action in three principal areas. (The full European Leadership Network statement and the full list of signatories are at www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org)

First, with too many nuclear weapons still on the continent of Europe and NATO committed to upgrading its tactical nuclear weapons in this theater, it is time for the alliance to change course and do more to create the conditions necessary for a world without nuclear weapons.

NATO’s unique responsibility to act is obvious: Three of the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and eight of the 14 states that have nuclear weapons on their territory are NATO members. NATO is also the only military alliance in the world that practices “nuclear sharing” under which nonnuclear weapon states like Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey host U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil.

The Chicago summit should conclude, in this context, with NATO asserting that the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. It should further make clear that no nonnuclear weapon state outside NATO and in compliance with its own nonproliferation obligations will ever be subject to a nuclear attack from the alliance.

To inject further momentum into the global dialogue on nuclear weapons and to reduce nuclear risks in Europe, NATO should also announce an immediate 50 percent cut in the number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed on the Continent. Thereafter it should signal, as the Norwegian and Polish foreign ministers have suggested, that it would like a dialogue with Russia aimed at removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe altogether. A target of five years for achieving this goal would be sensible, but the dialogue must expand to include Russian concerns over NATO conventional forces in Europe and such issues as U.S. plans to develop a system that can deliver a conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world within one hour.

To reduce nuclear risks further still, NATO should also pursue a dialogue with Russia on how to extend warning and decision times as these relate to the many nuclear weapons that remain on high states of alert. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, it is bordering on madness to maintain systems requiring launch decisions in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days.

Turning to a second vitally important area, while the entire NATO-Russia relationship is currently being held hostage to the impasse over missile defense cooperation, we call on NATO to use the Chicago summit to give the Russians the additional reassurances they need on this issue while spelling out that cooperation with Russia across the entire terrain of missile defense, nuclear weapons and conventional force dispositions in Europe is NATO’s goal.

NATO’s unity and role in this century cannot, in our view, be based on fear of Russia. On the contrary, NATO must seek to play the role of a strategic bridge or bond between the U.S.-Europe and Russia to allow all to work together to meet the common challenges of the 21st century.

We know some of our colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe require additional reassurance to make this approach to Russia possible and that difficult issues remain to be worked through. But the vision of a cooperative relationship is one that NATO leaders should spell out and work for.

Third, to meet the challenge of declining defense budgets and the inability of Europeans to take the lead as shown in Libya, NATO countries should now pursue much greater pooling and sharing of assets and joint defense projects across the alliance. This is an idea that has been around for a long time, but if it is not addressed now, in these dire economic times, we believe the United States will lose patience with the European contribution and that NATO will run the risk of long-term irrelevance, forced either to lose credibility or to radicallyreduce its level of ambition.

Europe must respond, and with our colleagues across the Continent today we signal our determination to work for this outcome. Starting in Chicago, we ask serving leaders to do the same.

Des Browne is a former British secretary of state for defense. Volker Rühe is a former German defense minister.