NATO at 60: Major Renovations or a Cosmetic Makeover?

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2009 Volume 30 Issue 2

On April 3-4, 2009, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marked its 60th anniversary with a summit held in Germany and France. The summit launched a review of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept, including its nuclear doctrine, with the aim of adopting a new strategy at the Portugal summit next year. This review offers a much needed opportunity for NATO to shed its archaic policies of Cold War brinkmanship and mutually assured destruction and to become part of the most significant security trend of the 21st century: nuclear disarmament.

The growing swell of voices calling for global nuclear disarmament is well documented (see, for example, Regehr 2009, pp. 3-5). Joining the chorus is the world’s most influential leader, who called for a world free of nuclear weapons in an address in Prague on April 5 (Obama 2009).

Reflecting on “the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century,” US President Barak Obama proclaimed, “Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st.” He stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” To those who would say that checking the current spread of nuclear weapons is impossible, he contended that “this fatalism is a deadly adversary.”

Obama’s comments were made just one day after NATO leaders made a commitment to “renovating” the Alliance (NATO 2009a). But there are deep structural differences between NATO’s current collective security arrangement, which is based on nuclear deterrence, and a global security in which nuclear weapons play no part. Perhaps rather than a major structural overhaul, we should expect improvements to the façade.

The current Strategic Concept (NATO 1999) was adopted a full 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, with its promise of a peace dividend. It not only claims that nuclear weapons are “essential to preserve peace” and that “the Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces,” but that nuclear weapons are the “supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies.”

While the outcome of the current policy review is not clear, nuclear issues are only briefly mentioned in the Summit Declaration. In it NATO members do reaffirm that “arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation will continue to make an important contribution to peace, security, and stability” (NATO 2009b, para 55), but as a reflection of past policies, this statement is hardly indicative of radical change.

In his Prague address Obama declared that “to put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.” But he added, “Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

The US promise to reduce the number and strategic importance of its nuclear weapons is welcome and needed. But the catch for disarmament lies in Obama’s cautionary phrase “as long as these weapons exist.” How do the US and NATO go from that position to one of disarmament?
A major structural renovation of NATO’s security strategy requires daring leadership. In the meantime, we will likely see a series of less drastic facelifts. At the very least, the current review should redefine the Strategic Concept in terms that:

  • a) welcome the groundswell of calls for a world without nuclear weapons;
  • b) acknowledge that regional insecurities as well as existing nuclear arsenals are among the reasons that some states and even non-state actors seek nuclear weapon capabilities;
  • c) confirm NATO’s commitment to the objectives of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e., a world free of nuclear weapons; and
  • d) commit NATO to security and arms control policies that are designed to achieve the nuclear disarmament promised in Article VI of the NPT (Regehr 2009).



NATO. 1999. 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.

NATO. 2009a. Declaration on Alliance Security, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Strasbourg / Kehl on 4 April 2009.

NATO. 2009b. NATO Summit: Strasbourg / Kehl Summit Declaration, 4 April 2009.

Obama, Barak. 2009. President Obama speech on nuclear disarmament, 5 April 2009. The Acronym Institute.

Regehr, Ernie. 2009. Rethinking NATO’s Strategic Concept: Building on the emerging nuclear abolition imperative. The Ploughshares Monitor. Spring.

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