Reshaping NATO’s Nuclear Declarations

Earlier this week, January 25-26, a group of Canadian NGOs[i] sponsored a conference attended by officials and experts from the United States, Canada, and NATO headquarters to consider and critique a set of recommendations prepared by the sponsoring groups. The recommendations, which focused on issues related to the forthcoming review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the current review of the NATO Strategic Concept, were presented in the conference briefing paper.[ii] The following is my presentation on three disarmament promises made by NATO states which the current NATO strategic doctrine continues to ignore.

This morning’s focus on NATO is obviously a response to the important opportunity that comes via the current review of the NATO Strategic Concept (the review process is described in the briefing paper for this conference: Canadian Action for Zero Nuclear Weapons.

The review is an opportunity for NATO as well – a chance to make some clear changes (both symbolic and practical) to its declaratory policies and the posture and deployments that follow from them. We’ve argued in the paper that in some of the key elements of its nuclear policy NATO is at serious odds with the NPT and with the re-invigorated attention globally to the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons.

My comments in the next few minutes will highlight some of the recommendations in the briefing paper, and it is worth noting that the paper does not call on NATO to do anything that individual NATO states have not already promised to do. And in that regard I hope Chris Westdal won’t mind me recalling something he said to the Toronto forum last fall. How about, he said, instead of asking states to make more and more new promises, we insist that they start keeping some already made.

So I want to remind you of three unequivocal promises that have been made by all NATO states, but which the current NATO Strategic Concept does not honor:

a) The first is the obvious promise, through the NPT’s Article VI, to disarm. If the wording of Article VI is a bit ambiguous, the unanimous decisions and declarations in 1995 and 2000, by all states parties to the NPT, clarify once and for all what it means – that is, it is an unequivocal commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The World Court added further clarity when it said that the promise to disarm is a legal obligation that requires not only the pursuit of disarmament, but its achievement.

But then we come to paragraph 46 of NATO’s Strategic Concept. It argues that given “the diversity of risks with which the Alliance could be faced…, the Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence.” So, the threat of nuclear attack is required to “render the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable.”  And thus it concludes that nuclear weapons remain “essential to preserve peace.” So in its formal declaration, NATO insists that, rather than pursuing and achieving disarmament, it “will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe” (para 46). So the promise is abolition, the commitment is indefinite retention.

b) A second promise is found in the agreement, reached during the NPT review process, that all states party to the NPT will seek to “diminish the role for nuclear weapons in [their] security policies [in order] to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.”

Now look at paragraph 62 of the NATO Strategic concept:  It says the purpose of nuclear weapons is broad – it is to “prevent coercion and any kind of war.” And to accomplish that purpose, NATO nuclear forces are given the “essential role” of “ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the Allies’ response to military aggression” (para 62). In other words, rather than a diminishing role, NATO continues to prescribe an expansive role for nuclear weapons, including their potential use in response to non-nuclear threats, and, by implication, first use. European-based nuclear weapons, it says, are directly linked, also in paragraph 62, to “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies,” namely the strategic nuclear forces of Alliance members.

Furthermore, there has in fact been a geographic expansion of the role of nuclear weapons in NATO, rather than a diminishing role, as a result of the post-Cold War expansion of NATO and its nuclear umbrella.

So for NATO to come into full conformity with the commitments made by its individually, the new strategic concept will have to scale back dramatically on the role assigned to nuclear weapons – a no-first-use commitment would be an appropriate case in point.

c) NATO states, in a third promise, have obviously also signed on to NPT Articles I and II, and thus accepted the treaty’s explicit prohibition on the transfer of nuclear weapons – the Treaty requires that nuclear weapon states not supply nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states; and non-nuclear weapon states are not to receive nuclear weapons.[iii]

In European NATO US nuclear weapons have been transferred to non-nucelar weapon states. Paragraph 63 of the current strategic concept insists, in effect, that there is justification for such transfers (despite the NPT’s clear prohibition) from NWS to NNWS in NATO because credible deterrence requires that European NNWS members of the Alliance “be involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles” and that nuclear forces be maintained on European territory. Furthermore, those weapons on European soil are also said to be necessary to maintain “an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance.” Thus the current Strategic Concept of NATO promises the Alliance will continue to ignore Articles I and II (this arrangement actually goes back to the origins of the Treaty) and NATO will instead “maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe” in NNWS (para 63).

So, we have at least three basic promises made which are not being honored through the current Strategic Concept. And NATO also says that, as of now, these promises will not be honored in the foreseeable future. The promise to disarm is met with a commitment to indefinite retention. The promise to reduce the role of nuclear weapons is met with a commitment to the continuing threat to be the first to use nuclear weapons, even in response to non-nuclear threats. The promise not to transfer nuclear weapons is met with the continuing deployment of  US nuclear weapons on the territories of non-nuclear weapon states.

The most immediate political repercussion of NATO’s essentially “non-compliant” nuclear posture can be expected to be found in nonproliferation dynamics, rather than in disarmament. After all, if it is legitimate for Canada and other NATO NNWS (all of which reside in the most stable neighborhoods of the world and are backed by the overwhelming conventional military superiority) – if such states can credibly claim that they are so vulnerable that their security requires an ongoing nuclear deterrent (against “any” threat), then it is really hard to think of any states anywhere that could not make a much more credible case for nuclear deterrence. Think especially of Iran and the Arab states in the Middle East who really do live in rather unstable and threatening environments. By what logic can Canada, while insisting that nuclear weapons are essential to its security, appeal to Pakistan, India, and Israel to forego nuclear deterrence and join the NPT as NNWS?

If we are going to insist that all states be subject to the same standards with regard to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, then NATO has some critically important changes to make (and the paper sets out what some of those changes should be). If we are prepared to make the argument that not all states need to be bound by the same nonproliferation and disarmament standards, then, I’m afraid will also have to be prepared to see the nonproliferation regime unwind.

The briefing paper and its recommendations are proffered as an appeal to the government of Canada to muster the courage of its promises and to insist that NATO, taking advantage of this timely review of its strategic concept, make changes that will honor the promises all NATO states have already made. We have generally summarized the needed change as follows:

Canada should encourage a new NATO Strategic Concept that a) welcomes and affirms the groundswell of calls for a world without nuclear weapons; b) confirms NATO’s commitment to the objectives of the NPT and declares that the intent of Article VI of the NPT, and of the Alliance, is a world free of nuclear weapons; and c) commits NATO to security and arms control policies that conform to Articles I and II (which prohibit transfers of nuclear weapons) of the NPT and that are designed to achieve the nuclear disarmament promised in Article VI.

These are the changes that NATO could make immediately, at no cost to the security of its members – indeed it would be to the security benefit of its members inasmuch as it would contribute to the strengthening of the nuclear disarmament imperative.


[i] The Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Canadian Pugwash Group, Physicians for Global Survival, Project Ploughshares, and World Federalist Movement – Canada.

[ii] Available at:

[iii] Article I: “Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons…”

Article II: “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons…”

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