NATO’s Nuclear Declarations

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2010 Volume 31 Issue 1

NATO’s current nuclear declarations are at serious odds with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and with the reinvigorated global attention to the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. That makes the current review of the NATO Strategic Concept1 a major opportunity to change course and to cast NATO members as advocates rather than obstacles to disarmament.

The changes – both symbolic and practical – sought to NATO’s declaratory policies and the posture and deployments that follow from them do not require NATO’s members to do anything that individual NATO states have not already promised to do. In particular, there are three unequivocal promises that all states have made, but which the current NATO Strategic Concept does not honour.

Three unfulfilled promises

The first is the obvious promise, through the NPT’s Article VI, to disarm. If the wording of Article VI is a bit ambiguous, the unanimous decisions and declarations in the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences, made by all states parties to the NPT, clarify once and for all what it means: an unequivocal commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The World Court added further clarity when it said in 1996 that the promise to disarm is a legal obligation that requires not only the pursuit of disarmament, but its achievement.

But then we come to paragraph 46 of NATO’s Strategic Concept (NATO 1999). It argues that, given “the diversity of risks with which the Alliance could be faced…, the Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence.” So, the threat of nuclear attack is required to render “the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable.” And thus it concludes that nuclear weapons remain “essential to preserve peace.” So, in its formal declaration, NATO insists that, rather than pursuing and achieving disarmament, it “will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe.” If the promise is abolition, the commitment is indefinite retention.

A second promise is found in the agreement, reached during the NPT review process, that all states parties to the NPT will seek “a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination” (RevCon 2000).

But paragraph 62 of the NATO Strategic Concept says the purpose of nuclear weapons is broad: to “prevent coercion and any kind of war.” And to accomplish that purpose, NATO nuclear forces are given the “essential role” of “ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the Allies’ response to military aggression.” In other words, rather than a diminishing role, NATO continues to prescribe an expansive role for nuclear weapons, including their potential use in response to non-nuclear threats and, by implication, first use. European-based nuclear weapons are given the further role of directly linking Europe’s defences to the strategic nuclear forces of Alliance members, which are said to be “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies” (para 62).

Furthermore, as a result of post-Cold War expansion, NATO has extended its nuclear umbrella.

Thus, while the promise is to diminish the role of nuclear weapons, the current NATO commitment is to expansive roles and expanded geographic coverage of extended deterrence. For NATO to come into full conformity with the commitments made by its individual members, the new Strategic Concept will have to scale back dramatically on the role assigned to nuclear weapons; a no-first-use commitment would be a move in that direction.

The third promise already made by NATO states by virtue of signing on to NPT Articles I and II is not to transfer nuclear weapons from nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states. In fact, the Treaty prohibits such transfers, requiring that nuclear weapon states not supply nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states, and that non-nuclear weapon states not receive nuclear weapons.2

In European NATO, US nuclear weapons have been transferred to non-nuclear weapon states (currently they are on the territories of Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). Paragraph 63 of the current Strategic Concept insists, in effect, that NATO is special and doesn’t need to abide by Articles I and II. There is justification for such transfers (despite the NPT’s clear prohibition) within NATO, because alliance security requires credible deterrence, which in turn requires that European non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) members of the Alliance “be involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles” and that nuclear forces be maintained on European territory. Furthermore, those weapons on European soil are also said to be necessary to maintain “an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance.” Thus the current Strategic Concept of NATO promises that the Alliance will continue to ignore Articles I and II (this arrangement actually goes back to the origins of the Treaty) and that NATO will instead “maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe” in NNWS (para 63).

Repercussions of NATO non-compliance

Through the current Strategic Concept NATO says that these three promises will not be honoured in the foreseeable future. The promise to disarm is met with a commitment to indefinite retention. The promise to reduce the role of nuclear weapons is met with a commitment to the continuing threat to be the first to use nuclear weapons, even in response to non-nuclear threats. The promise not to transfer nuclear weapons is met with the continuing deployment of US nuclear weapons on the territories of non-nuclear weapon states.

The most immediate political repercussion of NATO’s essentially “non-compliant” nuclear posture can be expected to be found in nonproliferation dynamics, rather than in disarmament. After all, if it is legitimate for Canada and other NATO NNWS (all of which reside in the most stable neighbourhoods of the world and are backed by the overwhelming conventional military superiority of NATO) to claim that they are so vulnerable that their security requires an ongoing nuclear deterrent (against “any” threat), then it is really hard to think of any states anywhere that could not make a much more credible case for nuclear deterrence. Think especially of Iran and the Arab states in the Middle East, which really do live in rather unstable and threatening environments. By what logic can Canada both insist that nuclear weapons are essential to its security and appeal to Pakistan, India, and Israel to forgo nuclear deterrence and join the NPT as NNWS?

If we are going to insist that all states be subject to the same standards with regard to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, then NATO has some critically important changes to make. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to make the argument that not all states need to be bound by the same nonproliferation and disarmament standards, then we will also have to be prepared to see the nonproliferation regime unwind.



  1. The details of the review process, as well as a full discussion of the nuclear elements of NATO’s strategy, are available in Ploughshares Briefing 10/1, February 2010, “NATO’s Strategic Concept, the NPT, and Global Zero.”.
  2. Article I: “Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons….”
    Article II: “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons….”


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., April 24.

Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document. 2000. Volume I, Part I, Review of the operation of the Treaty, taking into account the decisions and the resolution adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference: Improving the effectiveness of the strengthened review process for the Treaty; Part II, Organization and work of the Conference. NPT/CONF.2000/28, May 24.

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