Ludo De Brabander
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Developments in NATO and Europe on nuclear arms and beyond
Action during NATO Summit Washington (Foto: L. De Brabander)

Developments in NATO and Europe on nuclear arms and beyond

Militarism is on the rise. NATO is increasing its military spending. The EU is developing militarist structures and funding. Treaties and agreements have not prevented planned large scale investements in new nuclear arms. The international peace movement will have to deal with these dangerous developments.

On 4th April NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary. In military industrial complex circles the champagne corks popped. Who, at the end of the Cold War, would have dared to presume that NATO would go on to play such a prominent international role? The transatlantic alliance had, after all, fulfilled its raison d'etre: Germany was reunited, the Warsaw Pact had been dissolved in 1991, and the Soviet Union had fallen apart. NATO had to reinvent itself. Economic and geostrategic interests, not the least of which were those of the military industrial complex, formed of course the real reasons for NATO's existence. The military alliance was faced with an existential dilemma. The answer to this has repeatedly and rather flexibly been summarised as ‘out of area or out of business’. The organisation opted for an aggressive, expansionist course. The strategic environment had changed and NATO must be able to act beyond its territory in order to be able to defend its security interests, as was soon being said.

The Alliance underwent a a thorough transformation, developing into an interventionist organisation. The war over Kosovo twenty years ago was the litmus test for a new NATO with global reach, a military arm and an economic bloc. A few years later it was Afghanistan’s turn, and ten years after that NATO planes bombed Libyan troops in what Anders Fogh Rasmussen, at the time NATO Secretary General, would call “the most successful operation in the history of NATO”. This grandiose propaganda is typical of the NATO establishment. The reality looks very different. The Libyan population has, since then, been weighed down by chaos and violence. In Afghanistan, hundreds of billions of military dollars have only increased the misery of war. NATO, like a hungry animal, has not stood still, and its tentacles have extended to every corner of the world. In eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Oceania, the military alliance maintains bilateral and multilateral structures of cooperation. Meanwhile NATO is also present in Latin America, establishing a partnership with Colombia. Given the American threat of war against Venezuela, that's dangerous, and this could have implications for other NATO states.

The west's war policies have caused a great many people to flee their homes. In the war-torn areas, terrorist organisations find breeding grounds. Just as Al-Qaeda was a product of an armaments programme and geostrategic calculation under the leadership of the United States, so Islamic State succeeded in growing into a powerful organisation on the rubble of Iraq. The successive enlargements of NATO and the buildup of troops on its eastern borders created unnecessary political tensions with Russia. Although NATO warns of an unstable strategic environment, its member states are responsible for two thirds of the world's trade in arms, with which war and destabilisation go hand in hand. The NATO member states refused, under pressure from the US, to accede to the UN treaty banning nuclear weapons. NATO persists in seeing nuclear weapons as an essential cornerstone of its military strategy. Today the Alliance is busy modernising its nuclear arsenal and with the installation of a rocket shield. These provocations have predictably led to menacing Russian reactions. A self-fulfilling prophecy, therefore.


Despite all of this, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated last month, during the presentation of the organisation's annual report, that “NATO remains a pillar of stability for future generations”. He was also satisfied with the increasing amount of weaponry. The report states that the military expenditure of the European members and Canada had grown by almost 4% during the previous year. Since 2016 they have spent between them $41 billion. According to Stoltenberg, by the end of next year this will have reached $100 billion. At a total of $919 billion, NATO already accounts for more than half of global military spending. Billions on arms instead of social and environmental investments. That's progress for militarism; for humanity it's a major step backwards.

The NATO member states agreed in 2014 to strive to raise their military expenditure to 2% of their GDP within ten years. As things stand only the US, Greece, the UK, Poland and the Baltic states have reached that objective. For my country, Belgium, it would mean several billion euro in additional spending, and that without any popular debate. Parliament has never had the opportunity to express a view on this norm. In times of strict budgetary discipline, growing poverty and urgently needed climate investments, this is totally irresponsible.

The European Union

Militarisation also has the European Union firmly in its grip. It is even laid down in the Lisbon Treaty, Article 42.3 of which commits the member states o “progressively to improve their military capabilities”. This obligation has been in preparation for some time, with the establishment of the European Defence Agency (EDA) in 2004. According to the Lisbon Treaty it's the task of the EDA “to strengthen the industrial and technological base of the defence sector”. On the Agency's website it states that the European military industry must become competitive “in Europe and in the world”. If this sounds perverse, it's because it is. For the EDA European armaments must improve their access to the world market, even if this means that we find ourselves once again involved in numerous violent conflicts.

Since the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, published her 'Global Strategy for the Common Foreign and Security Policy' in the summer of 2016, militarisation has been on fast track. Only a few months later the European Commission came up with its European Defence Action Plan. Henceforth the European taxpayer would be obliged to subsidise the military industry via a European Defence Fund. From 2021 onwards, this will amount to an annual €500 million for military research and development, and €5 billion for the common development of new weapons systems. In addition, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO in Article 42.6 of the Lisbon Treaty) was activated. Twenty-five EU member states will participate in this. Each commits to spending 20% of its defence budget on military investments and to increase the defence budget itself 'regularly'. Days before the organisation's summit in Brussels in 2018, NATO boss Stoltenberg and EU president Donald Tusk announced that the EU and NATO would cooperate still more closely, even though only 22 of the 28 EU member states are also members of the alliance.

Nuclear weapons

The most dangerous component of militarisation in the framework of NATO is its policy regarding nuclear weapons. For more than half a century there have been American nuclear bombs stationed on European soil, in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. It is estimated that this involves some 150 B61 nuclear bombs, each with ten times the force of the atom bomb which in 1945 destroyed Hiroshima. These are American nuclear bombs, but it will be fighter planes from the countries involved which will be responsible for their transport within the framework of NATO's nuclear burden-sharing. In addition, Britain and France each has its own arsenal of nuclear weapons.

As of 2019 there remain 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world, divided between nine nuclear-armed states. More than 2000 stand on 'high-alert', which is to say that within a timespan of a very few seconds, they can be launched. All nuclear weapon arsenals are being modernised so that they can be used in the coming decades, including the American B61 nuclear bombs at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium.

From 2020 onwards 'modernised' B61-12 nuclear bombs will begin rolling off the production line. In reality these are entirely new nuclear bombs which carry military characteristics other than those carried by existing B-61 bombs. With less explosive power, equipped with a new tailpiece for more precise use, these features make these nuclear bombs more 'usable', totally in keeping with the new US ‘Nuclear Posture Review’. According to this new nuclear strategy, the whole of the nuclear arms arsenal – on land and sea and in the air – will be renewed. The cost? $1.7 billion dollars The United States is striving for total nuclear hegemony, which is the reason why the INF

treaty, a bilateral agreement between Washington and Moscow for a ban on short- and medium-range rockets, had to go. Chances are great that New Start, a treaty setting limitations to the strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US, will not be extended.

A few years ago Naomi Klein wrote that there were two planet-wide threats: global warming and imminent nuclear war. If the US succeeds with its 'deployable' nuclear weapons, then we should fear for the future of our planet. A limited nuclear war between India en Pakistan would already be enough to provoke a nuclear winter, which a simulation has indicated would kill a quarter of the world's population. That things have come so far is the result of political failures, a lack of ability and a lack of will on the part of political leaders to match deeds to words. In the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in force for almost half a century, nuclear armed states commit themselves to a process of disarmament, while non-nuclear armed states are banned from acquiring or controlling nuclear weapons in direct or indirect ways (NPT Article II). In other words, the nuclear bombs on European soil are unambiguously in conflict with the NPT.

The struggle against nuclear weapons must be a priority for the peace movement. They are life-threatening, a majority of the population is in favour of a ban, and history tells us that people can be mobilised en masse around the issue. Furthermore, the elimination of nuclear weapons gives us a clear goal: to put pressure on for nuclear disarmament. And as is provided for in the NPT itself, the text of a new UN ban on nuclear weapons was approved by 122 countries in July 2017, a historic step. For the first time in history a treaty had been adopted that universally and unambiguously forbids the production, possession, transfer and use of nuclear weapons. The NATO member states, which include Belgium and the Netherlands, are boycotting the treaty, refusing to sign it. It's up to the peace movement to change this.

Time for a peace movement 2.0

The peace movement's aim is to present an enormous challenge to militarism, and it seeks to call a halt to the arms race and the danger of nuclear war. Let's be honest. Today the peace movement is far from strong and is having difficulty in finding a structural point of contact with younger generations. However, it's literally correct in its attitude, defending as it does the international legal system, and first and foremost the UN Charter and the disarmament regime that it helped bring about. That goes moreover for the UN ban on nuclear weapons. Another plus for the peace movement is that it stands up for the people's interests, and not those of an economic or militarist oligarchy prepared to walk over corpses to secure its power and profits.

How then has it come about that the peace movement is less successful in finding a way to connect with the broader population? There are many factors which are beyond our control - the current situation itself, for example – but I think that part of this has to do with style and packaging, as well as with strategy and communication. It's possible that the ideal opportunity now presents itself. The climate demonstrations show that young people will get on to the streets en masse, and militantly, because they comprehend it as a matter of life and death. In that respect the climate issue has a great deal in common with the nuclear weapons problematic, which demands just as urgent an approach.

Are we not doing enough to find ways of attracting people into the movement? Surveys show that a majority of the population in every European country is opposed to the stationing of nuclear bombs on their territory, that they want rid of these dangerous weapons of mass destruction. The key question then is: how can we ensure that this majority allows itself to be seen and that its weight tells in political decision-making?

1. I think that the peace movement must demand its place more forcefully, and with active, creative and above all clear forms of action and communication, address young people. My personal view is that we need to put far more energy into this, for instance into street demonstrations and digital actions. Is it for example not time for new, major mobilisations or more relentless forms of civil disobedience to protect the interests of the majority and make ourselves more visible? Have we not become to too great an extent lobbyists in the corridors of political power, and have we not somewhat neglected direct contact with the people?

2. The peace movement would also benefit from better maintaining and deploying alliances across the various sectors. That was the successful formula of the mass mobilisations of the 1980s against the installation of new nuclear missiles, which led eventually to the INF treaty. Environmental movements, trade unions, North-South solidarity movements, youth-, women's- and anti-racist organisations could all reinforce each other. This should include a better international grounding. Our connections are our strength.

3. A European campaign against the stationing of new nuclear bombs, conducted in cooperation with the US peace movement, seems to me now a must. We must make every effort for a ban on nuclear weapons, penalise banks for investing in the production of nuclear arms, and name and shame politicians for their refusal to support nuclear disarmament, on the grounds that nuclear weapons are an infringement of international humanitarian law.

4. A sound ideological foundation in which the importance of solidarity, of justice, diversity, peace and respect for the environment are central, remains fundamental to the peace movement. In addition we must continue to stress that a policy of peace is realistic, and a policy of war extremist. In opposition to expensive militarisation we must bring a coherent story to the table, a story of disarmament coupled with peaceful coexistence, cooperative security, investment in human security and a preventive approach to the causes of violent conflicts.

5. In opposition to expensive war machines such as NATO, we must bring to the fore the persuasive idea of 'disarming to develop.' Quitting NATO and dissolving the alliance are not radical ideas, but simple logic. I am certain that most people would rather invest in well-functioning schools instead of fighter planes or all-destroying nuclear bombs.

In sum, we must at last understand that we have the potential to have a huge impact!

(This text is the translated speech of the author for the Peace Day of the Socialist Party in Amsterdam, 13 April 2019)


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