The Case for Nuclear Consultation with NATO


NATO members are preparing for their Warsaw summit in July, where they will try to recalibrate the alliance’s position vis-à-vis an assertive and increasingly confident Russia that continues its military provocations, nuclear messaging, and nuclear modernization. The allies must find answers to a perennial question: How can non-nuclear states in extended deterrence relationships be assured of the credibility of American commitments to protect them? How can allied leaders be convinced that security through U.S. extended deterrence will continue to be in their interests, even if it means strategic dependency?

Today, U.S. extended deterrence commitments have returned to center stage, particularly in the context of NATO. The containment of Russian aggression in Europe is likely to remain a key challenge, as is the push to convince Russia of the West’s deep-rooted interest in strategic stability. It would provide a worthwhile orientation for defense officials NATO member states to step back from the busy preparations for Warsaw to think in time about the alliance’s experiences with nuclear consultation. In doing so they will better understand that there is much to gain if the United States and its allies put new emphasis on confidential, high-level, and substantive consultations on nuclear deterrence in peacetime.

New historical insights on the basis of recently declassified files show that genuine nuclear consultation was essential to assuring non-nuclear NATO allies during the Cold WarThe adoption of the Provisional Political Guidelines for the Initial Tactical Use of Nuclear Weapons by NATO (PPGs) in 1969 represents an exemplary case. This process illustrated that allied engagement in building and formulating consensus on nuclear weapons employment doctrine to implement NATO strategy was eminently important in assuring U.S. allies.

The benefits of nuclear consultation cannot be appreciated without reference to six key facts.

First, extended deterrence is a surprising success story. The system appears to have deterred the Kremlin during the Cold War, even if confirmation remains impossible. As a result, U.S. allies continue to feel that U.S. nuclear protection is their least worst option.

Second, confirming a widely held assumption, U.S. extended deterrence is a necessary condition for maintaining the non-nuclear status of many U.S. allies and thus a pillar of the global nuclear order and the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. Extended deterrence served as a key component of Washington’s vigorous and multifaceted efforts since the Second World War to curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Third, assurance of non-nuclear allies in extended deterrence relationships is a very demanding and occasionally exhausting task. Assurance can never be achieved in absolute terms.

Fourth, extended deterrence is premised on power asymmetries between the protector and the protected. The latter are dependencies, or protectorates, who can pass the buck for their security to the protector. Structurally, the protector favors preserving these power asymmetries, despite its reflex to push allies toward greater burden sharing.

Fifth, extended deterrence is costly. It calls for constant assessment of its requirements and involves some form of non-rationality on the part of U.S. allies because there is no such thing as a “U.S. nuclear guarantee.” There exists a powerful American commitment to protect others with nuclear weapons, but, as James R. Schlesinger put it, the likelihood of an American nuclear response is “certainly not a hundred percent.”

Finally, extended deterrence is a risky policy. It necessitates risk-taking and risk-manipulation by the protector and by demand of the protected. If the threat to the protected increases, the protector faces pressures to engage in greater risk-taking, which can also result in greater risk to its own security. The historical record is full of examples of the tendency for allied demands for U.S. actions to deter a common opponent such as Russia by nuclear threats which exceed not only the level and scope of what the United States deems necessary to protect itself, but also of what Washington deems necessary to protect allies. In the run-up to NATO’s double-track decision of 1979, for example, the United Kingdom and West Germany pushed a reluctant U.S. government to agree to the deployment of Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe because these missiles provided a means to put targets in the Soviet Union at risk, in contrast to, say, battlefield nuclear weapons.

Former British Defense Secretary Denis Healey exaggerated this phenomenon of disproportionate deterrence/assurance thresholds: “It takes only five per cent credibility of American retaliation to deter the Russians, but ninety-five per cent credibility to reassure the Europeans.” This “Healey theorem” should not be taken at face value. It banalizes the problem of allied assurance needs because non-nuclear allies appear more unwitting than they are. It also nurtures the insinuation that non-nuclear allies are almost eager for nuclear war.

As the Warsaw Summit approaches, the United States needs to be mindful of pressure from weaker allies, particularly those located in close vicinity to danger, to make the U.S. manipulate risk to a greater extent than the United States deems necessary from a deterrence perspective. Yet Washington must tread carefully, for applying the brakes too sharply can make effective assurance difficult or impossible.

The importance of nuclear consultation in peacetime as a tool to assure allies is probably much greater today than it was during the Cold War.

First, during the Cold War, American national security elites thought that the protection of Western Europe against large-scale military aggression and potential Soviet hegemony was a vital interest. Nowadays, there is consensus that the likeliest challenge to extended deterrence in Europe is posed by potential instability in Eastern Europe and aggression against the Baltics, for which NATO is now inadequately prepared, despite improvements within the alliance since the 2014 Wales Summit.

The new need to think harder about limited war, including limited nuclear war, implies a need to rethink how to make nuclear threats credible to deter aggression against U.S. allies. These threats have to be made credible because they are not directly related to the protection of the continental United States. Nuclear consultation will be an indispensable tool for this task.

Second, the nuclear portion of the U.S. military footprint in Europe is only a shadow of what it was during the Cold War. The Obama administration has committed to maintain and extend the service life of the U.S. nuclear capability in Europe, the B61 bomb. But it objected to addressing yawning asymmetries in the nuclear balance vis-à-vis Russia in non-strategic nuclear capabilities and very low-yield nuclear weapons. At the same time, the current U.S. military footprint in Europe is not unbearably weak, but might become so as a consequence of an unprecedented change in U.S. foreign policy according to America First thinking.

Nowadays, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Europe is less important in reassuring allies than it was during the Cold War. Still, it is unclear whether large asymmetries in non-strategic nuclear forces can be destabilizing.

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear consultation within NATO contributed greatly to the cultivation of restraint and allied confidence on the basis of a residual Europe-based U.S. nuclear capability amid decreasing reliance on nuclear weapons. Recently, allied consultations about nuclear deterrence were instrumental to facilitate consensus about the remaining U.S. nuclear posture in Europe, which figures as “a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities” for assurance and deterrence purposes. In striking contrast, these consultations did not provide a means to disarm the U.S. nuclear footprint in Europe by disentangling allied perceptions of U.S. resolve from U.S. nuclear capabilities. Still, some commentators continue to advocate the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe in the post-Crimea environment. Others respond with convincing arguments that such move would be destabilizing and traumatize European allies in the current security environment.

History shows that confidential, high-level, and substantive nuclear consultation in peacetime provided a means to fortify the political acceptability and strategic credibility of U.S. extended deterrence from the point of view of non-nuclear allies. Former British Minister of Defense Denis Healey put it this way behind closed doors within the NATO Nuclear Planning Group in 1969:

Historians looking back in twenty years might be curious about the reasons why countries in the front line appeared willing to leave vital decisions affecting their defence in the hands of those furthest away from the battle area. He considered that nations concerned would be willing to continue on the present basis if those on the front without nuclear weapons had been enabled to think the problem through in advance during peacetime and to reach agreement, in principle, on the kind of actions that might be required in an emergency.

What was Healey referring to? The pivotal “problem” and “the kind of actions” in emergency were related to thinking about and allied consensus on nuclear doctrine, including the threat of defensive initial use of U.S. nuclear weapons in the protection of Europe. Allied compromise on such doctrine codified in the PPGs of 1969 represented a core component of European confidence in U.S. extended deterrence, particularly in frontline states like West Germany. Building compromise on this sensitive subject matter was very demanding. The process laid open disagreement and divergences of interest among allies. But it also showed that education of non-nuclear allies, mutual learning, and balancing of non-identical positions were possible.

At the Warsaw Summit, three issues should clearly be on the table.

First, the NATO allies need to work toward a common assessment of the Russian threat, particularly of the Russian nuclear threat. Threat assessments will also inform debates about the difficult question of exactly how demanding NATO’s deterrence mission actually is. At a minimum, U.S. leadership will matter greatly to avoid the debate itself becoming an obstacle for allied assurance.

Debates will likely be shaped by those who deem downplaying the Russian nuclear threat dangerous, and by others who fall back on the assumption that no atomic power would use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. The dictate of the moment is to be clear-eyed about the possibility that Russian leaders might be willing to embrace major risks. This might include a strategy of conventional fait accompli, for example against the Baltics, that exploits threats of coercive nuclear escalation against defending NATO allies in order to paralyze NATO militarily and to fracture it politically.

Second, NATO allies will have to send strong deterrence messages to Moscow without forgetting the importance of assuring Russia about the West’s interest in strategic stability. Crucially, NATO allies will have to decide on how to respond to Russian nuclear messaging in ways that minimize the possibility of misperception. This might entail new public emphasis on threats of defensive initial use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear aggression. It should entail strong signals of NATO’s resolve not to concede victory, especially not in situations where the alliance faces threats of limited nuclear use. NATO, or at least some allies, might also consider a deterrence by denial role for missile defense in Europe against Russia.

Third, NATO allies must address pressing questions about limited nuclear war that go to the heart of U.S. extended deterrence. How does conflict under a nuclear shadow evolve? How does Russia think about managing nuclear escalation? What is the best way to negate a Russian strategy of nuclear blackmail and brinksmanship in crisis without undermining strategic stability? How can NATO restore deterrence if Russia threatens nuclear use or actually uses nuclear weapons?

History indicates that, when it comes to nuclear doctrine, U.S. allies put pressure on the United States to engage in risk-taking in ways that often exceeds the U.S. threshold in the first place. Hence, American leadership must be powerful. But in mitigating allied demands for risk-taking, Washington also needs to be careful not to fuel allied fears that the United States is prepared to disregard its allies’ security in times of war. At some level, these fears are real. But such political risks should not make the United States and its allies shy away from raising and addressing fundamental questions in confidential, high-level, and substantive consultations on nuclear deterrence issues.


Andreas Lutsch is Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). He holds a PhD in history from the University of Mainz, Germany and is currently writing a book on West German nuclear security policy in the 1960s and 1970s.

Image: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Robert Trubia