A Note on Possible Changes to NATO Nuclear Policy and Related Issues

Tasneem Jamal

Karel Koster

Karel Koster is from PENN-Netherlands

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?


The key to these issues lies in the definition of ‘realistic’. The present international political framework is one which is pretty much defined unilaterally by the US. Changing this unilateralism is of great importance: whether it can realistically be done is another matter altogether. A working hypothesis must necessarily be that a substantial part of the US

political establishment still wants to maintain its overseas alliances, including NATO. Therefore, ‘realistic’ in this context means persuading US allies to influence the US to adjust its policies away from nuclear unilateralism and to persuade it to maintain the system of arms control treaties developed over the last thirty years.

Developments surrounding the NMD suggest that determined opposition can lead to results. European concerns about the NMD may have contributed to the decision to delay its deployment.

1. Changes to current NATO nuclear policies

If we assume that only changes caries through with the concurrence of the NATO nuclear weapon states are realistic, then the key lies in analyzing the minimum nuclear policy which they regard as acceptable. The non-nuclear weapon states are tied into:

  • the protection of the nuclear umbrella and the strategy of nuclear deterrence
  • involvement in the NATO nuclear planning process
  • six states are sharers, that is they themselves deploy aircraft which are equipped and trained to use US nuclear weapons, which would in certain circumstances be transferred to the personnel of the ‘sharing state’.

Judging from continued references to the importance of nuclear weapons as a binding factor in the Alliance, it seems clear that the nuclear deterrence doctrine itself would be the hardest factor to change. A frontal attack on it would perhaps be fatal for NATO cohesion.

Therefore more realistic shifts in policy are perhaps only possible in the other areas:

  • The sharer states can give up their involvement in nuclear missions; as an intermediary stage the sub-strategic nuclear bombs could be withdrawn to the US;
  • all the non-nuclear weapon member states could take on the same status as the new member states as regards nuclear policy, i.e., involved in NATO nuclear planning and preparations for nuclear missions, but nothing more;
  • as a next step all the non-nuclear states could withdraw from all preparation and planning for nuclear warfare.

2. US Security concerns

The assumption here is that US interest in missile defence is based on a real fear of missile attack. Some US intelligence analyses define this threat as a future but realistic one, in the sense that a small number of countries may be able to develop the missile technology capable of delivering a WMD warhead to the continental USA. As a technical possibility this is probably correct. However, this is a rather uni-dimensional way of looking at political risks. Estimates of political intentions and interests should always form part of an analysis. If one chooses to avoid this broader framework, any risk analysis will tend to assume the worst. Like, for example, the existence of a totally irrational political elite in a ‘rogue state’, willing to accept total destruction of its own country. It would have to ignore such a danger: the inevitable, probably nuclear, retaliation by the US. Such a simplistic analysis of the political intentions of a state or its political elite can hardly be taken seriously.

However, there are circumstances in which US policy makers would be running the risks of WMD attack. For instance, when US foreign policy affects the vital interests of such an enemy state in such a way that it would want to retaliate. For example, if Taiwan is regarded as a Chinese vital interest and if China decided at some future date to launch an attack against it, and if the US were to intervene on the grounds of an alliance with Taiwan, then China would see its nuclear weapons as a possibility of tempering such US reaction. An effective anti-missile shield would neutralise this threat.

Deploying the NMD on these grounds, i.e., as an indirect method of strengthening the possibilities of US foreign policy, is clearly unacceptable to a large number of countries. The question is whether such opposition influences US policy in any way whatsoever.

3. Short-term measures by nuclear weapon states

Assuming that there is no willingness to move directly to the elimination of nuclear weapons but also noting that reductions are perhaps regarded as being in the interest of all, then the best short term measures lie in carrying out existing agreements like START II and trying to initiate further movement towards START III and encouraging movement in other arms control agreements. Both START II, the FMCT and the CTBT have run into blockades at various national levels in the nuclear weapon states. For instance, the US Senate is blocking the coming into force of START II by not voting on the additional protocol agreed to in 1997. The inferior positions of China, the UK and France (in terms of the size of their nuclear arsenals) preclude their taking a leading role in reinvigorating nuclear disarmament steps. So we are again reduced to finding ways to induce the USA and the Russian Federation to reduce their arsenals. As this must be tied very much to the broader bilateral relations in a number of spheres, it might be useful to explore the possibility of connecting nuclear issues to other ones: for instance in the economic sphere. The cooperative threat reduction program is looked on favourably by many arms control experts but has a fatal weakness: it can be seen to be accelerating Russian nuclear disarmament, while there are no corresponding reductions on the US side. A truly realistic threat reduction program would take this imbalance into account and look for solutions.

Again, pressure from allied states would play a vital role in attempts to influence a US policy which in recent times has seemed hell-bent on carrying through its own program regardless of the consequences for other states. The key lies in convincing US strategists and policy makers that their interests are best served by cooperative efforts, both in the sphere of arms control treaties, and elsewhere.

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