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Moving Beyond the Cold War

NUCLEAR weapons issues have become a more prominent part of political discourse over the past year. This recent upsurge in attention is due at least in part to the debate around and successful ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which entered into force earlier this year. A bilateral accord between the United States and Russia, the treaty imposed new limitations on the number of strategic nuclear weapons that can be deployed. The treaty was, on its face, a simple successor to the previous Treaty of Moscow, which was due to expire and which had already imposed somewhat less-extensive limitations on deployed strategic nuclear weapons. New START did not address the stockpiles of nuclear weapons that are not on active battle-ready status but are instead stored so that they can be made available for use with time-consuming preparation. Despite this similar past agreement, the ratification process became extremely politicized as it occurred during the American midterm elections and presented an opportunity for political posturing on the part of many candidates. Some right-wing organizations campaigned publicly against the treaty, presenting arguments that the accord would undercut the efficacy of America’s nuclear deterrent, or that it failed to account for strategic implications of nuclear weapons in countries such as China. Activists on both sides gathered petition signatures, paid visits to legislators, and made phone calls to Capitol Hill. For the nuclear disarmament and reduction movement, this proved to be an opportunity to build new alliances, create new energy among volunteers and activists, and raise new awareness among those previously unfamiliar with the issue.

Ratification of the treaty was therefore widely acclaimed as a victory for the nuclear disarmament and reduction movements, which had to some extent receded from American discourse after the end of the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviet Union as an “existential threat” to the American nation, the fears of mutually assured destruction that had catalyzed much anti-nuke sentiment faded, and many of those who had been active in campaigning for disarmament turned their political sights toward other targets. The public debate around New START thus contributed to a recent increase in attention to nuclear disarmament that has also been fueled by concerns about nuclear terrorism, rogue states, and “weapons of mass destruction” more broadly. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the public square is beginning to be populated by a new generation of policy students, activists, and others who grew up without daily reminders of a doomsday clock eternally set for five minutes to midnight, and who are therefore better able to address the question of nuclear weapons with new vitality and fresh perspectives.

The U.S. and Russian delgeations holding the closing plenary of New Start negotiations in April 2010

So what comes next for the nuclear disarmament and reduction movement? The successful ratification of New START affirms the fact that the nuclear weapons politics of the Cold War should rightly be put far behind us. In other words, antipathy towards Russia and its allies is no longer the dominant theme of American policy, and the bipolar world of those bygone days no longer defines the strategic questions that face us now. But sadly, even after the important step that New START made, some aspects of Cold-War-era policy remain in place. Central among these remnants of a bygone antagonism is the presence of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), unlike strategic nuclear weapons (SNWs), are not intended to play a central role in the posturing and large-scale threats that lie at the core of nuclear deterrence. SNWs, with their ability to wipe out entire cities and threaten whole populations, were central to the assurance of mutual destruction that prevented large-scale military conflict between the two superpowers during the Cold War. In contrast, tactical nuclear weapons are intended for battlefield use in otherwise more conventional military situations. Delivery systems for these weapons vary: some are designed to be fired by standard artillery, while others would be carried to their targets by shorter-range missiles than the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that have long been a standard part of the SNW arsenal. During the Cold War, the United States deployed many TNWs to NATO allies that were otherwise not nuclear-armed. Today, about 180 of these weapons remain on the territory of five members of the alliance (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey).

Proponents of nuclear disarmament and reduction have argued for years that a withdrawal of TNWs from Europe is long overdue. Such a move would be desirable on all fronts; the presence of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is a relic of the Cold War, and their deployment there no longer makes political, military, or strategic sense in a geopolitical era in which Western military engagements are more likely to involve conflicts with distributed non-state actors or confrontations with entrenched dictators than face-offs between global superpowers. Removal of American weapons from the territory of European allies would strengthen the advances made by New START, providing further recognition that United States nuclear weapons policy no longer rests on antipathy towards Russia and is not based on a divide between “the West and the rest.” This would also lay the groundwork for future bilateral reduction agreements between the United States and Russia, which together possess around 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, previous cuts notwithstanding.

In May 2012, Chicago will host the NATO summit which gathers together heads of state and heads of government of the treaty organization members. The question of continuing TNW deployment is set to be discussed there. The potential for changing this policy appears to be unusually high, as, according to a widely circulated report from last July, the US seems to be considering withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. It seems likely, therefore, that the issue of tactical nuclear weapons will provide a centerpiece for disarmament and reduction discussions over the next year. The attention that is likely to be focused on it will allow renewed discussion of other pressing issues related to disarmament and reduction efforts. Ideally, the energy produced by engagement with tactical nuclear weapon withdrawal will power a new push by proponents of disarmament for American ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would obligate states to forgo any “nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control”(CTBT Article I). The United States has signed but not yet ratified this accord, and the treaty cannot enter into force until the United States and several other specified nations give it the full support of ratification. By providing an opportunity for nuclear weapons issues to be brought back into public discourse, the Chicago NATO summit will set the stage for disarmament proponents to push for American ratification of this important document over the coming months and years.

Proponents of disarmament recognize that the long road to a world without nuclear weapons will not allow a fast or easy journey. The U.S. will at times be forced to climb steep hills in the face of entrenched political opposition and to traverse rough terrain in tackling issues of rogue states and terrorism. But perhaps never since the end of the Cold War have the prospects of a successful effort looked better. The ratification of New START demonstrates the political possibilities that should encourage the American people to look ahead to the NATO summit and beyond as opportunities to work further for a safer world.

Matt Shafer is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

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