A coherent nuclear policy is not only in the national interest, but also contributes to a strong trans-Atlantic bond, argues guest columnist Elmar Hellendoorn.*

Lack of understanding of nuclear weapons constitutes one of the greatest risks for international security. The Iran nuclear deal, Russian-American threats and negotiations with North Korea are all interrelated. Nuclear proliferation, the modernization of arsenals and new technologies are making the global nuclear playing field increasingly complex.

Nuclear deterrence can both stabilize and destabilize. Disarmament is merely an ideal in the current geopolitical disorder. Europe is not prepared for the possible disintegration of American-Russian arms control agreements. The Hague can play a significant role in Western arms control and nonproliferation policy as a result of the Netherlands’ functions under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement.

The nuclear policy of the Netherlands must take into account broader national security interests. This involves various questions: what does this new phase in nuclear strategic dynamics mean for the safety of the Netherlands, for European cooperation, for NATO and for the relationship with the United States? For Dutch nuclear diplomacy to be effective, it is essential both that the Netherlands’ F-35s be able to carry out nuclear missions in the future, and to invest in the knowledge to interpret the complex nuclear reality.

Cold War

In a multinuclear world, deterrence takes place in the context of networks. Deterrence between Pakistan and India comes about in the relational network with China. Indian-Chinese deterrence exists in relation to the U.S. And how does Chinese-American deterrence relate to the relationship with Russia and NATO? These networks of deterrence appear inherently unstable and stand in contrast to the comparatively stable mutual deterrence of the Cold War.

New technologies lead to increasingly advanced nuclear weapons systems. Supersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, drones, nanotechnology, 3-D printing and improved remote sensing and missile guidance are also changing the nuclear playing field in still unknown ways.

It is as yet unclear what the consequences of this increased nuclear complexity are. Due to a lack of resources, this new reality has still been insufficiently studied. Cold War-era concepts cannot be adopted wholesale. Researchers and policymakers must work together more closely and make the necessary investments to help better understand how the nuclear dynamics of the 21st century function.

It is also necessary to understand how the nuclear reality and the broader geopolitical context interact with one another. In the globalized world, economic partners are sometimes political opponents, and military allies are not always economic partners. Despite the strained military relationship with Moscow, Western Europe remains dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies. Thus, Europeans help finance the Russian missiles that are pointed toward Europe. Commercial transfers of technology from the West are also essential for Chinese military and nuclear modernization. But the interconnectedness is potentially even more strategic: a cyberattack on Europe from Asia could lead to a nuclear conflict.

The credibility of the American nuclear umbrella over NATO is also affected by the way in which Washington conducts itself globally. Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have neglected to actively respond to Russian cyberattacks and interference in the American elections. If Washington deals passively with attacks on its own democratic processes, then this already raises serious questions about how far the U.S. will go in defense of European democracies. In other words, to what extent is the American president prepared to face nuclear risks for European security?

Strategic autonomy

However, as long as the European countries do not have their own defenses in order, they are not in a good position to question American nuclear reliability. Consequently, there is also an increasingly serious effort to establish cooperation among European countries on defense. It remains unclear to what degree nuclear weapons form a part of the European move toward strategic autonomy.

When the Dutch Parliament adopted a motion against a nuclear weapons role for the Dutch F-35s in 2014, it didn’t take this complex situation into account. Nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and arms control, and nuclear deterrence are too often considered in isolation from one another. There is an insufficient understanding of the interaction among these elements. NATO’s deterrence policy contributes to nonproliferation; NATO member states that feel threatened by Russia will be less quick to want to develop nuclear weapons as long as the alliance’s nuclear shield is reliable.

A coherent nuclear policy is in the Netherlands’ national interest. As long as Dutch fighter jets are standing by for NATO’s nuclear deterrence missions, they are contributing directly to allied nuclear credibility. That is burden sharing. As a result, The Hague can still exercise a great deal of influence on allied arms control policies. From an American perspective, nuclear weapons are essential. The Netherlands’ nuclear burden sharing opens doors in Washington. A balanced Dutch-European nuclear policy within NATO thus contributes to a strong trans-Atlantic bond, including in the economic and political domains.

In the wake of the Cold War, the global nuclear landscape has become much more complex. At the same time, understanding of the problems posed by nuclear weapons has greatly diminished in the absence of an immediately discernible threat, both in and outside the Netherlands. And due to that lack of understanding, the question becomes whether the West can adequately interpret nuclear threats, and whether a coherent Dutch nuclear policy is possible in the future. The Hague is faced with the choice of either contributing to nuclear stability or accepting instability.

*Editor’s note: The photo accompanying this article is captioned as follows: After three weeks in the Netherlands, the U.S. Air Force’s two Joint Strike Fighters (F-35s) are on their way back to the United States again. The fighter jets were in the Netherlands in 2016 for ‘habituation flights’ to help local residents around the Leeuwarden and Volkel air bases become familiar with the sound of the F-16’s successor.

The author, Elmar Hellendoorn, is a post-doctoral research fellow at the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.