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Nuclear Security on the Agenda Again

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Nuclear Security on the Agenda Again

Nuclear issues are back in the news. Despite all the attention to the Republican sweep in the American midterm elections and the Federal Reserve’s recent controversial stimulus policies, traditional security concerns took center stage again. The stubborn evidence of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran – and new evidence of dangerous projects in both countries – reminded policy-makers of the continued threats. The emergence of new, unpredictable nuclear states is a reality that can no longer be ignored.

Instability and uncertainty in the global economy have reinforced a desire among policy-makers to avoid arms races and military conflicts. If anything, the leaders of the largest states want to find new budget savings through military cutbacks, not new commitments. Increased nuclear instability and stronger incentives for nuclear peace have motivated renewed attention to the problems of proliferation. That is good news, even if the challenges remain difficult, to say the least.

Last week’s NATO summit produced agreement on three important initiatives. These initiatives deserve attention for their long-term implications, beyond immediate security problems. These initiatives also open new possibilities for creative partnerships. They might seed more cooperative leadership, and even some collective risk-taking.

First, the NATO countries reaffirmed the importance of U.S.-European military cooperation for mutual security against a diverse range of asymmetric threats. Despite the serious differences over counterinsurgency doctrine, the War in Afghanistan, and the nature of the terrorist threat, the alliance remains strongly committed to joint planning, policy, and operations. There is no real divergence between the “old” and “new” members; they are all in the same strategic boat. If anything, recent difficulties have highlighted the need for more cooperation, not less. Most notable, the European members of NATO have not invested in an alternative continent-wide military force. They continue to depend on security in cooperation with the United States. That is the Cold War strategic architecture carried into the post-Cold War world. There has been no divergence from the inherited assumption that European security is transatlantic security. That is the “North Atlantic” core in what has become a much more globally active alliance.

Second, the NATO countries agreed to cooperate in creating a modest continent-wide missile defense system. The alliance will not rely on nuclear deterrence alone, as it has since its founding. The new NATO strategic doctrine assumes that there are some threats – from North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups – that are not subject to intimidation by the promise of overwhelming retaliation. The instigators of new asymmetric threats might, in fact, see political value in provoking disproportionate military reactions. In this context, large nuclear arsenals with assured second-strike capabilities – the cornerstone of Cold War strategic doctrine – serve limited purposes. A modest ground-based missile defense promises to expand NATO options, providing some territorial protection against undeterred adversaries with small but dangerous arsenals. Missile defense expands the alliance’s strategic depth, it allows it to absorb limited strikes with less damage, and it expands its strategic options.

Most impressive, the alliance has apparently convinced Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of the potential value in a missile defense system. Russia showed unprecedented willingness to cooperate on this project at the NATO summit. That is a major step with very positive possibilities. That is a true sign of strategic progress from the NATO-Russia recriminations of prior years.

Third, and perhaps most significant, NATO strongly supported deep nuclear weapons reductions – particularly the recent treaty negotiated between Russia and the United States, pending a difficult ratification in the U.S. Senate. NATO members did not only support the treaty, but the broader goal of de-nuclearizing foreign policy. Leaders and scholars debate the possibilities of a truly free nuclear world, but almost everyone agrees that the large nuclear arsenals maintained by the United States and Russia, in particular, do not contribute to safety and stability. They create risks of accidental misuse. They waste money and resources. They encourage other countries to develop their own arsenals. Most of all, they undermine efforts to convince smaller states that these weapons are illegitimate. How can we condemn the very weapons that we stockpile in such large numbers?

A world with fewer nuclear weapons would be more secure for everyone. NATO has now definitively embraced that position. This position might not influence policy in the most dangerous regions, but it will reduce the strategic incentives for American, British, French, Russian, Chinese, and other planners to develop more of these weapons. The emphasis is now clearly on nuclear reduction, and that is a good thing for day-to-day policy and long-term non-proliferation goals.

The recent NATO summit highlights the promise and the peril in our contemporary world. As never before, some of the most powerful states are committed to reducing nuclear weapons and creating cooperative mechanisms for global stability. No one wants to see more nuclear weapons deployed. No one wants to see more arms races.

At the same time, the obstacles to these goals remain large. Differences over conflicts in Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli territories, and other areas continue to divide NATO countries. Concerns about economic sustenance exacerbate the tendency to expect someone else to pay the bills. If the promising initiatives from the summit are to reach fruition, then the leaders of the most powerful NATO states, as well as Russia and China, must make credible commitments to cooperation and mutual sacrifice. They must re-commit to alliance partnerships that are enduring. That is always how new international relationships are forged, as necessary responses to pressing problems in tough times.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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