James ActonProving Disarmament Credentials

Reflecting on conferences after they are over rarely makes for interesting blogging. However, I didn’t have a chance to blog while the Carnegie Conference was on, and I can’t quite bring myself to tweet. So, I wanted to point those of you who weren’t there in the direction of what for me was the highlight of an excellent conference (not that I’m biased): the very first plenary panel with George Perkovich (chair), Amb. Linton Brooks, Morton Halperin, Brad Roberts and Achilles Zaluar.

The panel’s task was to discuss what the US can and should do in the way of disarmament and the challenges it faces. Given that President Obama had given his speech on disarmament just over 24 hours earlier in Prague, the discussion had a real sense of urgency and relevance that such discussions sometimes lack.

The discussion was very wide-ranging and well worth reading, listening or watching in full but perhaps the most interesting topic was extended deterrence and the effects of US nuclear policy on its allies. William Walker, among others, has frequently remarked about the extreme difficulty and importance of discussing deterrence in the context of disarmament. On this occasion though the discussion was remarkably frank.

I’m reluctant to single out particular speakers given the quality of the whole discussion but what Mort Halperin had to say really struck a chord with me:

I’ve been surprised at how much allied governments care about nuclear weapons now. Their position is not, you know, we didn’t know you guys still had nuclear weapons. Just do whatever you want. They are concerned. They’re following it very closely. They care a lot about it.

Some people in each of these countries are worried that we’re not doing enough to get rid of nuclear weapons. Some people in all of these countries are worried that we may do too much, although we’re not yet close to that line. I do not think the actual deployments make as much difference as the political relationship and the assurances that we should give.

That last sentence, I think, is crucial. For instance, the continued presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe is, as I see it, a way of reassuring allies about US security guarantees without having to have hard conversations about whether other forms of assurance and security cooperation could suffice. If the ally starts to doubt the US, the latter can just point to its nukes as a symbol of its commitment and avoid having a messy conversation about how deep that commitment actually runs.

However, if the US is to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe—a step that in my opinion is long overdue—it needs to have the hard conversation that few at the moment seem to want.

Although “disarmament skeptics” often invoke the concerns of allies, few of them show any interest in actually engaging in a serious dialogue with these allies to discuss how the US can continue to reassure them while reducing its reliance upon nuclear weapons. Invocations of extended deterrence are intended to stop debate and discussion—much as the continued existence of nuclear weapons in Europe is.

Conversely, many abolitionists tend to dismiss the concerns of allies and assert that there would be no political fallout from the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe or the withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella. It’s more convenient for them not to talk to US allies about extended deterrence.

So, if the new administration really wants to lay the foundation for disarmament then it should start talking to its allies about disarmament and deterrence. There is little the US could do to prove its disarmament credentials more than by removing nuclear weapons from Europe but as Mort Halperin also remarked, it is important that US allies “should not read in the newspaper about any changes in the American nuclear posture.”


  1. Alex (History)

    Here may be a first opportunity to begin the discussions:

    “Reacting to Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier has called for American nuclear weapons to be removed from Germany. His stance is in opposition to Chancellor Merkel, who wants to keep the bombs to secure Germany’s say in NATO.”

    Der Spiegel

  2. Liviu (History)

    Talking to allies is a good idea, but talking alone might not suffice in this case. Nukes in Europe seem to have more to do with symbolics than with actual security concerns. Repeating the “generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light” Prague-talk a few more times throughout Europe might be much more effective 😉 And if the NPR manages to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, most of the Europeans (but for Turkey) might ask for a withdrawal themselves, with or without the pampering talk.

    Just as an example: does someone seriously believe that Berlin needs to be reassured of the US commitment if the 20 nukes get out of Buechel? Is the German defense ministry worried that the Russians will want to stop selling them gas and start the conquering campaign? Nonetheless, although completely lacking popular support, until yesterday Berlin never missed an (official) opportunity to say how crucial the guarantees and the nukes were. As long as nukes are perceived as important for Washington, nobody in be crazy enough in Berlin to suggest killing the golden goose granting influence in the defense alliance, including in this highly sensitive area. With elections coming up and the social democrats in need for points-scoring, Obama’s speech came just in time for the “abolitionist” gang in the Bundestag.

    I would bet that the story is not much more complicated in Belgium, Italy, or the Netherlands. But are the Americans ready to really reduce the role of nuclear weapons? Listening to the China session I missed during at Carnegie does not make me very optimistic 🙂

  3. Distiller (History)

    Keeping them in Europe seems part U.S. claim to power in Europe, part habit.

    Even in case they are removed, an airlift could bring them back within hours.

    That other aspect, that of keeping esp Germany from building its own nuclear weapons, seems of rather limited value today.

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