U.S. President Barack Obama came into office promising to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Over the past several years, the United States has made uneven progress toward that goal. The nuclear agreement with Iran, if strictly implemented, will preclude an Iranian bomb and mitigate the risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East for at least the next 10–15 years. But North Korea continues to develop and test its nuclear capabilities, India and Pakistan show no signs of winding down their nuclear competition, and Russia and China have forged ahead with the modernization of their nuclear arsenals, with little prospect of either country agreeing to negotiate nuclear reductions any time soon. And in Europe, the risk of nuclear use, although low, may be increasing.
It would certainly not be low-hanging fruit, but ridding Europe of its Cold War nuclear legacy would be a good place for the next president to achieve early progress in making the world a safer place. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the continent and NATO’s plans to modernize and increase the capabilities of its nuclear systems may be increasing the risk of nuclear use and undermining NATO’s conventional defense capabilities. The United States needs to take bold action to rethink NATO’s nuclear deterrent in order to reduce the dangers and strengthen the alliance. Such moves could include a freeze on tactical nuclear modernization, a phased withdrawal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, and measures to adapt and strengthen NATO’s arrangements for nuclear cooperation and consultations to reassure allies.
The Russian nuclear threat to Europe is not new. Moscow has leaned on nuclear weapons ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union took down the Red Army and Russia’s defense industrial base. Nonetheless, until very recently, the risk of nuclear war in Europe—indeed the risk of any armed conflict between NATO and Russia—has been virtually nonexistent. Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the spring
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