First Strike Nuclear Madness

Originally published here.

For those of us who grew up during the later years of the Cold War, the acronym “NATO” brings back memories of watching the evening news with our families, when most discussions of US foreign policy weren’t complete without mentioning “nuclear weapons” and “the Soviets”. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (or NATO) is a Cold War military alliance that was founded in 1949, basically as a counter-balance to the USSR, where:

The [NATO] Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

[NATO member countries today]

The NATO countries played an important role in the Cold War nuclear arms race by either having their own nuclear weapons (e.g. France and the UK), or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their soil (e.g. Pershing nuclear missiles in West Germany). The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ “Doomsday Clock” is a vivid historical indicator of the Cold War nuclear tensions (click the image at right).

The Cold War ended in 1991. The US and Russia have fewer nuclear weapons than they did, but still have far more than enough to render the Earth uninhabitable; the US has about 9,900, and Russia has about 15,000 (pdf). NATO has changed its mission to adapt to post-Cold War conflicts; one of the most recent examples is the takeover of US-lead military operations in southern Afghanistan by a NATO-lead force in the south of Afghanistan.

What does the future hold for NATO? General John Shalikashvili (former NATO commander in Europe), General Klaus Naumann (ex-chairman of Nato’s military committee), General Henk van den Breemen (former Dutch chief of staff) Admiral Jacques Lanxade (former French chief of staff), and Lord Inge (former chief of the general staff and defense staff in the UK) have proposed reforms for NATO that make me wonder if they are yearning for the Cold War days.

From yesterday’s UK Guardian:

Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, Nato told

The west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the “imminent” spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, according to a radical manifesto for a new Nato by five of the west’s most senior military officers and strategists.

Calling for root-and-branch reform of Nato and a new pact drawing the US, Nato and the European Union together in a “grand strategy” to tackle the challenges of an increasingly brutal world, the former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands insist that a “first strike” nuclear option remains an “indispensable instrument” since there is “simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world”.


“The risk of further [nuclear] proliferation is imminent and, with it, the danger that nuclear war fighting, albeit limited in scope, might become possible,” the authors argued in the 150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures. “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

The authors ” …paint an alarming picture of the threats and challenges confronting the west in the post-9/11 world and deliver a withering verdict on the ability to cope…”, and include the following as part of the key threats:

  • Political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.
  • The “dark side” of globalisation, meaning international terrorism, organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

It’s really stretching the imagination try to understand how a new doctrine of pre-emptive nuclear strikes can possibly be part of the War on Terror™. The concept of nuclear deterrence can’t apply if your perceived enemy doesn’t have nuclear weapons. “We think they might be making them,” is not the same as a nation having them, and being overtly hostile toward another nation, as was the case in the Cold War. There are no clear targets; we’re talking ideologies and small groups of people. And, let’s quit waxing theoretical: the use of a nuclear weapon period is a horrific proposal.

Andy Grotto at Arms Control Wonk points out something even more important:

The goal of the manifesto, according to its authors, is to revive the troubled trans-atlantic alliance.

Huh?!? How could a renewed emphasis on the preemptive use of nuclear weapons possibly promote NATO unity?!? The authors apparently missed the Schultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn op-eds in the WSJ endorsing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Click the link for the WSJ op-ed. It’s a great piece, and they specifically say:

Apart from the [nuclear] terrorist threat, unless urgent new actions are taken, the U.S. soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American “mutually assured destruction” with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies world-wide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. New nuclear states do not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards put in effect during the Cold War to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments or unauthorized launches. The United States and the Soviet Union learned from mistakes that were less than fatal. Both countries were diligent to ensure that no nuclear weapon was used during the Cold War by design or by accident. Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?

Indeed. NATO may need new life, but a new doctrine of pre-emptive nuclear strikes should not be part of it.

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