Rethinking NATO’s Strategic Concept: Building on the Emerging Nuclear Abolition Imperative

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2009 Volume 30 Issue 1

While Afghanistan will certainly dominate the talk at the 60th-anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization1 (NATO or the Alliance) in April, leaders are also scheduled to launch a process to review the Alliance’s Strategic Concept, a key element of which is a controversial and outdated nuclear doctrine.

The Strategic Concept—the current version of which was adopted in 1999—is NATO’s official statement of purpose and outlines its force posture and approach to collective security (NATO 1999). Nine of its 65 paragraphs refer to nuclear weapons, the central claim being that the nuclear arsenals of the United States in particular, but also of the United Kingdom and France, are “essential to preserve peace” and are “an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance.”

Calls for nuclear abolition

Firmly rooted in east-west deterrence and nuclear war-fighting assumptions, NATO doctrine is markedly out of sync with the new antinuclear counsel from such Cold War stalwarts as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, former US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt, and a host of other government leaders and security professionals now calling for accelerated nuclear disarmament.

In his recent speech to the 45th Munich Security Conference, Kissinger reaffirmed his earlier call for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, pointing out that “any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign policy objectives” (Kissinger 2009).

Richard Burt, the senior arms control official in the Administration of the first President Bush, now works through the “Global Zero” initiative, which is supported by The Simons Foundation of Canada and a broad range of public figures in the pursuit of the abolition of nuclear weapons. Global Zero (2008) is pledged to work “for a legally binding verifiable agreement, including all nations, to eliminate nuclear weapons by a date certain.”

Even the United States—the Alliance leader—is now committed, as the website of the Obama White House (2009) puts it, to pursuing the “goal of a world without nuclear weapons”—which represents a rather large shift away from NATO’s claim that nuclear weapons are “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies.”

This recent wave of nuclear abolition statements by mainstream security professionals is rooted in two linked concerns. First, the 20,000-plus nuclear warheads remaining in current arsenals, several thousand of them poised on missiles ready for firing at a moment’s notice, represent an ongoing threat of mass, indiscriminate destruction. Second, that threat is heightened by the growing risk that nuclear weapons, as well as weapons-friendly technologies and nuclear materials, will spread to more states and even to non-state groups.

NATO thus has the opportunity to fashion a new strategic doctrine that, on the one hand, takes full account of the threats posed by nuclear weapons and, on the other hand, takes full advantage of the political momentum that is now finally available to allow states to get serious about doing something about that threat.

Toward an abolitionist NATO Strategic Concept

Accordingly, the 2009 NATO Summit should set in motion a process to rethink and restate its strategic doctrine 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 (NPT), 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.
Both the rationale and the language for this new approach to nuclear weapons are available in the burgeoning anthology of nuclear abolition statements, as well as in the logic on which the NPT was originally constructed: that nuclear weapons, far from being “essential to preserve peace,” are ultimately an unacceptable risk to humanity; that their elimination, not their retention, is essential to security.

Rather than asserting that the “strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance” are “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies” (NATO 1999, para 62), NATO’s new Strategic Concept should reflect the reality articulated by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (2007) in his warning that “with every passing year [nuclear weapons] make our security more precarious.” Indeed, a new NATO statement could borrow from the 2008 statement by Kissinger and his colleagues and thus also acknowledge that “without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral” to greater insecurity (Shultz 2008).

The current Strategic Concept holds that the fundamental purpose of NATO nuclear forces is “political”—to prevent coercion and “any kind of war” (para 62). On this point Canada offers alternative language. The Government’s 1999 response to a Parliamentary Committee report on nuclear disarmament (Graham 1998) agreed with the Committee recommendation that Canada “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” (Government of Canada 1999).

The current Strategic Concept emphasizes repeatedly (in paras 42, 63, and 64) the importance of retaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe2 for deterrence and especially to link Europe and North America. In a new context, that line of reasoning should be superseded by one reflected in the counsel of Helmut Schmidt and colleagues (2009) regarding their own country: “all remaining U.S. nuclear warheads should be withdrawn from German territory.” Thus NATO should require the removal of the remaining few hundred nuclear weapons (all of them non-strategic) from European soil, in support of longstanding international calls that all nuclear weapons be returned to the territories of the states that own them.

In the context of denuclearizing Europe it will be necessary to take up the Kissinger call for a dialogue “within NATO and with Russia, on consolidating the nuclear weapons designed for forward deployment to enhance their security, and as a first step toward careful accounting for them and their eventual elimination” (Shultz 2008). Progress toward that end will obviously require a new kind of strategic relationship with Russia.

The expansion of NATO represents the geographic expansion of the American nuclear “umbrella” eastward to the Russian border at a time when Russia is already uneasy about the massive conventional weapons imbalance between it and NATO. Russia accounts for about 6 per cent of world military spending while NATO states collectively account for 60 per cent (IISS 2008, pp. 443-448). As long as Russia regards this overwhelming conventional force as, not necessarily an overt enemy, but a challenge to its regional interests, it is unlikely to agree to significant further reductions to its substantial arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

Two other references to nuclear weapons in the current Strategic Concept are badly dated. The discussion of arms control (para 19) is rooted in the 1990s. A new Strategic Concept should emphasize disarmament as essential in preserving peace and welcome new prospects for resumptions of US-Russian strategic arms reduction talks. The importance of early engagement in the process by all states with nuclear weapons should be recognized.

A reference to NATO-Ukraine relations (para 37) is also rooted in the early post-Cold War period. While it emphasizes and welcomes Ukraine’s new status as a non-nuclear weapon state, the central point behind the reference is NATO enlargement. In a new document, the issue of NATO membership should be recalibrated, not only to take account of the legitimate security fears and interests of Russia, but also to focus on the development of mutual security arrangements throughout the entire region of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE),3 rather than the expansion of a military alliance of selective states within it.

The path to zero

The goal of zero nuclear weapons is well established; the path to zero is well marked. This goal is eminently reachable. Furthermore, a world facing rapidly advancing climate change and severe economic recession cannot afford (economically or psychologically) to continue to be burdened with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Of all the daunting challenges the human community faces—from the economic crisis and climate change to energy deficits, burgeoning pollution, acute water shortages, unrelenting hunger, grossly inadequate health services, and chronic armed conflict—the nuclear threat should be the easiest to resolve. There is no economic downside to eliminating nuclear weapons; there is no environmental price to pay and no negative social fallout to worry about.

But the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime is under severe stress just when it is needed most. Nuclear weapon states have been in flagrant denial of their obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; instead of pursuing the disarmament it demands, they have focused on elaborating nuclear use doctrines and weapons modernization. Regions of chronic conflict—the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia—have become dangerous focal points of proliferation. As the stability of Pakistan comes increasingly into question, so too does the fate of its nuclear arsenal. A growing demand for nuclear energy is placing extraordinary strains on global safeguard mechanisms. And the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, the only UN disarmament negotiating forum, remains deadlocked after a scandalous decade of inaction.

Current NATO doctrine envisions a world perpetually divided into nuclear weapon “haves” and “have nots”—a world of everlasting instability, hovering on the brink of annihilation. Pulling back from that brink requires the political will to heed the growing calls for a world without nuclear weapons and the commitment to begin acting on a largely agreed global disarmament agenda.

NATO, on the 60th anniversary of its founding, is well positioned to formulate a new strategic doctrine that highlights total nuclear disarmament as an urgent security imperative.



  1. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an alliance of the following 26 countries from North America and Europe: Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, The United Kingdom, and The United States.
  2. There are currently estimated to be between 150 and 240 nuclear weapons, all US B61 gravity bombs, held in five countries in Europe—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey (Kristensen 2008).
  3. The OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, with a membership of 56 states in Europe, Central Asia, and North America. More information can be found at the OSCE website.


Global Zero. Declaration. 2008.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. 2007. The nuclear threat. The Wall Street Journal, January 31.

Government of Canada. 1999. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation: Advancing Canadian objectives. Government statement. April.

Graham, Bill. 1998. Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century. House of Commons, Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, December 10.

International Institute of Strategic Studies. 2008. The Military Balance 2008. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Kissinger, Henry. 2009. Speech at the 45th Munich Security Conference. Munich Security Conference. February 6.

Kristensen, Hans. 2008. U.S. nuclear weapons withdrawn from the United Kingdom. Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security Blog. June.

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.

Schmidt, Helmut, Richard von Weizsäcker, Egon Bahr, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher. 2009. Toward a nuclear-free world: A German view. International Herald Tribune, January 9.

Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. 2008. Toward a nuclear-free world. The Wall Street Journal, January 15.

The Whitehouse. 2009. The agenda: Foreign policy.

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