Jeffrey LewisMore on NATO Nukes

We have a second cable from Wikileaks on the subject of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, noting that the Belgian government refused to join an effort by Germany, Netherlands and Italy to ask for the removal of US nuclear weapons their territory — despite the enthusiasm shown by the then-Foreign Minister:

Belgium has a special interest in nuclear non-proliferation issues because it participates in NATO’s nuclear forces at the Kleine Brogel air force base. It rejected a recent overture from Germany to join with the Netherlands, Italy and Germany to propose to the rest of NATO that nuclear weapons be removed from those countries (ref B). However, Belgian MOD and MFA officials apparently had to rein in then-Foreign Minister Leterme when he initially responded too positively to the idea. Belgium’s official policy rejects a unilateral approach to disarmament and insists that the issue must be discussed among all NATO members at one time, with due regard for U.S.-Russian bilateral discussions and the NPT. The government is also opposing a proposal from the floor of the Belgian parliament to ban nuclear weapons from Belgian soil.

Leterme, by the way, is now the Prime Minister of Belgium.  (He was Foreign Minister from July-November 2009, which dates the proposal.)

The cable is noteworthy for two reasons.

First, we have noted on this blog the repeated incursions by “bombspotters” onto Kleine Brogel Air Base where, the cable makes clear, US nuclear weapons are stored.  The fact that Belgians are the only chocolate maker that wants US nuclear weapons makes its utter failure to meet NATO security requirements all the more galling.  Seriously, if they really want the bombs, than they can hire a dog-sitter or whatever it is called.

The second reason the cable is newsworthy is that the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi apparently did join Germany and Netherlands.  A Prodi government I would understand.  But Berlusconi?  As I noted the other day, Italy had managed to retain two bases with US nuclear weapons, unlike any other NATO ally, which suggested a certain fondness for nuclear weapons.

As regular readers know, I have long supported the immediate consolidation of all US nuclear weapons in Europe to two US airbases  — with Incirlik and Aviano being the obvious candidates.  The surprise announcement that Italy wants the bombs gone too modestly complicates that proposal, although presumably Rome would welcome the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ghedi Torre.

Does anyone know why the Berlusconi government might have shifted its position on forward deployed US nuclear weapons?  Is it a function of some inexplicable Italian coalition politics?


  1. ArkadyRenko (History)

    Another cable mentioned certain State Department suspicions. Namely, they think that Berlusconi is becoming Putin’s man in Europe. Were that true, he could be merely parroting Russia’s line.

    What would be more interesting is the comments of Eastern European NATO states on the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, they surely have a bit more of a say, in regards to security problems, than Germany, France, or especially Belgium.

  2. shaheen (History)

    A clue may be in the description of Mr. Berlusconi in other US cables, where is portrayed as being too close to Russian interests.

    Or it may just be another example of a discrepancy between a European MoFA and the Prime Minister’s office…

  3. Alice (History)

    The leaks also refer to an Italo-Russian romance over energy contracts. Perhaps there were enough PDL partners reaping rewards from Berlusconi’s connections to support a reversal of position.

  4. archjr (History)

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. It prompted me to read this article – – which I recommend to all. It’s perhaps the most concise explanation of where we are and where we might be going. Why DO we need tactical nukes in the “new” Europe?

  5. Arrigo (History)

    Explaining Italian politics to Americans has always been an immense challenge. There could be reasons for the bald dwarf (a direct translation of one of his many nicknames “Nano Pelato”) wanting to send the nukes home or there could be none: it might have been something which came to him on the gist of the moment while in the excitement of being in the company of other prime ministers. Do remember that the man craves publicity and exposure like no other politician.

    If you do want to look for a rational explanation you might want to consider the Italian budget for 2010 which chops even more funds for the military. It is most likely a purely financial consideration based on “we have too many bases, a nuke base is more expensive than a conventional base” with the additional electoral karma of removing nukes from a difficult constituency and, for once, being in sync with the oh-so-important-when-we-feel-like-it European partners.

    I would honestly downplay the Russian angle which is purely an energy/economics/image policy decision. Italy meddles with Russia like it meddles with Libya: they have oil and gas, Italy has none, Italy has one of the largest oil companies (Eni), Eni is a political stronghold (read: key positions are part of a political spoils/quota system). This is only the most evident political/economics angle, there are tons of other companies involved with Russia and Libya thanks to the bald dwarf’s “special relationships”. It only helps that the respective leaders have similar behavioural traits as the bald dwarf.

    Do remember that while Machiavelli was indeed Italian not everything Italians do is Machiavellian, Casanova was allegedly Italian too and that is probably somewhat of a bigger driver for the guy. Another couple of thousand years or so and the USA will develop a similarly convoluted and inexplicable political system as Italy and Greece. You’re young, enjoy it while it lasts.

    • 3.1415 (History)

      This is the best advice that I saw ever – enjoy it while it lasts – a particularly salient suggestion considering what Rome once stood for. Our species is getting more peaceful on a log scale according to Steven Pinker. For many cash-depleted US “allies”, nukes are white elephants rather than paper tigers.

    • Arrigo (History)

      Well, $\pi$ does bring up an interesting point: it should be remembered than in the 1950’s Adenauer’s Germany, France and Italy got together to develop a nuclear weapon because the Germans (in particular) were convinced that the USA would eventually pull out of Europe. It didn’t last long and the USA eventually convinced Italy and Germany to have US nukes on their soil in exchange for double release. Obviously the USA could not accept an independent European deterrent at the time and Italy probably welcomed US monies which came with the nukes with open hands.

      On top one has to remember that Italy was a major political warfare terrain for the USSR vs. USA match: rubles and dollars landed in abundance on the Communist and Christian Democrats respectively…

      The combination of the US wishing to deter the independent deterrent and support the Italian parties which they deemed “friendly” created a powerful foundation for the nukes to remain in the country unchallenged for so long.

  6. Martin Butcher (History)

    The cable has the fault of being largely incorrect. Leterme signed letters with the others asking NATO to consider the issue, the process that led to the result of the Summit on nuclear forces. There was never any question, for Leterme or anyone in Belgium, of a unilateral withdrawal of the kleine Brogel bombs. it is true that officials were not as forward leaning on this as Leterme, but then they have to do the bidding of elected ministers, not the other way around. The Italian example is more interesting, especially since Italy has largely avoided debate on the tacnukes for decades. We simply didn’t know where the Italian government was on this.

  7. Anon (History)

    Off topic, but still on the Wikileaks theme: Interesting how IAEA chief Amano admitted his pro-US bias:

    “…he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

    see also:



    Funny thing: why no report in the NYTimes about this important revelation?