NATO’s 60th anniversary summit comes at a time when the Atlantic alliance is struggling with its mission in Afghanistan, as well as with ongoing questions about its overall purpose in the post-Cold War world. The meeting will formally kick off what’s expected to be a two-year review of the alliance’s Strategic Concept (SC). Integral to this strategic discussion will be the question of what role nuclear weapons should play. Current doctrine calls them essential to security and the alliance itself. But leaders from key countries in the alliance, most notably from the United States and the United Kingdom, have called this certainty into question. This article will review reasons why NATO should change its nuclear doctrine, the obstacles such a change would face, and two guidelines for what that change should involve.

Recent declarations by allied leaders of their intent to decrease their nuclear postures as part of overall nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts suggest that NATO’s current emphasis on nuclear weapons is outdated:

  • President Barack Obama pledged repeatedly on the campaign trail and subsequently on the White House website that working toward a nuclear-weapon-free world is one of his foreign policy priorities. The Obama administration has begun the process of nuclear arms control discussions with Russia as a follow up to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), in which substantial and verifiable cuts to the nuclear arsenals of both countries are anticipated. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a joint statement declaring that they intend to forge such an agreement this year.
  • British government officials have repeatedly made statements over the past two years and even issued a plan of action toward a nuclear-weapons-free world. Most recently, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a speech in support of the vision, saying that Britain will lower its current number of nuclear warheads, and is now open to further reductions in multilateral agreements with other nuclear powers.
  • Italy, a host for U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, currently holds the G8 presidency and has pledged to make nuclear disarmament a key part of its agenda.

However, acting on this long-term vision and changing current strategic postures to reflect a move in this direction will be difficult enough for individual countries. The challenge will be even greater for a large alliance where decisions are made by consensus.

Nuclear Weapons

The SC, according to its own wording, is intended to “govern the Alliance’s security and defense policy, its operational concepts, its conventional and nuclear force posture and its collective defense arrangements.” The document was last rewritten in 1999 and declares that nuclear weapons should be treated as being fundamental to the Alliance’s military and political relationships. It states, for example, that

“… [T]he Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve peace.” (Paragraph 46)

” The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies.” (Paragraph 62)

Nuclear weapons are the “supreme guarantee” of the Allies’ security? While key Alliance members are calling for reducing stockpiles as steps in the direction of eventual abolition, the Alliance doctrine remains tied to a Cold War posture. In addition, by emphasizing the importance of nuclear weapons, the doctrine underscores a divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots, and creates an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.


The Strategic Concept also states:

“A credible Alliance nuclear posture and the demonstration of Alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements. Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance.” (Paragraph 63)

This paragraph alludes to the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) located in Europe, most likely still based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. During past Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conferences, Non-Aligned Movement countries have questioned the fairness and legality of the United States “sharing” these nuclear weapons with allies that are declared Non-Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT. Moreover, the military utility of these B-61 free-fall bombs that require aircraft for delivery, and the security of these weapons, have raised questions about the benefit of continuing to maintain them around Europe.

The SC’s claim that these weapons demonstrate Alliance solidarity and provide an essential political link between the United States and Europe makes any questioning of the policy more difficult. Leaders worry that by opening a discussion about the military purpose of these weapons, they will be perceived as also placing in doubt the value of transatlantic ties.

In the new SC, leaders may choose to emphasize nuclear weapons at a level similar to current Alliance doctrine. NATO’s nuclear posture is intended to provide a measure of deterrence against currently absent but potential future state-based nuclear threats, and the world could be viewed in this way for many years to come.

To be sure, NATO’s nuclear posture has always been fundamentally intertwined with that of the United States. The Congressional Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture is slated to release its report in April, and then the Obama administration plans to release a review by year’s end. Despite Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapon-free world, he will need to work with other political and military leaders, some of whom oppose his views.

For NATO, the nature of running an alliance and the continuing sense of insecurity felt by Eastern European countries toward Russia could reinforce resistance to change. But lowering NATO’s emphasis on nuclear weapons could improve relations with Russia, and the United States will move this process in the right direction if it successfully negotiates a START follow-on agreement. However, U.S. ground-based midcourse missile defense proposals involving the Czech Republic and Poland, the long-term possibility of NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Europe that form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement, all negatively affect U.S./NATO-Russian relations and could hamper negotiations.

Finally, NATO governments may be reluctant to end nuclear sharing in Europe because these weapons have been given such symbolic significance.

A New Nuclear Posture

Devising a new posture is beyond the space or scope of this commentary, but there are two points that Alliance leaders should keep in mind when they rewrite the SC:

  • Consider lowering the military emphasis accorded to nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons don’t benefit NATO’s central operations like those in Afghanistan and the Balkans, which rely on “boots on the ground.” Policymakers may decide that these types of missions are most likely to dominate NATO’s activities in the future. During a time of global economic recession, the problem of more limited funds confronts all allies and could force them to make choices about cutting back on capabilities, especially ones that are seen as irrelevant to core and resource-heavy missions.

Prominent former British generals recently made a similar point, noting the lack of military utility that nuclear arsenals hold in the modern strategic environment and, speaking specifically about Britain, called for abandoning any successor to Trident, which is Britain’s sole nuclear weapon system. They also made this plea in part because renewing the United Kingdom’s nuclear forces will take away funds from what they see as far more relevant military expenses.

Keeping a prominent place for these weapons in NATO also influences the strategic decisions of countries outside of the Alliance and may further motivate them to maintain or pursue their own arsenals. NATO, as the world’s preeminent military alliance, has the opportunity to start changing this dynamic.

  • Remove the political symbolism assigned to nuclear weapons. The current SC’s language elevates nuclear weapons to an almost untouchable status because it so closely links the political cohesion of the alliance with the basing of nuclear weapons in Europe. Authors of the new SC should remove this type of language in order to permit more openness within the alliance when it comes to talking about nuclear policies.

NATO leaders will also need to consider the political image that they want the Alliance to project toward the rest of the world. Cooperation from other countries, including those of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), will be important for preventing nuclear proliferation. The greater the value allies place on nuclear weapons in their doctrine, the more likely NAM and other countries are to doubt the sincerity of leaders calling for eventual worldwide nuclear disarmament. Of course, this will require more action than rewriting a key document. Ultimately, if the United States and the rest of NATO fail to revamp their nuclear weapons policies overall, then they will suffer a credibility problem that will come to haunt them at the NPT Review Conference in 2010.

Whether the next SC will reveal a substantial change in nuclear force posture will depend on a myriad of factors, but recent statements by leaders for working toward a nuclear-weapons-free world could portend substantial change. At the very least, the military and political reasons for maintaining NATO’s current nuclear posture should be open for discussion.

Chris Lindborg, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is an analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

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