Changes to the nuclear elements of NATO’s Strategic Concept

The new Strategic Concept certainly doesn’t cure NATO’s addiction to nuclear weapons, but there are some encouraging moves towards a 12-step program.

Evaluated from a global zero perspective, the Strategic Concept (SC) approved at the 2010 NATO Summit (in Lisbon)[i] represents classic denial – not only are nuclear weapons not acknowledged as a problem, dependence on them as the ultimate cure to security ailments is reaffirmed: “The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance…” (para 18).

Evaluated from the perspective of where NATO has been (as reflected in the 1999 SC),[ii] the new strategy takes some early steps toward a new security approach — albeit with the substantive and difficult steps yet to be taken. Put another way, while still under the spell of demon booze, there is at least a declared intention to pursue sobriety: “We are resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the NPT” (para 26).

Perhaps the most significant change from the 1999 to the 2010 version of the SC is in the prominent references to disarmament and arms control in 2010.[iii] In 1999, the only such references were in self-congratulatory descriptions of the advances made in the immediate post-Cold War years (para 21, 1999).  In 2010, arms control and disarmament is put forward as a means toward “enhanced international security…” (para 4, 2010).

In addition to the promised pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, the 2010 SC affirms disarmament with the declaration that “NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces (an indirect but welcome reference to Article 26 of UN Charter), and that “arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation contribute to peace, security and stability” (para 26, 2010).

These commitments are all qualified by the insistence that disarmament must be “based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” In one sense that is obviously an appropriate objective, especially given that disarmament is acknowledged as an important contributor to security. But, of course, in another sense, that formulation can also be read as saying that if insecurities abound, then nuclear disarmament will be jettisoned – stated, again, in terms of the addiction metaphor, if things really start to look bad, we’re definitely going to be having another drink. While the 2010 SC no longer describes nuclear weapons as “essential to preserve peace,” as did the 1999 SC (para 46), it does say that “deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy” (para 17, 2010)

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the 2010 SC is the failure to end the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe. But there is some modest movement in the right direction. In the 1999 SC, the nuclear forces in Europe were described as “vital to the security of Europe” (para 42). The 1999 document then went on to a fulsome defence of the continued deployment of US tactical weapons in Western Europe: “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….The Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe” (para 46, 1999 – emphasis added).

The 2010 SC no longer insists on those European deployments. While it says the Alliance will “maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces,” it drops the earlier reference to such forces being based in Europe (para 19, 2010).

 In 1999, the SC insisted that for the broad nuclear deterrent to be credible in the European context, European Allies must “be involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles” and must maintain nuclear forces on European territory. Indeed, according to the previous SC, “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. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe” (para 63, 1999). In 2010 the references to nuclear forces in Europe and to them linking North America and Europe are dropped, but the reference to collective planning for nuclear roles is repeated and presented as “the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements” (para 19, 2010). But the language here is not specific (calling only for the “broadest possible participation”), and one possible implication is that NATO could accept that such participation could be confined to the UK and France and their European-based arsenals.

 The new SC links further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in Europe to the “disparity” (para 26) that exists between Russia’s large arsenal (which could be about 5,000) and European-based US nuclear weapons (around 200). This linkage is especially unfortunate and makes the same mistake the defenders of US nuclear weapons in Europe have frequently made – namely, ignoring the reality that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are a response to NATO’s massive conventional superiority rather than to its tactical nuclear forces.

 On the overall purpose of nuclear weapons, the 2010 version of the SC is more vague, but, implicitly at least, also more limited. In the 1999 SC the purpose of nuclear weapons was to “prevent coercion and any kind of war,” and, to accomplish that, 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”. Ultimately, as already noted, “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies” is described as being “provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States”(para 62). The “supreme guarantee,” as also noted, is maintained in 2010 (para 18), but the other broad purposes are not included. In both cases, the circumstances under which any use of nuclear weapons might be contemplated are described as “extremely remote” (para 64, 1999 and para 17, 2010).

The 2010 version of the SC retains a basic affirmation of deterrence: “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance” (para17, preface). But that should not come as a surprise. There was no chance that NATO would reject nuclear deterrence while the world still hosts more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the commitment to deterrence is simply a restatement of what President Obama said in his landmark speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament: “Make no mistake, as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”[iv] That is really just another way of saying that nuclear disarmament must be mutual – and must be pursued to the point of making deterrence irrelevant.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept can be taken as a genuine step toward breaking the nuclear addition and nuclear disarmament – a step that is far too modest for some of us, to be sure, but a step.


[i]  Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of The Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation adopted by Heads of State and Government in Lisbon, November 19, 2010.

[ii] The Alliance’s Strategic Concept: Approved by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. 24 Apr. 1999.

[iii] The following are three early, critical, and helpful responses to the new Strategic Concept:

 Martin Butcher, “Nuclear Weapons Aspects of the Strategic Concept,” The NATO Monitor, 20 November 2010.

“Experts Call NATO Strategic Concept ‘Missed Opportunity to Reduce Role of Obsolete Tactical Nukes from Europe’,” Arms Control Association, 19 November 2010.

Hans M. Kristensen, “NATO Strategic Concept: One Step Forward and a Half Step Back,” Federation of American Scientists, 19 November 2010.

[iv] Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic. 5 April 2009.

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