A Vision for a Post-Nuclear NATO; or Miracles Really Can Happen

Tasneem Jamal

Sharon Riggle

Sharon Riggle is Director, Centre for European Security and Disarmament

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 title of the presentation is perhaps overly cynical, but points out the enormous difficulties in achieving the goal of a nuclear-free transatlantic alliance. I will divide my ideas into 1) the prospects for such a security status in Europe, and 2) what a post-nuclear Alliance might actually look like given current trends.

Prospects for a Post-Nuclear NATO

It is sometimes difficult to divide the ideal from the real, especially regarding such an important topic as nuclear weapons and their potential use. The vast majority of the world’s community wants nuclear disarmament sooner rather than later. Indeed, some polls show that after the Cold War many think that nuclear disarmament has already been achieved. Attention has turned to regional ‘hot spots’ and the nuclear question has remained unanswered and threatening. The ideal would be for pro-disarmament rhetoric to be turned into reality and speedy progress made towards achieving this vital aim. Public statements and legally-binding treaties oblige the nuclear powers to give up this ultimate weapon of annihilation and global public opinion demands it. Reality, however, will dictate the extent to which this comes to pass.

The recent NPT Review Conference (RevCon) encouraged us all by producing a hard-won final document, with an outline of concrete measures for future action. Most significantly, the nuclear five pledged, ‘an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI’. This meant, in effect, ‘less talk, more action’. Tangible proof of nuclear-weapon states’ oft-asserted commitment is what countries are looking for. Thirty years of promises, coupled with pro-nuclear deterrence statements in other fora, leaves the international community understandably a bit skeptical about their true intentions. Nowhere is the hypocrisy more apparent than in the NATO forum.

There was one key sentence in the NPT document that pertains especially to the Alliance: ‘a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination’. This was taken originally from the New Agenda Coalition’s papers from 1998-99, and earlier drafts made it clear that they were referring to NATO. It was prompted in part by the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept in April 1999 that re-affirmed its strong nuclear posture, which received much criticism from other states. NATO is seen to still embrace a weapon, albeit for an esoteric ‘political’ purpose, that the rest of the world denounces. The fact that 19 countries jointly defend the use of these weapons makes it a stumbling block on the road to nuclear disarmament that cannot be ignored. The aforementioned ‘diminishing role’ is an element that should be at the heart of the current discussions in NATO in their so-called arms control review process. As of yet, it is not under even remote consideration.

The discussions in the arms control review process are limited to safer areas like confidence-building measures and tactical nuclear weapon information transparency. This is where the ‘ideal’ of implementing the forward-looking and constructive objectives from the NPT RevCon collides headlong into the ‘reality’ of politics inside the Alliance. The bottom line is that there is no desire to open discussions on the nuclear posture of the Alliance by the majority of members. This is not to say, however, that those supporting change should let the matter drop. Realpolitik cannot determine ultimate goals; we must continue to push. It can, though, inform our work to sharpen our strategies and create effective tactics.

The opposition within NATO to opening a debate on the nuclear question is formidable. Leading the opposition are of course the nuclear-weapon states. They are quite happy with the way things are, thank you very much. On a more emotional front, the three new eastern European members are perhaps even more vehemently set against the idea of losing the nuclear posture. They reckon they have fought hard for this ‘ultimate guarantee’ and are not prepared to give it up; it is payback time for Russia. In the eyes of one NATO insider, enlargement of the Alliance will only make this sentiment stronger.

In Europe, some NGOs have been trying to raise the consciousness of the public on the issue of US tactical nuclear weapons based on the territories of six non-nuclear-weapon NATO states, also called the nuclear sharing arrangements. While meeting with some success, especially in Belgium, it is still pretty much a non-issue for the average European. And that is the way governments would like to keep it. Although some of these six countries are considered to be the best prospects for getting change, their complicit actions undermine movement on this issue in NATO. On both sides of the pond, the general feeling seems to be ‘don’t rock the transatlantic boat’. They cannot be counted on for support or staking political capital to stimulate the fundamental debate that needs to happen in the Alliance.

To sum up the ‘prospects’ section of the presentation, let’s end with a brief discussion burden-sharing. This is the mantra of the Americans every time the Europeans talk about more autonomy in NATO decision-making. The US provides well over 50% of the assets used in the NATO machinery and plays a very dominant role. Burden-sharing normally refers to the financial or military contributions of each country to the Alliance. However, in the nuclear deterrence game, the meaning is decidedly more political.

If you are a nuclear-weapon state there is great benefit in letting others shelter under your umbrella, and thus also let them share in the blame of perpetuating the credibility of nuclear weapons. If we continue with the umbrella image, we can picture NATO’s as having a very large surface area and with 3 thick handles coming down, and 16 narrower ones. Although French nuclear weapons are technically not a part of the NATO structure, France, along with the US and the UK, are the main pillars of support for the nuclear deterrence posture. By being members of a military organisation with the nuclear threat as a core guarantee, part of the price to be paid is to help prop up this decaying and outmoded structure. The political ramifications of such complicity make forward progress much more difficult, as the ‘one voice’ of NATO often has a distinctly American accent.

For an example of the hold the Alliance has on its members, we need look no further than UN General Assembly voting, especially regarding the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) resolution, to see how strong the ties are that bind Allies together. In the end, although some nuclear resolutions may ring true in capitals, NATO members often cite their membership in the Alliance as the ultimate reason for not being able to support pro-disarmament resolutions. This was especially true with the NAC resolution, the content of which was largely adopted by all NATO members at the NPT RevCon earlier this year—but only after a rubber stamp was given by their nuclear partners.

A final word on prospects for a non-nuclear-NATO would just be that of logic: if progress is not made bilaterally between the US and Russia, if the ABM crumbles over NMD, if proliferation of missile technology escalates, and most importantly, if the salience of these weapons, political or otherwise, does not decrease – I cannot imagine a scenario in which NATO members would take the lead to push them out of Alliance strategy.

A Post-Nuclear NATO

This has to be one of the most challenging titles yet I have been given to speak to. Of course it is what many of us work towards, but seldom have I stopped to imagine what it might actually look like. I consider the eventuality of a non-nuclear NATO so far off, that I hesitate to speculate because the context will be completely different by then. I will give it a shot, however, and base it on the trends we see today.

There are of course a number of important variables like, will states in NATO honour their commitments taken in other fora like the NPT? Will Europe continue to develop a more independent military force, and will it someday be nuclear? Will the US go ahead with plans for NMD, to what extent and will Europe someday be a part of such a system? Will NATO adopt a Navy Theatre-Wide theatre missile defence system, which shares much of the same technology as NMD? Such questions cloud a future vision and make it quite difficult to see.

What is clear is that Europe, like much of the world, is moving towards collective security-type activities like peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and crisis management. This, too, has been one of NATO’s aims as it has tried to re-define and re-structure itself after the Cold War. There is a stark realisation that hard defence and territorial integrity form but a part of the new security order. Therefore we can safely assume that our post-nuclear NATO of the future is preoccupied with these types of activities, while maintaining its core Article V commitment. In the near term, this will probably be limited to the North American-European region, responding to crises as they occur. These crises may include environmental disasters or accidents, or even support for national police. I would draw your attention to a very thought-provoking article in the most recent issue of the NATO publication NATO Review, in which Chris Donnelly outlines what a future integrated force might look like. He argues that soldiers cannot fulfill the myriad of tasks required by today’s crisis situations. They have no training to be police, judges, arbitrators, etc., yet are routinely thrown into those situations. Re-thinking the intervention scenario should include professionals from civil society as well as military personnel. I’m sure such words caused a ripple at Headquarters, but certainly serve as good fodder for discussion as security institutions evolve.

There is the possibility, of course, that NATO could at some point be sub-contracted by the United Nations or the OSCE to carry out particular missions, but farther afield than their traditional borders. This would of course satisfy the demand for a UN or OSCE mandate, so fragrantly flouted during the Kosovo bombings. However, given the current political climate, this is an unlikely possibility for the near future.

These peacekeeping-type scenarios presume that current trends continue and that no major threat to the NATO countries develops in the next decade or so.

If we want to give in to wild speculation, we could pick a couple of the options on the menu currently evolving on the European scene. The US, for example, could go ahead with plans for an NMD system, and extend coverage to the UK and Greenland to protect their sensor network. This would not sit well with the other European countries, who would most likely demand some sort of similar protection. Once Russia is appeased, the Europeans will breathe easier no matter what is adopted. A second option could be the deployment of theatre missile defence, or a series of TMDs, to protect not just deployed troops, but their national territory as well. They could opt for the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) TMD, virtually the same technology as NMD, which would open the possibilities for future upgrading. Budgetary considerations make this a distant possibility for the Europeans, who spend a fraction of what the US does on defence—a trend that looks likely to continue to reduce defence budgets in the future, which would not allow such a defence in Europe any time soon.

Another scenario sees continued deepening cooperation among the EU countries on security and defence. The past 24 months have shocked and amazed observers as the EU has sprinted towards unprecedented co-operative security arrangements, much of which will be institutionalised at the December EU summit in Nice. Few people are now willing to speculate on what the future holds for EU security, including a possible future common defence. There is a strong feeling that US actions will play a part. Will the US develop increasingly isolationist policies? Will they fail to deliver on major commitments like ratifying the CTBT? Are Europeans willing to be led in the same manner in which the Kosovo operation was carried out? These are some fundamental questions currently being mulled over in capitals. If at some point the balance tips in the anti-US direction, the possibility exists that the two sides of the Atlantic may decide to keep cooperation minimal.

What would happen to the French and British nuclear weapons in an EU defence? While this debate is slowly starting to move back onto the radar screen, no one will commit themselves one way or the other. Sweden, Ireland and Austria would have huge problems in convincing their public that a nuclear guarantee was appropriate. But France and the UK would not disarm because a few non-aligned EU partners were uncomfortable. If it did come to that, I could envision a opt-out situation in which those who wanted the nuclear umbrella could sign up and those who didn’t would not. This has happened on several contentious issues in the EU, and would be a way around getting a national population to agree. That, of course, would be a cosmetic difference as the security of all European countries are intrinsically tied together and there would be a de facto umbrella over the continent.

In our best case scenario, however, NATO countries could decide to respect and harmonise agreements made in the NPT and other fora, and decide to disarm. Completely ignoring the outcomes from the 2000 RevCon would have serious repercussions, but even a political acknowledgement could go some way in mitigating the damage. But in this scenario they would realise that the continued presence of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy was detrimental to progress towards nuclear disarmament, to which they are all legally and politically committed. In this case they would remove all remaining US tactical nuclear weapons from European soil, tone down and eventually eliminate the extreme language in the Strategic Concept nuclear paragraphs, step up their cooperation with Russia and develop meaningful confidence-building measures, take all weapons earmarked for NATO use off alert and proceed to de-mating and dismantlement and perhaps finally even achieve a Central European Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. I’m afraid, however, that this is very unlikely in the current political environment. There is no urgency felt to change the nuclear posture of the Alliance. It remains, however, a laudable end goal.

Ways Forward

As I am frequently asked to give advice to NGOs on NATO topics, I thought I would end with some ideas for the way forward. In the short-term, reducing the political value of nuclear weapons is an absolutely vital first step in the Alliance context if the goal of the eventual non-nuclearisation of NATO is to be reached. ‘Political value’ is an elusive term that tends to morph into whatever meaning suits a respective speaker. It is also exceedingly difficult to quantify or define as it includes a complex web of perceptions and subjective interpretations. However, it is clear that other states, like India and Pakistan, have not had such a difficult time getting their heads around the concept and are quite happy to mimic the justifications that NATO gives for its nuclear posture.

Governments must feel accountable to their citizens and the wider international community, and how they represent their populations in NATO is no exception. Much of what happens at NATO goes on behind closed doors, but not all of it should remain that way. As I chant to all who will listen in Brussels, NATO has to become more responsive and responsible to the international community, especially to their constituency back home. A balance should be struck between Foreign and Defence Ministries, who routinely disagree on arms control, and even more so on NATO policy, to accurately represent the interests of their country and their people. Parliamentarians should be kept informed by governments, as well as listening to their citizens. Citizens and parliamentarians between various NATO countries should also keep the lines of communication open. NATO is unique in its insular environment and tends to be dismissive of outside ideas and pressure. However, if there is pressure coming from home, from capitals where decisions are made, NATO does have the possibility to change from the inside out. The reverse is almost impossible in my opinion.

There is a good possibility that the NATO document to be issued this December may be made public. This would be a very significant first step down the right path. The public accountability factor is vital to keep NATO in step with modern security needs and international expectations, as well as addressing the PR problem that portrays NATO as oblivious to voices outside of its own isolated corridors. So far the arms control review process has been given an intentionally low profile and kept out of the public spotlight. It needs to be made very clear that there are expectations that must be met in December, both in producing a public document and on a substantive, forward-looking text. The ramifications of any decision will be felt far beyond the borders of the NATO countries, as many around the world are watching for progress from the Alliance.

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