NATO’s current nuclear strategy is untenable. Crises during the Cold War reveal that nuclear strategies become dangerous exactly in the circumstances they are intended to deter, in political confrontations.
By Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
Is the west’s own example more persuasive than admonitions and threats? To me, this is the missing question in the ominous brinkmanship over North Korea’s nuclear arms threats and looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear options, should the nuclear agreement crumble under pressure.
If we think nuclear arms are our ultimate assurance of security, why shouldn’t other countries think the same? A critical look at the role of these doomsday weapons in western defense strategy is now imperative.
This year three events should call our attention to the question: are we more secure with or without nuclear arms?
How my journey into the heart of communism made me a strong believer
Stanislav Petrov’s death this year reminds me of my first real job as a Visiting Lecturer from Norway at the University of Greifswald in the academic year of 1980 – 81, under the just recently signed cultural exchange treaty between our two countries, Norway and East Germany.
My journey into the heart of Communist Germany, not long after Timothy Garton Ash, was considered daring at the time. This was when Reagan became President, Angela Merkel was a budding physicist and dissenter somewhere else in East Germany, and just a few years before Putin had been posted to the Dresden KGB branch office. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Strategic Missile Force where a few years later, he was to save the world from nuclear war by deliberately misreading some instructions.
Although not that far away, East Germany in 1980-81 was practically terra incognita. Consequently, I returned home an expert I thought, confident that I had uncovered the truth behind the veil of propaganda and lies. If anyone understood these communist power-mongers, it was I, and I found them dangerous both to our democracy and our freedom. Joining the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after my job in East Germany, I became a strong believer in drawing even in nuclear arms in one of my first assignments, which was working on the disarmament process.
How I erred
Then after the end of the Cold War, when the truths came out, I realized I had got it all wrong. One specific memory will suffice. In East Germany, my wife and I soon blended in. So people let their guards down, and I could slip into meetings where people said things not exactly meant for my ears.
One such occasion was a discussion on whether class struggle in Scandinavia would lead to war with the socialist countries. A high-ranking naval officer stated that their observations in the Baltic Sea of the Swedish navy confirmed this. There was no doubt that the Swedes were preparing to attack. Two East German diplomats present then rejected this contention. They did not believe the Swedes were prepared to attack. At the time, I had put the naval officer’s bellicosity down to stupidity and sycophancy, and was reassured by the good sense of the East German diplomats.
Was I wrong! In hindsight, I realized I had witnessed Operation Ryan at work. Unknown to all but a very narrow circle of decision-makers in the west, the ageing and ailing Kremlin leaders under the dying Andropov had come to fear that the western powers were preparing a nuclear first strike under the guise of a military exercise. Their reason was precisely the kind of class struggle analysis with which the East German naval officer had justified his bellicosity. In this ideological view of the world, war between such incompatible “systems” as socialism and capitalism, was inevitable. Maybe the time had come in 1983. Therefore, they ordered spies and their military to look for signs of an impending attack, so that the Kremlin could strike first to prevent the attack or at least cut their losses.
Spies telling the truth not believed
Most disturbing about this was their refusal to believe the presumably good news that their worst fears were unfounded. From the memoirs of the two last East German spy chiefs, Markus Wolf  and Werner Grossmann , we now know that their KGB superior Krytsjkov, refused to believe their spy in the NATO headquarter, Rainer Rupp, that there were indeed no NATO plans for a first nuclear strike. Even more disturbing is the view of the western agent in the KGB, Mitrokhin,  that the sycophancy of the East German spy chiefs prevented them from offering any intelligence that contradicted the prevailing view in the Kremlin.
Fortunately, British and US decision-makers believed their spy, KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, and took care to scale down military exercises and tone down confrontational rhetoric.
Ban on nuclear arms a threat to western security?
It is in my view disturbing that in the current controversy over nuclear arms there is not more focus on the example of Stanislav Petrov. The context in which he exercised his good judgement, was that of a nuclear strategy still in operation. A preemptive strike becomes a dangerous option when a political crisis feeds delusions about concealed intentions. Hierarchical bureaucratic organizations foster sycophancy by a combination of seduction and intimidation. The kind of person capable of the sound judgement and courage that Petrov demonstrated at that fateful moment, is far too rare and fragile a probability for the survival of humankind to hinge upon it.
Instead of taking the occasion of Petrov’s death to reflect critically on the soundness of current defense strategies, NATO states boycotted the UN vote over the ban on nuclear arms. The Netherlands even voted against the ban. Then, in an apparent rejection of the NATO nuclear strategy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN, the international organization to ban all nuclear arms.
These contradictory views on nuclear arms reflect a serious disagreement. What the disagreement over nuclear arms is all about, Petrov brought into sharp focus in 1983 during his lonely watch in the Soviet command center. He saved the world from total destruction when he prevented the Soviet Union from launching an all-out nuclear attack through a misunderstanding. This narrow escape shows that nuclear arms and concomitant strategies are a grave security risk.
Disagreement is a dilemma
The reasons for the persistence of NATO’s nuclear strategy in spite of the proven risks is that the disagreement over the role of nuclear arms actually reflects a dilemma, not only for NATO but also for Russia and for all other nuclear arms states. The threat of nuclear arms shall make attack impossible. At the same time, the thought of actually using nuclear arms under any circumstances is also impossible. The threat of nuclear arms must in other words be credible to be impossible.
The reason this contradiction turns into a dilemma is that two imperative goals pull in opposite directions. We need to prevent political pressure and block the options for military attack, while at the same time preventing nuclear war. This dilemma turns into a disagreement over the question of which of these goals entails the highest risk of unintended consequences.
Risk of nuclear war versus risk of vulnerability to political pressure
We can seek the answer to this question in evolving nuclear strategy, a strategy not hewn in stone, but changed in response to political crises. Up until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was broad agreement that nuclear arms were a panacea for security by blocking both political pressure and war. However, on the brink of a nuclear war both the USA and the Soviet Union realized how dangerous their nuclear strategy became in a political confrontation.
We now know how President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis gradually realized that the risks of unintended nuclear war outweighed the risks of vulnerability to political pressure. Those who stuck to a tough posture were concerned to avoid the miscalculation that in their interpretation failed to contain the aggressive and expansive dictatorship of Hitler, the prelude to World War II.
Kennedy, however, in the course of the crisis became more concerned with the prelude to World War I. Robert Kennedy, in his book on how the President handled the crisis, says he read one of the bestsellers of that year, Barbara Tuckman’s book Guns of August. Her point was that military strategies inevitably led to war. The parallels to the nuclear strategies became impossible to overlook. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, US Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara concluded that the only realistic nuclear strategy was to avoid crises.
How western policy had dangerous unintended consequences
The subsequent period when the superpowers avoided dangerous crises between them ended abruptly with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979. The west’s reactions, boycott, military maneuvers and confrontational rhetoric, proved to have dangerous unintended consequences. The ageing, isolated Kremlin leaders began seriously to envisage a western nuclear attack. If so, they needed to strike first to prevent the attack, or at least reduce the damage to the greatest extent possible. Would they have to destroy the feared US missiles before they could be launched? It was in this dangerous situation that Stanislav Petrov kept his cool and prevented an all-out «defensive» Soviet nuclear attack through misunderstanding.
This time, it took longer to adjust policy to the dangerous consequences of nuclear arms in political confrontations. Only with Gorbachev as the new Soviet leader did a radical nuclear disarmament become possible. The so-called intermediate nuclear missiles were removed by an agreement in 1987.
Contradictions in nuclear strategy block nuclear disarmament
However, an agreement to remove the rest of the nuclear missiles was impossible even under favorable political conditions. The contradictions in the nuclear strategies proved insurmountable.
Ever since the new leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, met US president Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986, disagreement over US and NATO plans for missile defense blocked negotiations on effective nuclear disarmament. While the US and NATO contended that a missile defense was able to block off the feared nuclear attack, Russia thought the opposite. In the Russian view, a nuclear attack becomes more feasible if a missile defense can block off the capacity for a retaliatory attack. The problem is that both views are right.
New phase of confrontation may make nuclear strategy dangerous again
We are now entering a new phase of confrontation that begins to resemble the situation following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then as now, an absence of dialogue during political crises creates an emotional climate that may feed delusions about concealed intentions. However, at the same time, in political confrontations we face a growing need to resist political pressure and, in a worst-case scenario, block options for attack. Once more, two imperative goals pull in opposite directions. This may become dangerous – again.
NATO’s nuclear strategy untenable
NATOs current nuclear strategy is untenable. Crises during the Cold War reveal that the nuclear strategies become dangerous exactly in the circumstances they are intended to deter, in political confrontations. Then the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations may reach a dangerous level.
Low political tensions enable nuclear disarmament
By contrast, experience also shows that the lower the political tensions, the easier it is to agree on cutting nuclear arms. By way of example, in the current political climate of confrontation and ensuing high tension, the US – Russian agreement to remove the old Soviet nuclear arms from the new state of the Ukraine would not have been possible. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine was suddenly a nuclear super power, but agreed to become a non-nuclear state, hardly likely today. How would it have affected our security, were they still armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons?
NATO defense strategy feasible without nuclear arms
Those who do not support a ban on nuclear arms now are of course right that we need an adequate defense to protect us against pressure and block options for an attack, should anyone ever begin to entertain such a deranged idea. The question is if an adequate defense is feasible without the ultimate threat of nuclear arms. A related question is of course how nuclear arms can deter when ultimate recourse to these doomsday weapons is inconceivable.
In the current disagreement over the ban on nuclear arms, nobody seems to recall that only ten years ago a group of elderly statesmen from the US, Russia and Germany called for a universal ban and a defense without nuclear arms. Among them were several with a thorough insight into and personal experience of both nuclear arms and nuclear strategies. The veteran Henry Kissinger in 1973 raised the US nuclear alert to pressure the Soviet Union to cease their support of Egypt during the war with Israel, thus threatening with nuclear arms for political leverage. The Soviet Union’s last leader, Michael Gorbachev, was intimately familiar with the risks inherent in Russian nuclear strategy that Petrov defused. Germany’s previous prime minister Helmut Schmidt initiated the fateful NATO nuclear rearmament that caused the 1983 war scare in the Kremlin. These statesmen had sound reasons for calling for a universal ban and a defense without the ultimate recourse to nuclear arms.
Open debate must consider arguments on their own merits
A realistic analysis of nuclear arms today must ask why these experienced and knowledgeable statesmen held this view. Those who oppose their view must show how they erred.
The answer to these imperative questions can only be found by an open and constructive debate in which arguments are considered on their own merits. Sycophancy, the very nature of hierarchical decision-making and the preeminent cause of bureaucratic dysfunction, is literally a security risk.
Robert Kennedy writes in his book on President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis that the President always wanted disagreement among his advisors to ensure the best possible advice.
Torgeir E. Fjærtoft is a Norwegian diplomat and now a Visiting Research Fellow with the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Oslo. His latest posting was to Saudi Arabia, but his longest experience has been of the UN, EU / EEA and German issues. His current research project is on collective security in the Middle East.
This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.
- Timothy Garton Ash The File: A Personal History
- M. Wolf, Spionagechef Im Geheimen Krieg: Erinnerungen (Ullstein, 2003).
- Werner Grosmann, Bonn Im Blick: Die Ddr-Aufklärung Aus Der Sicht Ihres Letzten Chefs (Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 2007 (2001)).
- C.M. Andrew and V.N. Mitrochin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The Kgb in Europe and the West (Allen Lane. The Penguin Press, 2000).
- Benjamin B. Fischer, “A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare,” (CIA); G. Schild, 1983: Das Gefährlichste Jahr Des Kalten Krieges (Schöningh, 2013).