DEFYING OUTSPOKEN U.S. opposition, the new German coalition government raised the issue of a nuclear no-first-use policy at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on December 8, while Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy challenged NATO to question its nuclear policy. Berlin indicated, however, that it does not want a break with NATO as the alliance approaches its 50th anniversary and the unveiling of a revised strategic concept in April 1999.
The current strategic concept, adopted in 1991, reaffirmed the long-standing NATO policy that nuclear weapons, and implicitly the threat of their first use, make "the risks of any aggression incalculable and unacceptable" by denying potential aggressors any certainty about the "nature of the Allies' response to military aggression." Most alliance members view the nuclear elements of the strategic concept as untouchable. Yet the new German government, which advocates a nuclear-free world, has voiced concerns that the nuclear powers' failure to take steps toward disarmament or reducing the role of nuclear weapons will reduce the incentive for non-nuclear-weapon states to forgo the nuclear option.
November statements by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer supporting discussions on no-first-use within NATO surprised the United States, even though an October 20 coalition agreement between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats and Fischer's Green Party called for renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons and lowering their alert status. Washington had been reassured by Schroeder, elected September 27, that his coalition government would pursue "continuity" with the foreign policy of the conservative Christian Democrats of Helmut Kohl, who led Germany for 16 years.
At the Brussels meeting, Fischer broached no-first-use and argued that no issues should be forbidden in alliance discussions. A German official later stated, "We [Germany] take no-first-use seriously and will continue to pursue it with alliance consensus in an appropriate timeframe and not in an isolated way." Because NATO operates by consensus, all 16 (soon to be 19) members would have to sign on to any policy change.
For its part, Washington stirred up NATO allies with proposals for the new strategic concept that would broaden NATO's core mission from defending common territory to defending common interests outside NATO borders and, reportedly, allow NATO to use force without UN approval. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also called on NATO to combat threats posed by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But many European allies remain leery of granting NATO blanket authority for "out-of-area" missions.
NATO Reactions on No-First-Use
No other NATO capitals have publicly endorsed the German position, although the idea of no-first-use is widely supported throughout the Canadian government, including by Foreign Affairs Minister Axworthy. In remarks to the Brussels meeting, Axworthy said that the alliance needs to "address the evident tension between what NATO allies say about proliferation and what we do about disarmament" and called nuclear weapons "far less important to Alliance strategy than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s." He also cautioned that NATO should be "circumspect about the political value we place on NATO nuclear forces, lest we furnish arguments proliferators can use to try and justify their own nuclear programs."
A Canadian parliamentary report released on December 10, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge, called on Ottawa to "argue forcefully within NATO" for re-examining the alliance's nuclear policy. The report recommended that Canada endorse the de-alerting of all nuclear weapons and work toward reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons.
As for NATO's nuclear powers, Britain and France strongly oppose revising NATO's nuclear policy. A French government official said that a no-first-use policy "would not be compatible with deterrence," while a British government official contended that NATO is "better served by the current policy because it maintains an important degree of uncertainty in the minds of potential aggressors."
U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, responding on November 23 to Fischer's remarks in the German magazine Der Spiegel supporting no-first-use, similarly rejected a NATO no-first-use policy. Cohen claimed that the option of first use is "integral to the NATO strategic doctrine" and contributes to security by "keeping any potential adversary who might use chemical or biologicals unsure of what our response would be."(Emphasis added.)
Cohen's statement appears to go beyond current U.S. nuclear policy. Speaking for President Clinton, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared in 1995 that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unless such states attacked the United States, its forces or its allies "in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State." Discussing the November 1997 presidential decision directive (PDD-60), Robert Bell, senior director for defense policy and arms control at the National Security Council, broadened Christopher's statement to include the option of responding with nuclear weapons to attacks by non-nuclear states-parties to the NPT that are not in "good standing," such as Iraq and North Korea. Other U.S. officials, however, have claimed at times that all options are open in responding to chemical and biological attacks.
China, the only nuclear-weapon state with a no-first-use policy, has pushed the other nuclear powers to adopt one in the UN Conference on Disarmament negotiations on negative security assurances. Russia opted in 1993 not to reaffirm a Soviet pledge of no-first-use. In view of the deteriorating state of its conventional forces, Moscow declared in 1997 that it would reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.