Security policies in the Euro-Atlantic region — an area that includes six of the world’s 10 largest economies, four of the five declared nuclear weapon states, and more than 95 percent of global nuclear inventories — are dangerously out of date and demand urgent attention. With a new approach that is grounded in today’s opportunities and challenges, the European community, Russia and the United States can chart a more secure path for their people and the world and avoid the risks and costs of a new downward spiral in relations between states.
The first step is to get out from under Cold War-era strategies and tactics that are ill-suited to the real threats we face. Today, the likelihood of a devastating conventional or nuclear conflict in the Euro-Atlantic region has dramatically declined, yet Cold War–era security concepts and their associated weapons and military postures continue. Large strategic nuclear forces remain deployed on prompt launch, ready to be fired in minutes; thousands of tactical nuclear weapons are still stockpiled in Europe; a decades-old missile defense debate remains stuck in neutral; and new security challenges associated with prompt-strike forces, cybersecurity, and space remain contentious and inadequately addressed.
Our publics are paying the price for this policy inertia, which, in addition to raising their security risks, needlessly increases costs for defense and misdirects resources away from fiscal demands, domestic priorities and emerging security challenges and threats. Moreover, the alarming asymmetry between military capabilities and a true Euro-Atlantic partnership is dangerous and potentially destabilizing, undermining the trust necessary for cooperative efforts to meet emerging security threats in Europe and across the world.
Over the past year, we have been working with more than 30 senior political, military and security experts from across the Euro-Atlantic area to develop a regional approach to addressing these challenges. Our group includes generals who commanded the most deadly nuclear arsenals ever deployed, and many other senior military and civilian leaders who have served on both sides of the Cold War in France, Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States and NATO.
Our group concluded that today’s leaders should move decisively and permanently toward a new security strategy, one that considers offensive and defensive military forces, nuclear and conventional weapons, and cybersecurity and space. Thinking together about these issues in an integrated way can lead to transformational change in Euro-Atlantic security and nuclear and conventional force postures — from the persistent Cold War shadow of mutually assured destruction to mutual security. This focused and sustained effort can increase stability, reduce the risk of conflict, eliminate remaining bilateral and regional disputes, and save precious resources.
Our recommendations to guide these essential policy changes have been prepared for presidents, prime ministers, parliamentarians and publics. The key to this strategy is a new continuing process of dialogue involving senior civilian and military leaders mandated by the highest political levels, where security could be discussed comprehensively and practical steps could be taken on a broad range of issues.
Within this flexible framework for dialogue, issues relating to nuclear weapons and missile defense should receive the highest priority in the first five years. It should also be possible to take steps relating to conventional forces, cybersecurity and space during the initial phase.
Reducing the role of nuclear weapons as an essential part of any nation’s overall security posture — without jeopardizing the security of any of the parties — should be among the core principles guiding this new dialogue. This should include practical steps to increase decision time and crisis stability for leaders, in particular with respect to U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. Even under the latest nuclear arms treaty, each country will maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of ballistic missiles ready for prompt launch and capable of hitting their targets in less than 30 minutes. This status increases the risk that a decision to use ballistic missiles will be made in haste based on false warning, as well as the risk of an accidental or unauthorized missile launch.
What are the costs of persistent inaction in defining a fresh approach to mutual security? While there is much more at stake here than “guns versus butter,” in the area of nuclear weapons alone, the potential price tag is breathtaking. The United States is poised to embark on programs to build new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines and strategic bombers at a cost of more than $400 billion, and to extend the life of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe at a cost of $10 billion. Russia reportedly plans to spend 1.9 trillion rubles, or $61 billion, over the next decade to modernize its strategic nuclear forces, while the United Kingdom estimates the cost of Trident replacement at £25 billion, or $38 billion. A new approach to security would not save every one of these dollars, rubles, pounds, or euros from being spent, but over time the savings could be substantial — and they could multiply in the non-nuclear areas of security policy.
A new approach for building mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region can lead to a more secure and promising future for all our citizens. There is an historic — and fleeting — opportunity to act. There is no more important security issue for leaders to address.
Des Browne, former British defense secretary, is convener of the European Leadership Network. Wolfgang Ischinger, former German deputy foreign minister, is chairman of the Munich Security Conference. Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, is president of the Russian International Affairs Council. Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator, is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. They are co-chairmen of the “Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region” initiative.