Belgium and the TNW after Chicago

The results of the NATO summit are best summed up as a clinging to the status quo so as not to reflect the internal divisions on nuclear politics. The DDPR changes nothing in the deployment of TNW but the text is flexible enough to allow for future withdrawals. That way, everyone can be satisfied. On the ground, nothing will change as no country is willing to invest the necessary political capital in the nuclear dossier. This applies to Belgium too.

By Hans Lammerant*

Half empty or half full

In Belgium, national discussions on NATO summits are fairly boring. In advance of a summit, the Belgian government refuses to show too much of its objectives – provided that it has objectives at all. After the summit, governments usually applaud the decisions taken. The Chicago summit was no exception. The Belgian government now depicts the outcomes of the summit as small steps en route to nuclear disarmament. Any scepticism is dismissed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Reynders, with one of the most stale conversation stoppers in compromise-country Belgium: “some will say the glass is half full, while others see it as half empty”. In other words, the government would rather compliment itself with a modest result than highlight what needs to be done. With that, the Belgian government continues its long standing practice of being on the fence on NATO issues.

Belgian politicians usually support the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons, but they are unwilling to pay a political price within NATO. Virtually all political parties recognise publicly that the tactical nuclear weapons no longer serve any military purpose and that they are useless relics from the Cold War. Even a right wing resolution stated that the weapons are “a strategic anachronism”.


The primary point of debate is whether NATO should link removal of TNW to Russian concessions.

The Green parties and the Flemish Social Democrats favour the removal of American TNW without the necessity of Russian concessions. They would welcome Russian concessions of course. But they recognise that such concessions are not very likely. For them, linking the American TNW to Russian willingness to reciprocate means that the status quo remains unchanged as well as the deployment of TNW in Belgium. Christian Democrats, Liberals and Flemish Nationalists do regard reciprocity as a precondition. The underlying motivation for them is that they wish to remain loyal to any NATO consensus. If in the future NATO decides to withdraw TNW, no protest shall be heard from these parties.

Solo adventures

Belgian domestic politics start with the notion that Belgian interests are best served by tying the fate of the country to that of larger unions and alliances of states such as the EU or NATO. Belgium aims to go along with the policies set by the larger countries, thus forcing those countries to take into account the interests of smaller countries like Belgium. This leaves little room for manoeuvring in practice and no room for solo adventuring. As a result, Belgian diplomats regard the role of their country as being the facilitator of compromises. More often however, Belgian input is driven either by a reluctance to come off the fence; by the career opportunities of individual top diplomats and by commercial interests.

Yes, Minister

Current and recent governments hardly work from a common vision, the result of a combination of insurmountable divisions in Belgian politics and a plethora of domestic problems to bicker over. It grants the ministers a large amount of autonomy to define their own political course. Minister of Foreign Affairs Reynders – a French speaking Liberal – keeps close to the French views. The minister of Defence, Mr. De Crem, is taking every opportunity to show Belgium is the best ally ever of the U.S. – he dreams of being NATO Secretary-General one day. It would be naive to expect an independent Belgian policy regarding a speedy withdrawal of the tactical nuclear weapons from their country.

Finally, policies concerning this issue have been dominated for over 10 years by the same clique, tied at the hip with a NATO-bureaucracy favouring status quo. They continue to succeed – in a true ‘Yes Minister’ style – to keep a check on any minister that might have the crazy idea to explore the boundaries of the status quo. An example of this was seen when previous prime minister Leterme showed some support for the German initiative to make TNW withdrawal an issue on the NATO agenda. After the top-bureaucrats were done with him, Belgium was no more than a lukewarm and silent supporter of the German bid.

Aiming to get rid of the TNW, the biggest obstacle is to cultivate sufficient political will. That political will to push for a withdrawal through NATO consensus decision making does not currently exist. And as long as this is the case, there surely will not be enough political will to negotiate the withdrawal of TNW through bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Belgium. The necessary political will could however grow once the call for withdrawal grows louder in a growing number of European countries. Another contributing factor would be if the French opposition to any change in nuclear strategy would become more visible to a larger European audience. This would raise the political cost for France to continue to derail attempts to move forward.

* Hans Lammerant, Vredesactie, Belgium. Vredesactie is a movement that advocates a society in which conflicts are settled without violence or the threat to use violence.