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Time to get U.S. nukes out of Europe

One of the more pernicious obstacles to rational policy-making is the "ratchet effect": the tendency for policies, once adopted, to acquire a life of their own and to become resistant to change, even when they have ceased to be useful. For example, you can be confident that we will all be wasting time in airport security lines decades from now, long after Osama bin Laden's death. Existing security measures may not pass a simple cost-benefit test, but what political leader would dare relax them?

I thought of this problem as I read a new article by Tom Sauer and Bob van der Zwaan, on the curious persistence of the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe. (The title of the article is "U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe after NATO's Lisbon Summit: Why Their Withdrawal is Desirable and Feasible," and it's in the latest issue of the academic journal International Relations.) Sauer and van der Zwaan examine the various arguments for and against keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. They conclude -- convincingly, in my view -- that there is no good reason to keep them there and plenty of good reasons to remove them.

I have to confess that I hadn't realized the United States still had any tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe. (Sorry about that; I can't keep track of everything). But it turns out we still have a couple of hundred or so weapons stationed there (down from about 500 a decade ago). These are mostly gravity bombs deployed under "dual-key" arrangements: The U.S. has custody of the weapons in peacetime, but custody could in theory be transferred to the various host nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey) in the event of war.

But isn't this a rather ludicrous situation, two decades after the Cold War ended? There is no threat of a conventional invasion of Western Europe, and thus no need to "link" the U.S. strategic deterrent to Europe's defense via tactical weapons physically deployed on the continent. (The theories that justified these deployments during the Cold War never made much sense to me either, but that's another story.) It's hard to imagine that these weapons are helping Dutch, German, or Turkish elites sleep soundly at night, or helping reassure their respective populations. If anything, local populations should worry about having these devices on their soil, which is why governments tend not to talk about them. Democracy in action!

In short, these weapons serve no legitimate strategic purpose (which is why the numbers have been declining), but bureaucratic inertia and/or political timidity explain why the United States and NATO haven't bitten the bullet and removed them completely.

As Sauer and van der Zwaan make clear, the benefits of doing so would be considerable. It would reinforce the basic logic of nuclear disarmament, and further "de-legitimize" nuclear weapons as status symbols, thereby contributing to broader nuclear security objectives. It would be consistent with the pledges that the United States made when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would reduce the threat of nuclear theft and/or nuclear terrorism, a danger intensified by the fact that U.S. nuclear-storage sites in Europe apparently do not meet our own security standards. If it were linked to further reductions of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, it would increase overall nuclear security even more. It would also save money, which is supposedly a priority these days. And if this step had any impact on the credibility of the U.S. commitment to NATO (which is highly doubtful) it might encourage the Europeans to do more for their own defense, instead of continuing to rely on Uncle Sucker.

In short, there's an overwhelming case for removing these archaic and unnecessary weapons from the European continent. Ideally, we would do this as part of a bilateral deal with Russia, but we ought to do it even if Russia isn't interested. It's an election year, which normally encourages a certain degree of chest-thumping on national security matters, so you shouldn't expect any progress until 2013. But getting rid of these useless devices would be a very smart thing to do, no matter who the next president turns out to be.

And then we should rethink airport security....

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