Canada and NATO: An Opportunity for Leadership

Tasneem Jamal

Sarah Estabrooks

A brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

As an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches, Project Ploughshares has during the past four years supported an international Church initiative to encourage non-nuclear states within NATO to support a review and revision of NATO’s nuclear doctrine in order to bring it more closely into line with the obligations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Attached to this brief are three documents that set out the collective concerns, the focus of visits earlier this year by a delegation of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches to the Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, Norway, and NATO headquarters. The delegation plans to visit Canada in early 2005.

The context for those visits and the following comments is the growing concern that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is in serious peril. Non-nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty are critical of the lack of progress by nuclear weapon states on disarmament and on implementing the commitments agreed to in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Nuclear weapon states in turn are critical of what they cite as the Treaty’s failure to prevent horizontal proliferation. There is a real danger that the forthcoming Review Conference (May 2005) could end in stalemate or worse.

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference a set of thirteen practical steps toward disarmament was agreed to. While all are relevant to NATO policy and the actions of its members, step 9.5 is particularly germane and calls for “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 action mirrors the first recommendation made by this committee in its 1999 report, “Canada and the Nuclear Challenge” and affirmed by the Government of Canada’s response, calling on Canada to “work consistently to reduce the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of their progressive reduction and eventual elimination.”

Fifteen years after the end of an era of Cold War, however, NATO continues to affirm the political importance and legitimacy of nuclear weapons through a nuclear doctrine that declares the retention of nuclear weapons as essential to preserve peace:

“To protect peace and to prevent war or any kind of coercion, the Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe and kept up to date where necessary, although at a minimum sufficient level. Taking into account the diversity of risks with which the Alliance could be faced, it must maintain the forces necessary to ensure credible deterrence and to provide a wide range of conventional response options. But the Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. 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. (Emphasis added)1

These indefinite commitments to nuclear weapons, and the affirmation that they are essential to security, are contrary to the objectives of Article VI of the NPT and to the commitments made in 2000. The NATO language is especially provocative for non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the NPT, and it does little to encourage potential proliferators to adhere to non-proliferation obligations. Despite widespread concern about countering proliferation threats, NATO’s policy provides the rationale used by other nuclear weapon states, both within the NPT regime and most importantly, outside the NPT, to retain their weapons indefinitely. Russia refuses to discuss further reduction of its tactical weapons – which pose perhaps the greatest proliferation threat at present – while the US keeps tactical weapons outside its own territory at the same time NATO’s membership is expanding. Finally, NATO’s nuclear doctrine undermines the arms control and disarmament leadership of key non-nuclear NATO states, including Canada.

NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements are also inconsistent with the NPT, which in Articles I and II prohibits transfers of nuclear weapons from a nuclear to a non-nuclear weapon state. Six countries – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the UK – five of which have no national nuclear weapons capacity, currently host US weapons, while only recently weapons were removed from a seventh state, Greece. The placement of US weapons on the territory of non-nuclear NATO states is described by NATO as ‘burden sharing’, or collective responsibility for the security of the Alliance.

In practice, NATO has taken steps to reduce both the number of, and the role for, the US non-strategic nuclear weapons on European territory. The most recent figures suggest that 480 gravity bombs for delivery by dual-capable aircraft remain in Europe, down from a high point of some 7,300 warheads and 13 delivery systems in the early 1970’s.2 These weapons are stored at sites in six countries –– with an 80% reduction in the number of storage facilities.3 NATO has stated that its nuclear forces have no pre-determined targets, and are at a low readiness level measured in months. NATO’s nuclear policy is not even consistent with its own actions of significantly reducing the size, readiness, and distribution of its nuclear forces. The potential for their use is considered ‘extremely remote’, and yet these weapons are called ‘essential to preserve peace’.

Although the political value, or deterrence effect, of these weapons is considered the primary reason for keeping them, the political value of a policy shift, or better still, elimination of the remaining tactical nuclear weapons, is ignored. NATO has a leadership responsibility to bring its strategic concept into line with the NPT, and to make demonstrable steps toward nuclear disarmament. Such actions, demonstrating compliance with already agreed commitments, would be a significant confidence building measure for other NPT member states.

NATO itself has recognized the importance of confidence building measures. The 1999 Washington NATO Summit launched a process to review NATO’s nuclear policy. Known as the “Paragraph 32 Process”, in December 2000 the Report on Options for Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs), Verification, Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament was released. Among other things, the report endorsed the NPT and the entire Final Document of the 2000 Review; it called for improved transparency regarding NATO decision making; and it encouraged dialogue with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons and arms control generally.

There are specific actions which Canada can take in the lead-up to the 2005 NPT Review Conference to seek a reduced role for nuclear weapons in the strategic doctrine of NATO:

Canada should encourage a review of NATO’s nuclear policy, considering the time lapsed since the 1999 Strategic Doctrine and the developments in that time. Commitment to a transparent review, with civil society involvement, would send a positive message that NATO is serious about reducing the political value of nuclear weapons.

Canada should encourage its European partners in NATO to advocate for the elimination of the remaining US tactical nuclear weapons stationed on non-nuclear weapons states. NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement contradicts the commitment of all NPT states parties not to transfer nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapons states.

Reciprocal action by Russia to account for and eliminate the tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal should be encouraged by Canada as an important non-proliferation initiative.

Canada should continue to strive for the retention of commitments made at the 2000 NPT and a successful 2005 Review Conference.

The 2005 NPT Review Conference represents a critical milestone in the nuclear arms control and disarmament regime, and NATO is in the position to positively impact the outcome. Canada should focus its energies on encouraging NATO and its membership to take demonstrable steps toward unambiguous compliance with the Treaty.



  1. 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. on 23rd and 24th April 1999. Paragraph 46.
  2. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, 1954-2004” in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 2004 (Vol 60, no. 6) pp 76-77.
  3. NATO does not confirm the location of the tactical weapons, but states an 80% reduction in the number of facilities in “NATO’s Nuclear Forces in the New Security Environment”, NATO Factsheet, issued 3 June 2004.
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