More on NATO’s Strategic Concept: Forward steps amid lost opportunities

The new Strategic Concept of NATO is certainly no nuclear abolitionist document, nevertheless it does, as Canadian NGOs urged a year ago, situate NATO nuclear policy unambiguously under the disarmament imperative of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In January 2010 a group of Canadian civil society organizations[i] hosted an Ottawa conference of 65 experts, including academics and civil society representatives, and officials, from the UN, NATO, and the US and Canadian governments, to explore “Practical Steps to Zero Nuclear Weapons.” The sponsoring organizations, taking into account the deliberations at the conference, followed up with a set of recommendations directed at the Canadian Government.[ii]

Several of the recommendations dealt with the new Strategic Concept (SC) that NATO was then in the process of developing. Each of the recommendations is repeated below, and is followed by references to the new Strategic Concept[iii] and an assessment of the extent to which the recommended action is addressed. The recommendations were formulated as a message to Canada, but were focused on the changes to the NATO Strategic Concept.

1. The Canadian Government should…encourage a NATO Strategic Concept that: welcomes and affirms the groundswell of calls for a world without nuclear weapons; confirms NATO’s commitment to the objectives of the NPT; and declares that the intent of Article VI is a world free of nuclear weapons.

While not referring to the groundswell of calls for nuclear zero, the new SC does state unambiguously that NATO States “are resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons…” (para  26). That is a new collective statement for NATO and the previous Strategic Concept lacked even basic references to arms control.

Also new is the added statement that a world without nuclear weapons is “in accordance with the goals of the NPT” (para 26). That essentially meets the second and third demands of the above recommendation, namely, that NATO confirm its commitment to the NPT and that the intent of Article VI is a world free of nuclear weapons. The 1999 SC[iv] had only one reference to the NPT (para 19) which acknowledged its indefinite extension and the accession to it of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

In line with the last part of the above recommendation, the new SC includes a new commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation – and that includes the statement that “NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces” (para 26 – a welcome allusion to Article 26 of the UN charter).[v]

Two of the civil society recommendations focused on removing US nuclear weapons from the territories of European NATO states:

2. The Canadian Government should…encourage a NATO Strategic Concept that: commits NATO to security and arms control policies that ensure full conformity to Articles I and II of the NPT [by eliminating nuclear sharing], and that are designed to achieve the nuclear disarmament promised in Article VI).

3. Support new initiatives within Europe and publicly indicate its support for the removal of all remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons from European soil, in support of longstanding international calls that all nuclear weapons be returned to the territories of the states that own them.

Articles I and II prohibit the transfer of weapons to non-nuclear weapons states and prohibit the receipt of such weapons – and thus the reference to these Articles in the recommendation is a call for the US to remove all nuclear weapons from the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) in Europe.

NATO clearly lost a major opportunity in rejecting that move, but there has been a welcome movement away from NATO’s earlier claim that nuclear weapons in Europe are essential to security and to North Atlantic solidarity. Thus the new SC says the Alliance will “maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces” (para 19), but it drops the earlier reference to such forces being based in Europe.

NATO claims credit for already having “dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe” (para 26) and then promises to “seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future” (para 26). It then says any decision on future reductions “should take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons” (para 26).

None of this supports the NGO proposal that the elimination of all NATO weapons from Europe, weapons that have no military or deterrent utility, should be undertaken unilaterally as a required action to conform to Articles I and II of the NPT. It is worth noting that the refusal to take such action is undoubtedly related at least in part to domestic US politics and the struggle to get the START treaty through Senate ratification. Part of the Republican opposition to START is premised on the Treaty’s failure to address Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons – so the formulation in the SC is in part an effort to provide evidence that Russian non-strategic weapons are on the radar.

In short, the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe would have been a significant step toward conformity with the NPT and would have signalled a major change in NATO. As it is, the new SC makes a modest but discernable shift. By removing language about the necessity of nuclear weapons in Europe it allows for at least the possibility of withdrawal – but the position taken is rather less than bold, or, more to the point, less than what full compliance with the NPT requires.

Another recommendation addressed relations with Russia.

4. Support the development of an improved strategic relationship with Russia including initiatives such as upgrading the NATO-Russia Council; promoting continuing strategic dialogue between the US and Russia in support of a new nuclear disarmament treaty; and follow-on measures that engage other states with nuclear weapons, including China.

The new Strategic Concept offers a welcome posture toward Russia along the lines called for. It promises to “use the full potential of the NATO-Russia Council for dialogue and joint action with Russia” (para 34). Two paragraphs (33 and 34) emphasize the importance of cooperation with Russia and NATO declares: “we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia” (para 33). There is no reference to China in the Strategic Concept.

There were two additional, broadly formulated, recommendations:

5. Work to forge a consensus within NATO and its NWS member states in support of the global norm, which has existed since 1945, against the use of nuclear weapons; and

6. Encourage the Alliance to take advantage of the present climate of global support for nuclear disarmament to phase out any role for nuclear weapons in its security policies.

Contrary to these recommendations, the new Strategic Concept reaffirms the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance. That said, it also says, as did the earlier version, that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote” (para 17). It claims to “have dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapon stationed in Europe and our reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy” (para 26).

The 2010 SC adds a reference to ballistic missile defence in one significant sub-paragraph (para 19), a link to the 1999 reference (para 64) to the need for future changes that respond to the changing security environment. the new SC says the Alliance will “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance.” That reference is at least tempered by the added promise that “we will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners.”

The declaratory policy of NATO has improved. It is not yet fully in line with the NPT, and NATO continues to be out of step with the global support for zero nuclear weapons. But policy and intention have changed, now its time for civil society to convert intention into implementation.


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

 [ii] Practical Steps to Zero Nuclear Weapons: Conference Report, January 25-26, 2010, Ottawa, Canada.

[iii] 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.

[iv] 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.

[v] Article 26 of the UN Charter reads: “In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating, with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee referred to in Article 47, plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.”

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