Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Sverre Lodgaard  |  07 December, 2020

Between the Ban Treaty and Business as Usual: The Role of Umbrella States

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The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW or the Ban Treaty) exposes the contradictory engagements of umbrella states. Many of them are strong supporters of nuclear disarmament while subscribing to alliance policies that underline the importance of nuclear weapons and sustain nuclear modernisation.

The humanitarian narrative underpinning the Ban Treaty emphasises the risk that nuclear weapons will be used and the humanitarian consequences if it happens. The nuclear weapon states explain their failure to disarm in reference to the international security environment. Big power relations are too strained and complex to permit new arms control and disarmament agreements.

On September 21, 2020, 56 leaders of umbrella states, including 22 European states, published an open letter in support of the Ban Treaty. In their view, business as usual is a recipe for disaster and therefore no tenable alternative. They denounced any role for nuclear weapons in the defence of their countries.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the international security narrative. A key issue, here, is the purported credibility of the roles assigned to nuclear weapons. The nuclear umbrella is supposed to guarantee that if allies are attacked, the US would use nuclear weapons against the aggressor if necessary. Over the years, new weapons have been introduced to bolster that assumption, some of them on European soil, but the fundamental credibility problem persists.

Charles de Gaulle said the US would not sacrifice Chicago for Paris. In 1979, Henry Kissinger tuned in, cautioning that “the Europeans should not ask for assurances that we cannot possibly give”. If it came to war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the US would not use its weapons against the Soviet Union because this would trigger retaliation against US territory. The logic is strong and unambiguous, and it is no less valid today. We do not have to read public statements and war manuals to know that this is so. That commonality of interests works perfectly well by tacit understanding. Of course, a nuclear war may get out of control and escalate to the strategic level, and as long as the probability of it is a figure above zero, the credibility of the umbrella cannot be entirely dismissed. But the US and Russia would certainly do everything in their power to ensure that their own territories become sanctuaries.

Today, the US has in the order of 150 gravity bombs in five European countries, down from a peak of 7300 in 1971. The bombs, under American control, may be released to the host countries and used by their nuclear certified aircraft. The Europeans would hardly use them against targets on European soil, and the Americans would not use them against Russia for fear of retaliation. Their value is therefore said to be symbolic and political, signalling common belief in the coherence of NATO. There is also the claim that they provide a necessary glue to keep the Alliance together. However, if they fail on the credibility test, is it not time to forget about make-believe politics and drop the physical arrangements that allegedly sustain it? Assertions about the necessary glue likewise: had the integrity of the Alliance depended on such hollow symbols it would have disappeared a long time ago.

The international security narrative therefore leads to the same conclusion as the humanitarian one: umbrella states are best served by staking their defences on conventional means, not on weapons that cannot be used. That conclusion is particularly pertinent after the collapse of the INF Treaty and in the face of renewed arms build-up. To stick to traditional action-reaction thinking in such an environment, known for its in-built security dilemmas, and without comparative analyses of other options, is woefully inadequate. Still, in official circles there is an aversion to discussing these matters for fear that it would cause severe disagreements and splits in the Alliance.

The dilemma facing umbrella countries is a hard one. In most of them, there is significant public pressure to join the Ban Treaty and, at the same time, strong support for continued NATO membership. Would cutting all bonds to nuclear weapons be compatible with continued Alliance membership? Some argue that it is, noting that the Alliance is a conglomerate of nuclear and non-nuclear states; of states that are hosting nuclear weapons and others which do not; that at various points in time, states have distanced themselves from specific elements of US and NATO policy; and that France left the military part of NATO but remained part of the political cooperation without rocking the rest. Others claim it is incompatible, adding that in the face of big power pressure, small states tend to balk at running the risks involved – especially if they cannot agree to act together.

Politicians are therefore groping for viable compromises. One would be to signal participation at the first meeting of TPNW parties, as observers. That would not be enough to satisfy pro ban supporters, but it would be enough to worry nuclear weapon states. Another would be to initiate consultations between umbrella states in Europe and Asia on how to relate to the TPNW and the NPT. As the newcomer (TPNW) is claiming agency of its own while the old-timer (NPT) has been significantly weakened, the relationship between them merits discussion. Umbrella states can position themselves as in-betweens and ameliorate the wrangling between the respective treaty supporters. Some may also be bold enough to extricate themselves from the nuclear dimension of alliance postures and seek acceptance for it in common.

Business as usual is the problem, not the solution. In view of current trends in international security affairs there can be little disagreement about that. If so, much is achieved, because it encourages reflection and re-examination of established positions. If not, the strength of argument will remain posited against the power of inertia.

Sverre Lodgaard is senior research fellow and former director (1997–2007) of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). He is also a senior research fellow of the Toda Peace Institute in Tokyo.