by Josef Gerson
With our newspapers and press reports focused on the deadly explosion of covid-19 infections across the country and Trump inflating threats by posed China in his desperate effort to avoid defeat in November, the U.S/NATO nuclear weapons build up across Europe has gone unremarked. That too is dangerous. Tensions with Russia continue to build. NATO has been preparing for war with its “Defender” military exercises across Europe. And, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper participated in a war game exercise in which the U.S. “launched a simulated nuclear strike against Russia.”[i]
While the corona virus sweeps through our families and communities, there is another existential threat we should be mobilizing to prevent: nuclear war. This danger was highlighted in early July, by retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s chief of staff, who remains well connected within the Washington elite, shared disturbing news. During the first years of the Trump tyranny, Secretary of Defense Mattis ordered that no significant military actions be taken without his express approval. He did this to prevent Trump from launching nuclear attacks midst one of his frequent rages. Mattis is no longer the Secretary of Defense. And, we cannot assume that his successor has erected a similar firebreak against nuclear catastrophe.
More, Wilkerson warned that in Trump’s desperation to rally support for the election that he appears destined to lose or to steal, he is increasing tensions in ways that could lead to military incidents and possibly war. [ii] Tensions with China and Iran are the most likely tinderboxes that could ignite a conflagration, but the Pentagon’s war games in and around Europe could lead to military incidents, miscalculations and worse.
In the popular imagination, NATO remains a defense alliance focused on containing or resisting possible Russian aggression. But that is now ancient history. NATO has aggressively expanded to Russia’s borders and has become a global alliance embracing partner nations in North Africa, Latin America and even Asia. President Bill Clinton began the process by violating the Gorbachev-Bush agreement that permitted German reunification on West German terms in exchange for the U.S. commitment of not moving NATO an inch closer to Moscow. That was a functional bomb that derailed the possibility of creating the hoped for European Common Security order, termed the Common European House. Given Russian memories of catastrophic invasions from the West (Napoleon, the French in 1872, and World Wars I & II), Clinton’s campaign to expand NATO to Russia’s borders sparked the new Cold War. It saddens me to write those words as Bill and I were classmates in the 1960s.
Following Clinton’s time in office, the U.S. quest to restore U.S. nuclear primacy began with G. W. Bush and Cheney quitting the ABM treaty. Compounded by Russia’s lagging conventional military capabilities, Moscow responded by increasing its reliance on its nuclear arsenal. This, in turn, reinforced U.S. and NATO hardliners, and the result is the spiraling arms race that had been reversed with the end of the first Cold War.
In fact, the origins of nuclear NATO lie in the alliance’s beginning. Its defense doctrine promulgated in 1949 called for insuring “the ability to carry out strategic bombing including the prompt delivery of the atomic bomb. “This” it said, “is primarily a U.S. responsibility assisted as practicable by other nations.”[iii] NATO’s “nuclear sharing” doctrine was in place before the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s. By 1954 the U.S. had based nuclear weapons in Britain, (later joined by deployments in Germany, Belgium Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey), under the policy that the weapons would remain under US control during so-called peace time. But, they can be transferred for use by the host nation’s military in times of crises and war. Since 1999, NATO’s strategic concept has pledged that “nuclear weapons will remain in Europe indefinitely.” And seven other NATO nations deal with nuclear operational support questions. This and other NATO nuclear policies are negotiated via its Nuclear Planning Group which, among other things, has mandated unified opposition to the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
NATO claims that that “the fundamental purpose of its nuclear forces is deterrence and that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”[iv] In fact, over the decades NATO’s nuclear arsenal has served four full spectrum dominance purposes: functioning as a nuclear Maginot Line against Soviet and now Russian interventions in Europe, tying Europe to the U.S. empire, facilitating U.S. nuclear threats and possible nuclear attacks against other nations, and serving as leverage in diplomatic negotiations.
We need to probe the meaning of “deterrence”. It is popularly understood to mean preventing Russia or other enemies from initiating nuclear attacks. Despite the fact that Russia’s leaders aren’t suicidal and wouldn’t launch a surprise first-strike attack, this is, in part, true. BUT, as we learned from Pentagon policies and statements in the second Bush government, “Deterrence has never been U.S. policy.” As Bush II’s Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations stated, “The focus of US deterrence is….to influence potential adversaries to withhold actions intended to harm US’s national interests.”[v]
This can include protecting our oil under their sand, as was the case with the nuclear threats during Bush I’s and II’s Iraq wars and President Obama’s “all options are on the table” threats against Iran. This tradition dates back to the 1946 Iran crisis.[vi]
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Brown testified in Congress about the diplomatic leverage that U.S. and NATO nuclear arsenals provide. Brown testified that with nuclear weapons, U.S. (and by extension NATO) conventional forces become “meaningful instruments of military and political power.” Translated by Noam Chomsky, this means that “we have succeeded in sufficiently intimidating anyone who might help protect people who we are determined to attack.”[vii]
I used the words Maginot Line to signify the futility of preparing for nuclear war to limit Russian influence in Europe. Note, for example, Berlusconi’s and Orban’s Post-Cold War embrace of Putin and Russian white Christian nationalism. And, for the last four years, Donald Trump, who is indebted to and seeks to ingratiate himself with Putin, has served as his functional ally, even as the Pentagon ratchets up its nuclear and conventional forces across Europe.
And, when the European natives have become restless, the nuclear sharing policy has been used to reinforce what is termed the alliance. As we have seen over the past decade, one of the driving forces behind the deployment of the upgraded B-61 12 warheads has been to avert Western Europe’s “decoupling” from the United States, losing the strategically important U.S. western toehold in Eurasia. In fact, it was to prevent Europe from going its own way that the Nuclear Planning Group was first created.
Finally, you don’t need me to rehearse the particulars of Trump and Bolton destroying the remnants of the nuclear arms control architecture built over the past 60 years. The Pentagon has reiterated its first strike nuclear war fighting doctrine, stating that nuclear weapons “can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign…[They] could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more-favorable terms.” Trump was thus not alone in the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, which in turn opened the way for the deployment of “usable” battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe, and intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe and East Asia.
So much for analysis. The path forward, I believe, lies in pressing demands for the revival of common security diplomacy and popular actions, beginning with resistance to the deployment of the upgraded B-61 strategic and low yield nuclear warheads to Europe. An announcement of the campaign and the coalition initiating it, which includes the International Peace Bureau, International Confederation of Trade Unions, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Mouvement de la Paix and other organizations will be made on August 9, the 75th anniversary of the Nagasaki A-bombing.
[ii] Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition online planning meeting, June 29, 2020
[v] Department of Defense, Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, Joint Publication 3-12, 15 March,2005. Note that after the publication of this doctrine, in response to widespread public outrage, is was ostensibly “rescinded.” This was merely a covering of the Pentagon’s tracks, once its true commitments had been publicly disclosed.
[vii] Cambridge Documentary Films, The Last Empire, 1984,