Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
The appropriate strategy for the use of nuclear weapons has been the subject of discussion since the North Atlantic Alliance was founded. Open debate on these problems is part of the natural foundations of an Alliance consisting of democracies which relate to each other as sovereign partners. It is not the first time in the history of the Alliance that fears about the danger of nuclear war have caused concern and anxieties in all member countries, although these are more pronounced today than before. They must be taken seriously. The questions posed demand convincing answers, for in a democracy, policy on questions of peace and war requires constantly renewed legitimization.
When McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara and Gerard Smith submit a proposal to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons in Europe,1 the mere fact that it comes from respected American personalities with long years of experience in questions of security policy and the Alliance gives it particular weight. Their reflections must be taken particularly seriously in a country like the Federal Republic of Germany which has a special interest in preserving peace, because in case of war nuclear weapons could first be used on its territory.
All responsible people must face the issues of the discussion initiated by the four authors. It is necessary to think through all questions posed and not to select only those ideas which cater to widespread anxieties. What matters most is to concentrate not only on the prevention of nuclear war, but on how to prevent any war, conventional war as well. The decisive criterion in evaluating this proposal-like any new proposal-must be: Will it contribute to preserving, into the future, the peace and freedom of the last three decades?
Unfortunately, the current discussion on both sides of the Atlantic about the four authors' proposal has been rendered more difficult by a confusion between the option of the "first use" of nuclear weapons and the capability for a "first strike" with nuclear weapons. The authors themselves have unintentionally contributed to this confusion by using both terms. "First use" refers to the first use of a nuclear weapon regardless of its yield and place; even blowing up a bridge with a nuclear weapon in one's own territory would represent a first use. "First strike" refers to a preemptive disarming nuclear strike aimed at eliminating as completely as possible the entire strategic potential of the adversary. A first strike by the Alliance is not a relevant issue; such a strike must remain unthinkable in the future as it is now and has been in the past. The matter for debate should be exclusively the defensive first use of nuclear weapons by the Western Alliance.
The current NATO strategy of flexible response is intended to discourage an adversary from using or threatening the use of military force by confronting him with a full spectrum of deterrence and hence with an uncalculable risk. The strategy also aims at improving the tools of crisis management as a means of preventing conflict. The deterrent effect of the doctrine rests on three pillars:
- the political determination of all Alliance members to resist jointly any form of aggression or blackmail;
- the capability of the Alliance to react effectively at every level of aggression; and
- the flexibility to choose between different possible reactions-conventional or nuclear.
The primary goal of this strategy is the prevention of war. To this end it harnesses the revolutionary new and inescapable phenomenon of the nuclear age for its own purposes. Our era has brought humanity not only the curse of the unprecedented destructive power of nuclear weapons but also its twin, the dread of unleashing that power, grounded in the fear of self-destruction. Wherever nuclear weapons are present, war loses its earlier function as a continuation of politics by other means. Even more, the destructive power of these weapons has forced political leaders, especially those of nuclear weapons states, to weigh risks to a degree unknown in history.
The longest period of peace in European history is inconceivable without the war-preventing effect of nuclear weapons. During the same time span more than a hundred wars have taken place in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the numbers of dead, wounded and refugees run into the millions.
The continuous increase in the number of nuclear weapons-now comprising many thousands of warheads with ever more refined delivery systems-instills in many people, for understandable reasons, anxieties about the consequences of a war with a destructive power that exceeds the human imagination. But the only new factor here is that more people realize these consequences than in the past. Many political and military leaders were already aware of them when these weapons were developed and the first test results were presented. The fear of the consequences of such a war has to this day fortunately led to a policy which has made an essential contribution to preventing war in Europe-but which at the same time has regrettably stimulated the buildup of arsenals, since neither side wanted to lapse into a position of inferiority.
The strategy of flexible response attempts to counter any attack by the adversary-no matter what the level-in such a way that the aggressor can have no hope of advantage or success by triggering a military conflict, be it conventional or nuclear. The tight and indissoluble coupling of conventional forces and nuclear weapons on the European continent with the strategic potential of the United States confronts the Soviet Union with the incalculable risk that any military conflict between the two Alliances could escalate to a nuclear war. The primary function of nuclear weapons is deterrence in order to prevent aggression and blackmail.
The coupling of conventional and nuclear weapons has rendered war between East and West unwageable and unwinnable up to now. It is the inescapable paradox of this strategy of war prevention that the will to conduct nuclear war must be demonstrated in order to prevent war at all. Yet the ensuing indispensable presence of nuclear weapons and the constantly recalled visions of their possible destructive effect, should they ever be used in a war, make many people anxious.
The case is similar with regard to the limitation of nuclear war: the strategy of massive retaliation was revised because, given the growing potential of destruction, the threat of responding even to low levels of aggression with a massive use of nuclear weapons became increasingly incredible. A threat once rendered incredible would no longer have been able to prevent war in Europe. Thus, in the mid-1960s the Europeans supported the introduction of flexible response, which made the restricted use of nuclear weapons-but also the limitation of any such use-an indispensable part of deterrence aimed at preventing even "small" wars in Europe. Critics of nuclear deterrence today misinterpret this shift in strategy, drawing from it a suspicion of conspiracy between the superpowers to wage a limited nuclear war on European territory and at the expense of the Europeans.
A renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons would certainly rob the present strategy of war prevention-which is supported by the government and the opposition in the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as by a great majority of the population-of a decisive characteristic. One cannot help concluding that the Soviet Union would thereby be put in a position where it could, once again, calculate its risk and thus be able to wage war in Europe. It would no longer have to fear that nuclear weapons would inflict unacceptable damage to its own territory. We therefore fear that a credible renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons would, once again, make war more probable.
A decisive weakness of the proposal by the four authors lies in their assertion that a no-first-use policy would render wars less likely, without producing sufficient evidence. Even though the restoration of the conventional balance which they call for (and which will be examined below) increases the conventional risk for the Soviet assault formations, such a policy would liberate the Soviet Union from the decisive nuclear risk-and thereby from the constraint that has kept the Soviet Union, up to now, from using military force, even for limited purposes, against Western Europe. The liberation from nuclear risk would, of course, benefit the United States to the same degree. It must be questioned, therefore, whether renunciation of first use represents a contribution to the "internal health of the Western alliance itself" (p. 66) or whether, instead, a no-first-use policy increases insecurity and fear of ever more probable war.
The argumentation of the four American authors is considerably weakened by their tendency to think in worst-case scenarios. They assume almost fatalistically a total irrationality of state behavior and the impossibility of controlling a supposedly irreversible escalation. We share the authors' opinion that the kind of Soviet adventurism that would undertake a nuclear first strike against the United States can be excluded as a serious possibility. We are also familiar with the recent studies which assert that a limited nuclear war probably becomes more and more difficult to control with increasing escalation. Here we cannot disagree. However, one must at the same time ask under what circumstances a first use of Western nuclear weapons in Europe-should it happen at all-would be probable. This is only thinkable in a situation where a large-scale conventional attack by the Warsaw Pact could no longer be countered by conventional means alone, thus forcing NATO to a limited use of nuclear weapons: small weapons in small quantities, perhaps even only a warning shot. All indications suggest that both sides would be extremely cautious, in order to avoid precisely the dreaded, possibly uncontrollable escalation which some studies rightfully present as a danger, and which the advocates of a no-first-use policy present as a certainty.
The Western Alliance is an alliance of equals. Its cohesion is therefore based on the greatest possible realization of the principles of equal risks, equal burdens and equal security. The present NATO strategy reflects this principle. It guarantees that the American military potential with all its components, conventional and nuclear, is included in the defense of Europe. Not only the inhabitants of the Federal Republic of Germany but also American citizens help bear the risks, the conventional as well as the nuclear. The indivisibility of the security of the Alliance as a whole and of its territory creates the credibility of deterrence.
The conclusions that can be drawn from the four authors' recommendations with regard to the commitment of the United States to the defense of Europe are profoundly disturbing. To be sure, they assert that no-first-use does not represent an abandonment of the American protective guarantee for Western Europe, but "only its redefinition" (p. 759). Indeed, that would be the case, but in the form of a withdrawal from present commitments of the United States.
The opinion of the four American authors that "the one clearly definable firebreak against the worldwide disaster of general nuclear war is the one that stands between all other kinds of conflict and any use whatsoever of nuclear weapons" (p. 757), amounts to no less than limiting the existing nuclear guarantee of protection by the United States for their non-nuclear Alliance partners to the case of prior use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union. Even in the case of a large-scale conventional attack against the entire European NATO territory, the Soviet Union could be certain that its own land would remain a sanctuary as long as it did not itself resort to nuclear weapons. This would apply even more to surprise operations aimed at the quick occupation of parts of Western Europe which are hardly defensible by conventional means.
In such a case, those attacked would have to bear the destruction and devastation of war alone. It is only too understandable that for years the Soviet Union has, therefore, pressed for a joint American-Soviet renunciation of first use of nuclear weapons, on occasion in the guise of global proposals. If the ideas of the authors were to be followed, conventional conflicts in Europe would no longer involve any existential risk for the territory of the Soviet Union and-despite the increased American participation in the conventional defense of Europe suggested by the authors-would be without such risk for the territory of the United States as well.
The authors' suggestion that "even the most responsible choice of even the most limited nuclear actions to prevent even the most imminent conventional disaster should be left out of authorized policy" (p. 762) makes completely clear that a withdrawal of the United States from its previous guarantee is at stake. They thus advise Western Europe to capitulate should defeat threaten, for example if the Federal Republic were in danger of being overrun conventionally. The American nuclear guarantee would be withdrawn.
The authors assert that the implementation of their astonishing proposal would not be taken in Europe, and especially in the Federal Republic, "as evidence of a reduced American interest in the Alliance and in effective overall deterrence" (p. 761), but that, on the contrary, it would be the best means "for keeping the Alliance united and effective" (p. 761). On this point we beg to differ: the proposed no-first-use policy would destroy the confidence of Europeans and especially of Germans in the European-American Alliance as a community of risk, and would endanger the strategic unity of the Alliance and the security of Western Europe.
Given a renunciation of nuclear first use, the risks of a potential aggressor doubtlessly become more calculable. Moreover, the significance of Soviet conventional superiority would thereby increase dramatically. Conventional war in Europe would once again become possible. It could again become a continuation of politics by other means. Moreover, NATO would face a fundamentally different conventional threat. The elimination of the nuclear risk would free the Warsaw Pact from the necessity to disperse attack forces. As a result NATO would have to produce significantly higher numbers of combat forces than today.
The assertion of the four American authors that there is a tendency to overestimate the conventional strength of the Soviet Union does not correspond to the most recent East-West force comparison undertaken by NATO. They do admit, however, that a no-first-use policy requires stronger conventional forces; in their opinion the Alliance is capable of accomplishing such a buildup within realistic budgets. We believe the authors considerably underestimate the political and financial difficulties which stand in the way of establishing a conventional balance through increased armament by the West. The case would be different if through negotiations a conventional balance could be reached by reductions in Warsaw Pact forces. The authors do not explore this possibility, but the long years of as yet unsuccessful negotiations for mutual and balanced force reductions (MBFR) demonstrate the obstacles on this path.
The establishment of balance through the buildup of Western conventional forces would likewise be extremely difficult. The costs would be of a magnitude that would dramatically exceed the framework of present defense budgets. Suggestions by the authors about possible savings in the nuclear area in case of no-first-use are of little benefit for the non-nuclear weapons states of Europe. (Such savings, incidentally, imply a significant reduction of the Western nuclear arsenal.) In our judgment, the United States and Great Britain would have to introduce the draft, and the European countries would have to extend their period of military service. Because of the necessity for a significantly higher number of military forces, the Federal Republic of Germany would have to accept on its territory large contingents of additional troops, those of the allies and its own: the Federal Republic would be transformed into a large military camp for an indefinite period. Do the four American authors seriously believe that the preconditions for the buildup required by their proposal exist in Western Europe-and the United States?
Even if an approximate conventional balance could be achieved in Europe, two disadvantages to the detriment of Western Europe would remain: first, the Soviet Union has a geographic advantage, it can always quickly change the balance of forces from the relative proximity of its territory; second, there would always be the possibility, not even excluded by the American authors, that, despite no-first-use, conventional war could in an advanced phase degenerate into nuclear war.
Moreover, in commenting skeptically about the idea of a nuclear-free zone, the authors themselves point out that the Soviet Union can move nuclear weapons relatively quickly from deep within its territory into such a zone. If a no-first-use policy is linked with a complete or at least substantial withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons-and that is apparently meant by the authors-it would, moreover, be easier for the Soviet Union to reach Central Europe with nuclear weapons from its own territory than for the United States.
For Germans and other Europeans whose memory of the catastrophe of conventional war is still alive and on whose densely populated territory both pacts would confront each other with the destructive power of modern armies, the thought of an ever more probable conventional war is terrifying.
To Germans and other Europeans, an ever more probable conventional war is, therefore, no alternative to war prevention through the current strategy, including the option of a first use of nuclear weapons. While the four authors link their proposal with the laudable intention of reducing European anxieties about nuclear war, its implementation could result in anxieties about a more probable conventional war soon replacing anxieties about the much less probable nuclear war. The anti-nuclear protest movement in Europe suspects the United States and the Soviet Union of intending to wage a limited nuclear war on the territory, and at the expense, of the Europeans. Were the movement to apply the logic of its argument to the case of no-first-use, it would naturally arrive at a new suspicion: that a conventional war could now also be waged on European territory and at European expense-particularly since a nuclear risk for the superpowers would no longer exist. All that would then be necessary would be to paint a vivid picture of the terrors of conventional war-once again thinkable-and the insecurity of the Europeans would receive new and dangerous reinforcement.
We are grateful for the manner in which the four American authors of a no-first-use proposal have evaluated the particularly exposed position of the Federal Republic of Germany and the special difficulties which ensue for its security policy. It is, however, striking that they do not deal at all with a problem which does not, to be sure, pose itself for a world power like the United States but which the Federal Republic of Germany and all European Alliance partners have to keep in mind: the problem of protecting themselves from political pressure and preserving their free society.
The protection of a free society based on the rule of law is just as important a part of a policy of preserving peace as the prevention of war. War can always be avoided at the price of submission. It is naturally more obvious to Europeans, and in particular to Germans-in their precarious position within a divided country-than to the population of the American superpower that an actual military superiority of the Soviet Union, or a feeling of inferiority in Western Europe, can be exploited to put political pressure on Western Europe.
The feeling of vulnerability to political blackmail, as a result of the constant demonstration of superior military might, would be bound to grow considerably if the nuclear protector of the Atlantic Alliance were to declare-as suggested by the four authors-that it would not use nuclear weapons in case of a conventional attack against Europe. This applies in particular to those exposed areas which even with considerable improvements of conventional forces can only with great difficulty be conventionally defended, or not at all: these include, for example, North Norway, Thrace, and in particular, West Berlin. The protection of these areas lies solely in the incalculability of the American reaction.
The advice of the authors to renounce the use of nuclear weapons even in the face of pending conventional defeat of Western Europe is tantamount to suggesting that "rather Red than dead" would be the only remaining option for those Europeans then still alive. Were such advice to become policy, it would destroy the psychological basis necessary for the will to self-defense. Such counsel would strengthen tendencies in Europe to seek gradual voluntary and timely salvation in preventive "good conduct" and growing subservience vis-à-vis the Soviet Union for fear of war and Soviet superiority. The result would be to restrict the very freedom that the Alliance was founded to protect.
The four American authors advance a number of skeptical arguments about the NATO two-track decision of December 1979 which amount to a rejection of this decision. They attack one alleged motive for the double-track decision, the desire for balance below the intercontinental level of nuclear weapons. Although the notion of balance did occasionally appear in public discussion by politicians who advanced it to legitimize the NATO decision in view of the growing Soviet medium-range nuclear potential, balance was not a leitmotiv and did not play an essential role in shaping the decision itself. Were that the case, the potential of the Western nuclear weapons envisaged (should negotiations fail) would have had to be significantly larger than the planned 572 systems, which-together with the already existing Western weapons-amount to only a fraction of comparable Soviet systems. From the very beginning, the double-track decision was essentially conceived to couple the intercontinental with the Europe-related nuclear weapons force.
We share the concern which the four authors express about the potentially negative impact which the controversies on the NATO double-track decision could have on the Alliance. However, unlike them, we do not conclude that NATO should forego the double-track decision. Our conclusion is based on three arguments in particular:
First, the Soviet Union must recognize that it would also be to its own advantage to abandon its absolute notion of security-for such a notion condemns any attempt at stabilizing the East-West relationship to failure. The Soviet decision to develop, produce and deploy the SS-20 missile in Eastern Europe was made during the first half of the 1970s, i.e., during the period in which the West actively pursued genuine détente. It must have been clear to every Soviet planner that, given the quality of this weapons system, located below the strategic level (which was moving toward parity and accordingly codified in SALT), its expansion would dislocate the nuclear deterrence system by regionalizing the threat.
Messages from Western and German sources directed with great urgency at the Soviet Union during the 1970s-among them a meeting between Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in May 1978-were simply ignored. The buildup of this rocket arsenal continued relentlessly and still does. In addition, new modern systems of shorter and medium reach were developed; they are now in production and deployment. All of these add a new quantitative and qualitative dimension to Soviet armament.
These developments raise the depressing question of whether and how the dynamics of Soviet armament policy can be influenced at all. In any case, in the interests of security and peace, such attempts must not be abandoned. Only an announcement and demonstration of the capacity to implement a Western medium-range armament program (572 Pershing II and cruise missiles) which would result in a loss of military and political options for the Soviets could, if at all, induce the Soviet leadership to halt and reduce its armament.
Second, where would such a development end if, by renouncing the implementation of the double-track decision, the Alliance were to let the Soviet medium- and short-range nuclear potential grow to thousands of systems without an adequate counterweight on the Western side and with continued strategic parity?
Two consequences would emerge: in the first place, the American nuclear guarantee for Europe would lose its credibility. The view, also shared by the four authors, that the Soviet medium-range potential can be dealt with by American systems assigned to NATO (which are, by the way, counted in SALT and not well usable for tactical functions) lacks conclusiveness. As such a striking Soviet superiority increasingly develops, the United States loses the capability for escalation and thereby its credibility. This has a destabilizing effect.
In the second place, we are concerned by the possibility that with an acceptance of further growth of Soviet nuclear superiority below the intercontinental level, a potential for threat emerges which can be used for political pressures. In this case, the well-meant advice that only those can be blackmailed who let themselves be is of little use, since these weapons are assumed to be unusable because of the risk involved. In 1956 Khrushchev threatened Paris and London with nuclear weapons. At that time his threats had little impact under conditions of American strategic superiority. Imagine what a repetition of such threats would be like under conditions of striking Soviet superiority in the field of medium-range weapons and of the anxieties of the West European public caused by the nuclear debate. Under these circumstances politicians in the Western democracies would be put under a degree of pressure unimaginable in the 1950s.
Third, the long-term impact of a failure of the double-track decision is a cause of concern to us. The anti-nuclear protest, in our opinion, will not disappear but will in all probability remain a permanent characteristic of the political situation in Western Europe for years. This protest and the legitimate concerns which it expresses must be taken very seriously, but at the same time it should not be overlooked that it represents a minority-which, however, enjoys powerful support from the media on both sides of the Atlantic. Security policy, like any other policy in democracies, is determined by majorities and must be accepted by minorities. If, in the case of the double-track decision, the existing clear majority should fail to prevail in the face of a minority in fundamental opposition to it-and one likely to persist in the future-much more would be at stake than the decision in question. This has been recognized by parts of the protest movement-and in Moscow as well. The capability of democratic majorities to define and implement security policy in the future is also at stake in the double-track decision.
Special emphasis on the renunciation of one form of force-the first use of nuclear weapons-decreases the importance of the general prohibition against the use of force laid down in Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, resulting for all practical purposes in a diminution of the prohibition against the use of conventional force. The Federal Republic of Germany has always adhered to the principle of the general renunciation of the use of force. It reconfirmed this commitment when entering NATO, as well as in the Eastern Treaties of the early 1970s and the Final Act of Helsinki in 1975. The Federal Republic shares with other Alliance partners the view that it is legally questionable and politically harmful to separate the question of specific arms from the general renunciation of the use of force.
Government and opposition within the Federal Republic are in complete agreement on this issue. Indeed the question must be posed whether, with a prohibition of the first use of nuclear weapons, the first use of other weapons becomes less prohibited and whether a country threatened by a conventionally highly armed neighbor will then be less protected by the prohibition of the use of force.
To an essential degree the anti-nuclear protest in Europe derives from the rejection of nuclear arms procurement up to barely imaginable potentials of destruction, from the waste of resources which it engenders in a world of poverty, and from the possibility of war under nuclear conditions. We consider these concerns legitimate, although we do not share essential conclusions of the movement. In view of the burdens of defense policy in the nuclear age which the citizens in our democracies have to bear, it is the constant duty of government and opposition to exploit all available possibilities to decrease tensions and potentials for destruction by means of cooperation, confidence-building measures, arms control and disarmament.
Unlike the four American authors, we do not consider a renunciation of the option of a first use as the answer to the existing concerns and anxieties over nuclear weapons. Instead, we see the answer in a creative and realistic policy of arms control and disarmament. We consider the NATO double-track decision of December 1979, combining arms control negotiations and the announcement of armaments in case of failure, as an innovative step. We welcome the beginning of negotiations on medium-range weapons in Geneva and the "zero option" proposed by President Reagan. The reduction of excessive Soviet armament is the main goal of this proposal; in a way comprehensible to everybody, it now places on the Soviet Union the responsibility for potential armament measures of the West. We welcome, furthermore, the readiness announced by both world powers to open negotiations on strategic weapons, as well as the proposals on START presented by President Reagan at Eureka on May 9. The NATO ministerial meeting of May 1981 and the declaration of the NATO summit in Bonn of June 1982 unequivocally express the continuity of the basic philosophy of the Alliance, which seeks security only through a combination of adequate defense capacity and a policy of cooperation and negotiations to eliminate the causes of tensions.
The four American authors hope that a policy of no-first-use could help to clear the way towards a serious reduction of nuclear weapons on both sides. Their further comments on this topic, however, suggest that they themselves do not entertain exaggerated hopes. Indeed, the experience of recent years in the field of tactical nuclear weapons gives little cause for hope that the Soviet side is ready for genuine reductions. Moreover, it is questionable whether the Soviets are ready to renounce their conventional superiority built up at great sacrifice, stubbornly defended during decades and energetically expanded in recent years, at the very moment when such a superiority would be given an increased and decisive importance by a NATO renunciation of first use of nuclear weapons.
We share many of the concerns about the risks of nuclear war. They lead us to conclude that an energetic attempt to reduce the dependence on an early first use of nuclear weapons must be undertaken. To be sure, the authors also mention a "no-early-first-use" policy (p. 762) as a possible alternative, but in the last analysis they discard it as a mere variation of nuclear options and therefore call for a clear decision in favor of a renunciation of "any first use of nuclear weapons" (p. 761).
A reduction of dependence on an early use of nuclear weapons should, in the first place, be attempted through mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions of conventional forces by means of East-West negotiations which result in an adequate conventional balance. We have pointed out how difficult it would be to restore such a balance by the buildup of Western conventional armament. In our opinion the essential precondition posed by the authors for their suggested renunciation of first use can, therefore, not be fulfilled.
In sum, we consider efforts to raise the nuclear threshold by a strengthening of conventional options to be urgently necessary. The reduction of the dependence on first use, in particular on early first use of nuclear weapons, should be a question of high political priority in our countries.
The Western Alliance has committed itself to a renunciation from the very beginning: the renunciation of the first use of any force. The entire military planning, structure and deployment of forces are geared exclusively toward defense. The presence of nuclear weapons has contributed essentially to the success of the Alliance in preventing war and preserving freedom for three decades. We are convinced that a reduction of the dependence on an early use of nuclear weapons would serve this purpose. Under the circumstances of the foreseeable future, however, a renunciation of the option of first use would be contrary to the security interests of Europe and the entire Alliance.