Rebuilding Confidence in the NPT: Resolving the NATO-NPT Contradictions

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2005 Volume 26 Issue 1

That the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is under severe strain is not in doubt. The Treaty’s three basic provisions mean that it is rightly described as a cornerstone of global security. First, it reinforces a clear global norm against the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. Second, while it encourages the development of nuclear technology for non-military purposes, it imposes specific legal prohibitions on the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Third, it places legal obligations on acknowledged nuclear weapon states (NWS) to dismantle and eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Yet, all three of these fundamental elements of the NPT are severely challenged.

The global norm against nuclear weapons is undermined by the way the “official” nuclear weapon states have now been joined by three essentially “accepted” nuclear states: India, Israel, and Pakistan have been publicly acknowledged as such without being subjected to any serious consequences from the international community. In fact, they can be said to have gained new respect, or at least special consideration, as a result of their nuclear status.

The non-proliferation commitments are undermined by the international community’s failure to develop a consistent and effective means of dealing with those isolated NNWS parties to the Treaty that are found to be pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons, or of technologies useful in the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, in defiance of the letter or spirit of the Treaty. NPT member states North Korea1 and Iran continue to challenge the core prohibition against nuclear weapons and thus raise doubts about the efficacy of the Treaty.

Nuclear Weapon State adherents to the Treaty continue to avoid their disarmament obligations and continue to affirm the political and military legitimacy of nuclear weapons – for them. NWS parties to the Treaty continue to claim the right to retain nuclear arsenals and to pursue new nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and refuse to enter into meaningful negotiations on ongoing and irreversible nuclear disarmament.

There is therefore no avoiding the fact that the Treaty is in trouble and no state or group of states is absolved of the responsibility to help recover the vision and intent of the Treaty. All will have to make a contribution to the survival of the Treaty as an effective and key instrument through which the world seeks to keep at bay, and eventually eliminate, the unrivaled terror of nuclear weapons.

One group of states with a particular responsibility is the Non-Nuclear Weapon States within NATO. These states, of which Canada is one, embody public commitments that are uniquely and overtly contradictory. As NNWS signatories to the NPT they are, like all other NNWS signatories to the NPT, pledged to eliminate nuclear weapons and also to eschew the acquisition of nuclear weapons, yet, as members of the world’s only current nuclear weapons alliance, they are also pledged to continue to rely indefinitely on nuclear weapons for their own security. Furthermore, some NATO states that adhere to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states hold nuclear weapons on their territories, making the contradiction all the starker.

It is true that these contradictions have in effect been tolerated by the NPT community throughout the full life of the Treaty, but it does not follow that they will continue to be tolerated indefinitely. “It is not acceptable to others,” says Australia’s former Ambassador for Disarmament, Richard Butler (2005), “for the US, for example [and one could add NATO], to claim that its security is so important that it is justified in holding nuclear weapons but this is not the case for other states, such as India and now Iran.”

Even John Deutch (2005, pp. 51-52), who has held a number of senior US defence and security posts and who advocates a significantly reduced but ongoing nuclear arsenal for the United States, admits that there is “a basic hypocrisy on the part of nuclear powers: they retain their own arsenals while denying others the same right.” He goes on to say that Washington is pursuing “conflicting goals: maintaining a modern nuclear weapons posture, on the one hand, and curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, on the other.” It is a double standard that is formally, but temporarily, accepted in the NPT.

From the beginning of the nuclear age, explains Prof. William Walker (2004, p. 23) of the University of St. Andrews, states have responded to three “powerful but contradictory pressures. … The first was to eliminate the weapon and thereby remove the threat of extinction.… The second…was for states to acquire the weapon so as to expand national power and prestige and to balance or gain ascendancy over adversaries. The third combined the first and second: to arm the Self whilst preventing the armament of Others.”

In a sense the NPT embodies the third impulse, but with a key qualifier: that the legitimacy of that double standard depends upon its being understood as a transition toward a single standard (i.e., no nuclear weapons) for all: “the Treaty promised (the word is not too strong) that the asymmetry of capabilities would be nullified over time by the nuclear-weapon states’… practice of arms control and disarmament” (Walker 2004, p. 13).

While the Treaty envisions the elimination of all nuclear arsenals, five nuclear weapon states are given the legal right to possess nuclear weapons while working in good faith to implement their Article VI commitment to eliminate those arsenals:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

All other states are prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons at any time. It is a double standard that NNWS were largely powerless to protest through decades of nuclear arming by nuclear weapon states in the deadliest arms race in human history – a period that certainly did not include good faith efforts toward disarmament, leading instead to the collective accumulation of more than 70,000 nuclear warheads. Since that peak in the early 1980s the numbers have been sharply reduced, but they remain at levels still readily capable of human annihilation, without any demonstrable commitment from key NWS to achieve their elimination and prohibition.

That double standard is no longer sustainable, morally or politically, and the pre-eminent current danger is that this double standard will be resolved in favour of the broader acquisition of nuclear weapons, rather than through their universal elimination. A number of non-nuclear weapon states could become nuclear weapon states relatively quickly; others have the means to pursue a nuclear capability over a longer period of time, even if it takes decades. The hope that those states with the technical and financial resources to acquire nuclear weapons, either quickly or over time, will continue to voluntarily forego a nuclear capability is bound to be dashed in a world in which nuclear weapons are seen to confer legitimacy and authority on those who possess them. It is a hope that certainly will not be realized as long as some of the world’s most secure states, in North America and Western Europe, continue to insist that their security depends on the retention of nuclear weapons.

NATO’s NNWS could make a major contribution to restoring international confidence in the Treaty by taking overt measures to acknowledge, mitigate, and ultimately end their contradictory status. There are other serious, and more immediate, threats to the NPT, but the NNWS members of NATO bear a special responsibility to come into full compliance with the spirit and letter of the Treaty. In so doing, they would render a singular service to the urgent, and far from guaranteed, mission to save the NPT from disintegration.

NATO’s continuing reliance on nuclear weapons

The Strategic Concept adopted by the Washington NATO Summit in 1999 remains the Alliance’s official statement of purpose and outlines its approach to security, its force posture, and, most importantly for the purposes of this report, its nuclear doctrine. The 1999 Strategic Concept did not alter NATO’s 1991 position on nuclear issues, reiterating the commitment to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely. It outlined a doctrine of deterrence dependent on nuclear weapons 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. (para 46)

The declared threat to use nuclear weapons is essentially open-ended. It implies the possible use of nuclear weapons against any aggressors, including NNWS. The implication of this doctrine in the context of NATO expansion is significant. As Karel Koster (2004), a European researcher, points out, “the political implications of the existing doctrine are far reaching. After all, the alliance is continually enlarging eastwards, essentially creating a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone-in-reverse: the number of countries committed to supporting and planning the use of nuclear weapons is actually increasing.”

The open-endedness of the nuclear threat suggests a willingness to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, and it appears to fly in the face of negative security assurances.

Of course, the principle affirmed in the NPT is the opposite of the NATO doctrine that holds nuclear weapons to be essential for security. The NPT logic is that the elimination of nuclear weapons is essential to preserve peace, and Article VI of the Treaty makes such elimination a requirement. Furthermore, in 1996 the International Court of Justice rendered a judgment in response to the question “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” to say that the NPT commitment to eliminate nuclear arsenals is a legal obligation. The court unanimously said: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control” (Section 2F).

In the NPT 1995 “principles and objectives”2 and in the 2000 “practical steps”3 NATO states joined all other NPT signatories in declaring the elimination of nuclear weapons a priority objective.

In the meantime, in the context of pursuing nuclear disarmament, states agreed in 2000 that NWS have an obligation to pursue policies that result in “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” (Step 9).

Mohamed El Baradei (2002), Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has pointed out that to diminish the role of nuclear weapons there is a need to challenge deterrence doctrine itself, and especially extended deterrence that includes formally NNWS under the nuclear deterrence strategies of NWS:

A crucial step in moving towards nuclear disarmament will be to reexamine the long-standing doctrine of nuclear deterrence. The doctrine remains deeply entrenched in the national security strategies of all the nuclear weapon states, and continues to be relied on by many non-nuclear weapon states through the so-called nuclear umbrella arrangements, as an important feature of the security portfolio.

All NATO members, with the exception of France and Iceland, are members of the nuclear planning group and as such are directly engaged in nuclear use planning, a role not readily rationalized with their membership in the NPT as non-nuclear states (Makhijani & Deller 2003).

The argument that the NATO doctrine, which describes nuclear weapons as essential to the security of NATO states, undermines non-proliferation is not based on the assumption that NNWS pursue nuclear options simply because NATO declares nuclear weapons essential to its security. In some instances, of course, states do pursue nuclear weapons because others have them, but mostly the proliferation pressures emerge out of a myriad of conditions of insecurity and national interests and aspirations. But the more that the option of nuclearization is legitimized by states that are respected in the international community, like Canada and Germany, the more the nuclear option can be actively entertained by others. If it is legitimate for Canada to claim that NATO nuclear weapons are essential to its security, how much more can states in South Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere make the claim that they need nuclear weapons for their security? The overwhelming military advantage that NATO has over any potential adversary renders absurd the NATO claim that its conventional forces do not represent a credible deterrent to others.4

To set the appropriate framework for NATO policy and doctrine, the NATO nuclear strategy should state clearly what NATO states have agreed through the NPT: that global security, as well as the security of individual states and alliances like NATO, depend on the elimination of nuclear weapons. While calling on the NWS to redouble their nuclear disarmament efforts, NATO should make it clear that in the meantime the function of any existing nuclear arsenal must be limited and interim, and as such must be confined to deterring the use of nuclear weapons by any other state. In line with that limited role, NATO should implement a nuclear no-first-use policy, and all NWS of NATO should significantly reduce the operational status of all their nuclear weapons, ensuring at a minimum that strategic nuclear weapons are taken off high alert status.

The presence of nuclear weapons in NNWS of NATO

Current estimates are that as many as 480 American non-strategic nuclear weapons remain stationed in six NATO states:5 Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey (all non-nuclear weapon states), and the UK. Not only have these weapons been transferred there against the obvious intent of the NPT, but under certain circumstances these weapons are also transferred to the control of the host state: “In time of war, the bombs would be transferred from US custodial units at these bases to NATO tactical aircraft flown by the pilots of the nations [in which the weapons are located]. In peacetime, these crews are trained to deliver the weapons, while almost all the NATO member states are involved in developing the plans to use them, including targeting” (Koster 2004).

The standard defence of NATO’s nuclear sharing is that this arrangement existed when the NPT was negotiated, and has never been challenged by the states parties.6 Furthermore, NATO explains that “[t]he U.S. nuclear weapons based in Europe are in the sole possession and under constant and complete custody and control of the United States. They are fitted with sophisticated Permissive Action Links (PAL) that guarantee absolute positive control by the U.S. and prevent unauthorized use” (NATO 2004). Of course, the NPT does not qualify its prohibition on the transfer of nuclear weapons. Such transfers are not declared permissible if control over them remains with the supplier country.

In any event, the arrangements described by NATO are confined to peacetime – in the event of war, the operational control would pass to the host nation (Koster 2004). The US National Command Authority does retain the launch codes for US weapons in Europe, and they cannot be armed without US presidential approval (Butcher, Nassauer, Padberg & Plesch 2000, chap. 2.1), but were that approval given and the bombs loaded onto the European aircraft designed to deliver them, the use of them would be effectively transferred (Nassauer 2001). The text of the Treaty is, however, clear in its prohibition of the transfer of nuclear weapons from a nuclear to a non-nuclear weapon state – at any time.

Article II of the NPT is unambiguous in its prohibition on NNWS acquisition of nuclear weapons under any circumstances:

Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

Article I of the Treaty is equally unambiguous in its prohibitions on NWS nuclear weapons transfers:

Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.

Yet, the 1999 Strategic Concept affirmed NATO’s commitment to “maintain, at the minimum level consistent with the prevailing security environment, adequate sub-strategic forces based in Europe which will provide an essential link with strategic nuclear forces, reinforcing the transatlantic link” (NATO 1999, para 64). It noted that these sub-strategic weapons “need to have the necessary characteristics and appropriate flexibility and survivability, to be perceived as a credible and effective element of the Allies’ strategy in preventing war. They will be maintained at the minimum level sufficient to preserve peace and stability” (NATO 1999, para 63).

It can be expected that the international community outside of NATO will increasingly view NATO’s nuclear doctrine and nuclear sharing arrangements as an impediment to the fulfillment of NPT obligations. As the following NGO statement (“NATO Nuclear Weapons Transfers”) to the 1998 PrepCom argued, the NPT Review process is the appropriate venue within which to address NATO’s nuclear policies and preparations:

We therefore believe that the NPT Review Process should openly discuss whether NATO nuclear sharing violates the spirit and intent of the NPT. NATO nuclear sharing is an appropriate topic for this year’s PrepCom because the mandate includes discussions on such issues as negative security assurances. In addition, NATO nuclear sharing is an obstacle for the fulfillment of Art. VI commitments.

The British American Security Information Council (BASIC) says that “there is an emerging consensus (outside NATO) that NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements are obvious acts of non-compliance under Articles I and II of the NPT.” BASIC calls on the US and NATO to explain how the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in European NNWS parties to the NPT “for wartime use on board non-nuclear allies’ dual-capable aircraft” complies with their obligation not to transfer control of nuclear weapons, and not to receive such weapons (Butcher, Chamberlain & Crandall 2003).

NATO would give an enormous boost to the NPT if it were to announce plans to remove all nuclear weapons from the territories of NNWS in NATO. Those same states should then each announce that from here on the NPT’s injunction against the transfer of nuclear weapons will be respected and that all such weapons will remain in the territory and custody of the owner state. In addition, NATO could build on this termination of the current nuclear sharing practice by encouraging and supporting Russian reductions and dismantling of its non-strategic nuclear arsenal.



  1. While North Korea has declared its unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty, it is not thereby relieved of its obligations under the Treaty. Having acquired nuclear materials and technology as an exercise of its right to these under the Treaty, it cannot now expect to be permitted to exploit that technology and materials for weapons purposes simply by withdrawing from the Treaty that prohibits its actions.
  2. (Para 4.c) “The determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goals of eliminating those weapons, and by all States of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
  3. (Step 6) “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.”
  4. Deutch (2005, p. 50) makes the point about the US: “with its overwhelming conventional military advantage, the United States does not need nuclear weapons for either war fighting or for deterring conventional war.”
  5. “More than a decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, only the United States continues to deploy land-based nuclear weapons outside its borders. … After reviewing both new and old evidence we have concluded that there are more than three times as many bombs in Europe as was previously thought. We estimate that approximately 480 bombs are housed at eight bases in six European nations. Three types of bombs are deployed: B61-3, B61-4, and B61-10. … In the mid-1990s rumors circulated about further cuts in the number of U.S. bombs in Europe, but a re-examination of available evidence indicates that additional cuts were not made” (Norris & Kristensen 2004, pp. 76-77).
  6. “The Alliance’s arrangements for basing U.S. nuclear gravity bombs in Europe are in compliance with the NPT. When the Treaty was negotiated, these arrangements were already in place. Their nature was made clear to key delegations and subsequently made public. They were not challenged” (NATO 2004).



Butcher, M., Chamberlain, N. & Crandall, K. 2003, “Is NATO coming under pressure to amend its nuclear policy?” BASIC Notes, June 2.

Butcher, M., Nassauer, O., Padberg, T. & Plesch, D. 2000, Questions of Command and Control: NATO, Nuclear Sharing and the NPT, PENN Research Report 2000.1, March.

Butler, R. 2005, “Heavily Armed Duo in No Position to Lay Down Law on Proliferation,” Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, March 7.

Deutch, J. 2005, “A Nuclear Posture for Today,” Foreign Affairs, January/February, Vol. 84, No. 1, Pp. 49-60.

El Baradei 2002, keynote address, Non-Proliferation Conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November, Washington.

International Court of Justice 1996, “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons: Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996,” Case Summaries.

Koster, K. 2004, “NATO Nuclear Doctrine and the NPT,” BASIC Briefings, June 29.

Makhijani, A. & Deller, D. 2003, NATO and Nuclear Disarmament: An Analysis of the Obligations of the NATO Allies of the United States under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, October, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

Nassauer, O. 2001, “Nuclear Sharing in NATO: Is it legal?” Science for Democratic Action, Vol. 9, No. 3, May.

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 2004, “NATO’s Positions Regarding Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament and Related Issues,” NATO Issues brief, June.

“NATO Nuclear Weapons Transfers” 1998, NGO statement to 1998 NPT PrepCom, coordinated by Oliver Meier.

Norris, R.S. & Kristensen, H.M. 2004, NRDC Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December.

NPT 1995, “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, NPT/CONF.1995/32/DEC.2, 17 April-12 May.

“The Promises of the 2000 NPT Review Conference.”

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Walker, W. 2004, Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Order, Adelphi Paper 370, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, New York.


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