Tribune leader, 23 March 1990
To read the reports in most British newspapers on last week’s Anglo-American summit in the Bahamas, anyone would think that Margaret Thatcher’s decision not to insist on “modernisation” of NATO ground-launched nuclear weapons in West Germany was a magnanimous gesture of compromise. In fact, she was recognising a fait accompli. Even before the Berlin Wall came down last November, Mrs Thatcher had been almost alone in pressing for deployment in West Germany of “Follow-on-to-Lance” missiles and new nuclear artillery. Since then, the consensus within NATO has been that the programme is stone dead.
Nevertheless, Mrs Thatcher’s “concession” was a smart move. It successfully diverted the attention of the diplomatic correspondents from her intransigence on the NATO nuclear “modernisation” that really matters, the plan to introduce new American strike aircraft to Europe, eventually equipped with new air-to-surface nuclear missiles instead of bombs. Most of this new hardware will be stationed in Britain if the plan goes ahead.
Air-launched “modernisation” was always the kernel of NATO’s programme to compensate for the loss of Cruise and Pershing missiles under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty. Today, with ground-launched systems out of the picture, getting the United States to upgrade its nuclear airpower in Europe is the only way that beleaguered West European Atlanticists can preserve both the visibility of the American “nuclear guarantee to Europe” and the “ladder of escalation” at the heart of NATO’s doctrine of “flexible response”. American nuclear submarines in the North Sea might have the requisite strategic capacity, but they are out of sight and too easily withdrawn.
The problem for Mrs Thatcher is that preservation of flexible response and the American nuclear guarantee no longer seems a particularly pressing issue either to the Bush Administration or to a growing section of the west European political class.
Since the revolutions in east and central Europe last autumn, the Warsaw Pact has collapsed. The Soviet Union can barely keep itself from disintegrating, let alone launch a military assault on western Europe. The talk in the White House and the chancellories of Europe is increasingly of cutting military spending and building a new security order for Europe.
This is not to say that the forthcoming NATO summit might not acquiesce in Mrs Thatcher’s wild-eyed avowals that “business-as-usual” must continue at all cost. Continental NATO leaders do want to maintain some element of American nuclear commitment to Europe, at least for the time being and, if that can be done without their own countries having to play host to unpopular new nuclear weapons, all the better. Because air-launched “modernisation” would single out Britain for the bulk of deployments, Britain’s European allies see a chance of having their cake and eating it.
Labour has made little of its opposition to air-launched nuclear “modernisation”, largely because of its desire to win friends and influence people in Washington. Indeed, the party’s defence spokesman, Martin O’Neill, has made it clear that a Labour government would accept deployment of “modernised” forces in Britain, albeit only if NATO insisted and only if Britain were not the only European country to take them.
With the issue coming to a head and the possibility of a Labour government acknowledged even by George Bush, it is now important that Labour makes its objections to “modernisation” absolutely clear.