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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO's New Marriage

NATO will celebrate its 50th anniversary this spring - a long run for a political-military marriage. In preparing to renew their vows, some partners, such as Germany and Canada, would like to adjust the alliance to post-Cold War changes. Unfortunately, the United States revealed last month that it is determined to keep the world in the dark about NATO nuclear affairs.

NATO was a shotgun marriage, formed under fear that Moscow could use nuclear threats to expand communism throughout Europe. The threat of Soviet military aggression deepened NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons as the first line of deterrence, leading to the policy of using nuclear weapons first in conflict. Contrary to the general public's understanding, this meant that the United States would initiate nuclear war in response to conventional attack, not just to retaliate against Soviet nuclear attack.

However, the strategic basis for first use of nuclear weapons receded when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian army crumbled. Seven years later, the Russian army has been defeated in Chechnya and is utterly incapable of invading the West. Russia is so weakened that the United States is considering providing food aid to its army.

Recognizing the need and opportunity to update NATO's nuclear mission, Canada and Germany want the alliance to lower the salience of nuclear weapons. They believe that nuclear first use is unnecessary, counterproductive and unbefitting of a prosperous, democratic and strong Europe. Instead, they argue, NATO should promote nonproliferation by showing the world that nuclear weapons will not be an instrument of international power and status in the 21st century. At the very least, they argue, NATO must openly debate its nuclear doctrine in the light of the Cold War's end.

The Clinton administration wants no such debate. In the past few weeks, U.S. officials have pressured German and Canadian counterparts to abandon calls to reconsider NATO nuclear doctrine. The United States gives no compelling military-strategic reasons for its position. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen offered only that first use "is an integral part of our strategic concept, and we think it should remain exactly as it is."

During the Cold War, NATO and U.S. officials told their publics that reliance on massive nuclear threats was a regrettable, tragic necessity to counter the Soviet menace. Now that the Russian menace has waned, the sense of regret has been replaced by a limp assertion that first use of nuclear weapons is a good thing that should be continued forever without question. In this vein, the Pentagon also insists that the United States must keep at least 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons deployed under a START III treaty, when the Russians want the limit to be 1,000. This bizarre attitude debases the higher aspirations that motivated the West's Cold War struggle for security from nuclear destruction. The Germans remember but the United States is trying to make them forget.

To be sure, threats remain that responsible officials cannot ignore. Yet the threats in Europe are no longer westward Russian invasion and nuclear bolts from the blue. For the foreseeable future, the dangers are ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe, retrograde nationalism, loose nukes in Russia and terrorism. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to deterring or defeating these threats. If Cohen or other U.S. officials have a scenario in which NATO would use nuclear weapons first, they should specify and debate it. The world's leading collection of democracies deserves nothing less.

U.S. officials understandably posit the potential need to use nuclear weapons in a major war on the Korean peninsula or perhaps in the Persian Gulf, especially if adversaries wield weapons of mass destruction. Such scenarios can and should be debated, too. Yet wars in these theaters do not threaten the existence of European states, and it is in Europe that NATO nuclear doctrine pertains.

Or does it? Cohen hinted last month that the United States seeks to expand NATO's writ to the entire globe and to expand the mission of nuclear weapons to counter potential biological and chemical weapon threats anywhere on Earth. This may be the real story, and it explains the Pentagon's desire for silence. If there were a debate, the rest of the world and many Americans would question new missions for NATO. Extending the role of nuclear weapons would violate U.S. treaty commitments not to make nuclear threats against non-nuclear states. If this is what the United States has in mind, it should allow democratic deliberation on these changes.

The United States leads the global nonproliferation regime but seems to forget that the regime is predicated on the goal of devaluing and trying to eliminate nuclear weapons. Parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will meet in 2000 to renew their "vows," and it is naive to think that they will not be affected by NATO's example. If the world's most powerful and secure states refuse to devalue nuclear weapons as a first line of defense, how can weaker states in more troubled regions be expected not to seek these weapons? By stifling open debate on these and other questions, the United States sullies the human nobility, idealism and activism on which NATO was founded.

George Perkovich is director of the Secure World Program at the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.