Dimensions of Change: NATO and the NPT Action Plan

Tasneem Jamal

Sean Howard

Sean Howard is Editor, Disarmament Diplomacy

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?

Following the adoption of the disarmament plan of action at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the broad international agenda for progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament issues has rarely, if ever, been more clearly established or articulated. In the context of an “unequivocal undertaking” by the nuclear-weapon states to “accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament,” the 187 NPT states have drawn up what we might call a three-dimensional agenda for change, identifying a range of priority issues for progress in (1) the multilateral/international context, maximizing the scope for nuclear and non-nuclear states to work together to reduce and eliminate the threat, (2) the nuclear-weapon state context, detailing the basic, especial responsibility for reform and reductions falling on the existing possessors of nuclear mass-destructive capability, and (3) the conceptual and procedural context, securing maximal clarity and relevance for the principles and processes underpinning the overall international effort to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Any consideration of NATO’s nuclear review should be judged against not just the specific policy criteria set out in the action plan – summarised below – but in terms of how far it either enhances or retards this three-dimensional approach. That is, (1) does the NATO review constitute an example of progressive debate in which the responsibility for disarmament is recognized as being common to all members of the world’s only nuclear-armed Alliance, (2) is the review an example of progressive engagement by NATO’s nuclear-weapon states with their own especial obligation to disarm, and (3) is the review based on principles clearly commensurate with the goal of moving towards a nuclear-weapon-free world, and does it constitute a process designed to find ways of prioritizing nuclear disarmament rather than rationalizing and helping to perpetuate nuclear possession.

In terms of specific proposals, the priorities identified in the NPT action plan are as follows:

The multilateral/international dimension: intensified efforts at the Conference on Disarmament to conclude, within five years, negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons; establishment of a CD subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament issues; efforts to ensure the early entry into force of the CTBT.

The nuclear-weapon state dimension: a moratorium on nuclear testing pending entry into force of the CTBT; in the context of preserving and enhancing the ABM Treaty, revitalization of the START process, with entry into force of START II and speedy conclusion of START III; the earliest possible involvement of all nuclear-weapon states in nuclear reduction talks; increased transparency with regard to nuclear stockpiles and capabilities; further unilateral reductions of arsenals, including further reductions of non-strategic weapons; reduction of the operational status of nuclear weapons (longhand for de-alerting); doctrinal reform to de-emphasise nuclear weapons and diminish the risk of their use or indefinite possession; placement of surplus military fissile materials under international control

The conceptual and procedural dimension: submission of regular reports by all NPT states on progress towards fulfilling the nuclear disarmament objectives of Article VI of the Treaty and the obligation to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament reaffirmed in the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice; enhancement of verification capabilities; application of the principle of irreversibility to all nuclear disarmament and related negotiations, measures and initiatives; reaffirmation of the ultimate objective of general and complete disarmament.

If the NATO review were to orient itself around the NPT action plan, what policy reforms would it be likely to adopt? The Alliance could issue its own set of Principles & Objectives, to be reviewed by itself on a regular basis, setting out both its general intent to evolve into a non-nuclear organization, and the specific steps it intends to take to move in that direction. Progress Reports and Statements of Intent stemming from these deliberations could be submitted at future NPT meetings, and other relevant fora such as the CD and the UN First Committee and General Assembly. The three NATO nuclear-weapon states could issue a separate Disarmament Declaration, again subject to internal and external review, undertaking to translate the spirit of their NPT commitments into doctrinal and practical reforms. Strong candidates for such reforms would include:

  • all nuclear weapons taken off alert
  • adoption of a policy of no-first use
  • bolstered security assurances guaranteeing no-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states under any circumstances
  • the phased, irreversible, unilateral elimination of all non-strategic nuclear weapons, coupled with an appeal for reciprocal Russian measures
  • a range of transparency and confidence-building measures with regard to stocks and capabilities (perhaps establishing a Nuclear Weapons Register and inviting China and Russia to participate)
  • increased financial support for international non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, particularly the IAEA safeguards regime
  • endorsement of the NPT action plan call for the establishment of a subsidiary body on nuclear disarmament, backed by a commitment to provide discussion papers and other input.

A nuclear policy Baseline Pledge could be drawn up on the basis of such a reform package, in which the Alliance commits itself (1) not to increase, and work constantly to decrease, its nuclear capability, and (2) never to deploy its nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states.

Of course, this bears no resemblance to the actual NATO review, and nothing like this is being seriously contemplated. In other words, the review is not being conducted according to the spirit of the NPT action plan, and will not result in changes clearly suggested by that plan. Rather, the review is likely to be received and remembered as an early, major, lost opportunity. To understand why, we need to return to the criteria set out above.

The review is not being conducted on the basis of a shared perspective among the nuclear and non-nuclear members of the Alliance. A small number of non-nuclear states would like to see a significant reformulation of NATO doctrine and practice. During the NPT Review Conference, Canada, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands severally argued the case for a progressive and responsible Alliance engagement with the evolving non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. Canada has since taken an energetic lead in pushing the case for reform. There remains, however, a general, traditional fear among many non-nuclear NATO members that significant reform risks loosening the hallowed nuclear bond ‘coupling’ the United States and Europe. The nuclear-weapon states are themselves at odds over US missile defence plans (a momentous issue dealt with in detail by another panel), but are united in their desire not to have their own nuclear doctrines and practices publicly criticized or questioned by their closest allies. Thus, two of the three dimensions of the NPT action plan – a commitment to real change in the direction of nuclear disarmament on the behalf of NATO states in general and the Alliance’s nuclear-weapon states in particular – are absent. In their place is a general wariness of radical change, and a specific nuclear-weapon state aversion to it. In such a context, it is not surprising that the third dimension – an intense conceptual and procedural facilitation of pro-disarmament debate and policy-formulation – is also absent. In its place, we find a general desire to present the Alliance as seriously reviewing its nuclear policy and thus fulfilling its obligations as an organization composed solely of NPT members.

As mentioned, limiting NATO action on nuclear issues to PR is not a universal desire, and will meet some resistance from those capitals, not least this one, sincerely attempting to seize the moment for meaningful change. Furthermore, deep divisions and concerns over US missile defence may make presentational success elusive, if not impossible. Such divisions, however, will not reflect a genuine review of the range of nuclear policy issues before the Alliance, but will rather derive from a concentration on one issue which has the potential to destabilise NATO’s existing nuclear stance by shattering the basic strategic stability afforded by the ABM Treaty. The NPT action plan rightly recognizes the importance of the ABM Treaty, but as a framework within which to affect change, not as a guarantor of the nuclear status quo.


It is highly unlikely that NATO’s nuclear review will result in reforms which the international community as a whole clearly wishes to see. Where the NPT action plan seeks to apply a multi-dimensional focus to a single objective – nuclear disarmament – the Alliance’s review reflects only a minority desire to challenge a one-dimensionally pro-nuclear policy and mentality. If the review is used for both PR purposes and as an endorsement of one-dimensional thinking and policy, it will be a setback to global disarmament efforts. If, however, it marks the beginning of a serious process of internal reflection on the value and purpose of nuclear weapons, it will prove valuable no matter how disappointing its concrete results. The extraordinary fact is that the issue of updating the basic parameters and principles of nuclear policy barely flickered in Alliance deliberations in the 1990s. Now that the topic has at least been seriously broached, if not embraced, it is hard to imagine a return to such somnolence.

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