The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Burden sharing at home as well as abroad

Over the last twelve months momentum has been building for the withdrawal of NATO's forward deployed nuclear weapons from Europe. Pressure is being gently applied by a group of western European states that include Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg. Although it would be positive for the reenergizing of disarmamnet efforts that this withdrawal takes place, there is a real possibility that the issue may pit the above nations against new NATO members such as Poland and the Baltics.

At the root of this argument is the need to provide a symbolic assurance to Eastern European states that NATO is serious about their security, as well as the need to maintain Alliance cohesion in the form of burden sharing. This suggests that although withdrawal would be a boost to the non-proliferation regime, it is preferable that there be some form of replacement that performs the political role currently carried out by non-strategic nuclear weapons. My point is simple: couldn't this be done by phased and adaptive missile defence deployments? And isn't it about time we linked missile defence directly to non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe?

Missile defence offers the possibility of shifting the burden east towards those states that are skeptical of any sympolic weakening of the U.S. commitment to defend Europe. The fact that assets can be surged into regions at times of crisis also creates the need for regular political and military consultations - something that will help maintain NATO influence over U.S. defence policy.

There is, of course, one big problem: Russia's entrenched opposition to missile defence. But this can be overcome with enough political will and commitment towards the goal of establishing a joint missile defence architecture. If successful, this cooperation will help redefine the NATO-Russia relationship and end the current stalemate on tactical nuclear wepaons. If the argument is articulated in a way that qualms the fears of Poland and the Baltic states (probably Turkey as well), as well as Russia, then missile defense could well be the future of NATO burden sharing.


  1. I thought missile defence was about ICBMs, i.e. strategic nuclear missiles. Defence against tactical missiles are not part of the NATO-missile defence debate, as I understood it. Please correct me, if I'm wrong.

    If I'm right, here are some objections to your argument:

    Problem 1: missile defence doesn't work, the technology doesn't exist, yet.

    Problem 2: missile defence is designed to protect also against Russian missiles. Hard to imagine that the US will be willing to share information with a potential opponent.

    Problem 3: The option to annihilate the country of a possible attacker is more persuasive than the capability of intercepting the enemy's attempts to do so, I would argue.

    Problem 4: I don't see the threat assessment that would justify the investment necessary to develop the technology. We have more pressing issues to spend our non-existing wealth on.

    Generally, I'm in favour of enhanced cooperation with Russia on all sorts of issues. That includes missile defence, once we identified a threat that would require such an investment.

  2. Thanks Frederik. Let me try and answer your points:

    1 - The reconfigured missile defence shield isn't about ICBMs. It's now designed, in the short-term at least, explicitly for short and medium range missiles. The technology in this area (Sm-3 interceptors) is much more advanced, and proven to work, which is why the system was reconfigured.

    2 - The system would have absolutely no capability in defending against Russian missiles. There are simply too many of them and the system could easily be overwhelmed. But it is useful against countries with a smaller number of missiles - i.e Iran. Furthermore, the U.S has said on many occasions, and I think they are serious, that they want to cooperate with Russia on this.

    3 - It would take at least a month to carry out a nuclear strike using the forward-deployed weapons in Europe, so they have no deterrence value. Are there really any scenarios where they wouldn't use submarine launched missiles first? In which case, missile defence only adds value.

    4 - It could provide real protection against short and medium range missiles from Iran and can be a way of maintaining alliance cohesion in the event that the non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe are withdraw. Withdrawing them would be a huge boost for the NPT, which is in danger of collapsing.