NATO’s Nuclear Future: Deter, Reassure, Engage?

NATO’s Nuclear Future: Deter, Reassure, Engage?

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Simon Lunn

Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies

In a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)—timed for the NATO Summit in Warsaw to be held July 8-9—Simon Lunn, Isabelle Williams, and Steve Andreasen call for NATO to demonstrate a willingness to engage Russia on both differences and areas of potential cooperation and seek to reduce tensions in a region that remains central to global security.  Adopting such an approach would simultaneously strengthen NATO’s security and help to avoid further escalation with Russia. It would also reduce the risks of accidents or incidents involving nuclear weapons or materials.

NATO also is considering if and how it should adapt its nuclear posture and capabilities to the challenges of Russia’s assertive security policy. “It is important,” they write, “that allies avoid steps in Warsaw and beyond that could preclude further consolidation of U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Europe back to the United States.” 

NTI Co-Chairman and CEO Sam Nunn notes in the Foreword that “NATO and Russia can no longer afford to treat dialogue as a bargaining chip when the region holds more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials, as well as large concentrations of conventional forces.” 

 The report, “NATO’s Nuclear Future: Deter, Reassure, Engage?” offers the following key recommendations:

  • The alliance must seek to avoid escalating tensions and drifting toward a new confrontation with Russia when taking steps at the Warsaw summit to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defense posture and reassure allies.
  • Strengthening NATO deterrence and defense should be accompanied by dialogue with Russia on both differences and areas of potential cooperation. Engaging Russia on the risk of an accident, mistake, or miscalculation leading to an unintended conflict should be a high priority.
  • Allies should refrain from taking steps in Warsaw relating to NATO’s nuclear policies or posture that could be seen as lowering the threshold for nuclear use or reinforcing the peacetime basing of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
  • NATO defense policies and programs must be derived from a balanced threat and capabilities assessment that reflects the interests of all allies; they should not simply mirror those of Russia.
  • NATO’s enhanced conventional capabilities should be sufficient for credible deterrence in the east and flexible for other contingencies. An enhanced forward presence should avoid levels and deployments that could reinforce the perception of offensive intent.
  • After Warsaw, Washington and NATO should reconfigure the nuclear component of NATO’s deterrence and defense posture based on the continuing requirement to strengthen NATO’s conventional capabilities and the increasing risk of a terrorist attack against NATO nuclear bases. This would include consolidating U.S. tactical nuclear weapons back to the United States; redirecting resources now committed to modernizing the B61 nuclear bomb and NATO dual-capable aircraft to conventional reassurance initiatives; and establishing a safer, more credible nuclear posture with updated nuclear sharing arrangements with allies, making clear that NATO will remain a nuclear alliance for as long as nuclear weapons exist.
  • Nuclear threat reduction through engagement with Russia must remain an integral part of alliance policy.

About the Authors

Simon Lunn is a senior associate fellow for the European Leadership Network, senior fellow at Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Force, and consultant to NTI. He served as Secretary General to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from 1997-2007, following eight years as the Deputy Secretary General. 

Isabelle Williams serves as senior advisor to the Global Nuclear Policy Program at NTI.  She is co-editor of the report Reducing Nuclear Risks in Europe: A Framework for Action, published by NTI.  Before joining NTI, she worked with the Partnership for Global Security, the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. 

Steve Andreasen is a national security consultant to NTI and teaches courses on national security policy and crisis management in foreign affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He served as director of defense policy and arms control on the U.S. National Security Council at the White House. 


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