Nuclear disarmament: The New START treaty matters to Europe, too

BRUSSELS — Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally approved a resolution to ratify the New START treaty. But chances of its being debated in the full Senate before the U.S. mid-term elections on November 2 are looking slim, further delaying the treaty’s final ratification. These rather gloomy prospects stand in sharp contrast to the optimism of a little less than 18 months ago. Then, thousands of people gathered at the city castle in the center of Prague to hear U.S. President Barack Obama give an historic address on the future of nuclear weapons, the first speech devoted to the issue of nuclear security by a U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. Since then, the New START treaty has survived a long and tortuous process of negotiations between the United States and Russia, as well as consultations with its European allies. Indeed, while New START is a bilateral treaty that binds only the two nuclear superpowers, it is also of considerable importance to Europe.

Any U.S.-Russian arms control agreement brings new opportunities to denuclearize the European continent. The strongest advocates of this idea are the European “non-nuclear weapon states” who are hosting U.S. warheads under a NATO flag. These countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey—together host an estimated total of 150 to 220 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. In 2006, the Belgian Senate passed a bill to remove U.S. weapons from Kleine Brogel Air Force Base. Last year, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle singled out the issue of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Germany during his first visits to NATO and the United States. Parliamentarians of all host countries have urged Obama to withdraw U.S. warheads from Europe, and foreign ministers have written to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen asking for the issue to be placed higher on the alliance’s agenda. These European “abolitionists” fear that, without New START, Russia will be more reluctant to negotiate further arms limitations, giving fewer reasons for Washington to remove its weapons from Europe.

A U.S.-Russian arms control agreement is seen as a key factor by Central and Eastern Europeans for their own security. Reports such as the Nuclear Posture Review show that the White House is quietly broaching the question of whether U.S. nukes are still needed in Europe at all. That worries member states on NATO’s eastern frontier that see U.S. nuclear weapons primarily as an insurance against Russian aggression. Obama has reacted to these concerns by promising Warsaw and Prague that New START would not jeopardize U.S. plans for a missile defense system that would cover all of Eastern Europe. Yet Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite recently voiced additional concerns, saying that the treaty fails to guarantee the security of her country because it does not include non-strategic nuclear arms, specifically short-range weapons that are believed to be deployed along Russia’s western border.

No less tricky is the issue of the fate of the British and French nuclear deterrent if and when the United States and Russia disarm. The European Union’s sole nuclear powers feel ambiguous about Obama’s treaty, torn between bandwagoning on a zero-nukes campaign and ensuring their own independent nuclear deterrent, which has been a key factor in helping them keep their permanent seats and veto power in the UN Security Council.  In the U.K.—with its declared maximum stockpile of 225 weapons—a post-Cold War security environment combined with an expected defense budget shortfall of £36bn (according to a group of British MPs quoted in the Guardian) have renewed the debate on nuclear weapons. The U.K.’s Strategic Defense and Security Review, now raises the option of a doctrine of minimum deterrence, including stricter preconditions on the usage of nuclear weapons, stretching out the longevity of the arsenal, and reducing military preparedness. The New START treaty provides a good excuse for Her Majesty’s government to promote a different security approach and further cuts in defense spending.

France, with its Force de Frappe of approximately 300 warheads, is far less open to arms reduction, with President Sarkozy remaining a strong proponent of what he calls “reciprocity.” In defense of its disarmament credentials, Paris repeatedly points to its nuclear test ban in Polynesia or the closing of its Albion Plateau missile launching facility near the French Alps. But Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner helpfully clarified the Elysée’s thinking last March when he told the National Assembly that “France is not considering giving up its nuclear deterrence force.” However, with European abolitionists concerting their efforts and London prudently aligning with Washington, Paris may find itself increasingly isolated.

New START will also enhance global non-proliferation efforts, an important issue for the European Union as a whole. Whether it is former High Representative Javier Solana’s past negotiation efforts in Iran or collective attempts of member states to strengthen regimes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Europeans have always cared about the issue. As a “civilian” power, the EU has the credibility to promote non-proliferation; New START might just be another argument to continue doing so.

The stakes are high, and, whether the senators realize it or not, the U.S. Senate’s actions will have a dramatic impact on the future security architecture of Europe.

Bruno Lété is a Program Associate with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.