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NATO Revises Nuclear Policy
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Oliver Meier

NATO last month adopted a new Strategic Concept and a Summit Declaration that outline the alliance’s future nuclear policy and establish two new processes to discuss deterrence and arms control.

The two documents, issued at the alliance’s Nov. 19-20 summit in Lisbon, were the result of intense bargaining. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in charge of writing the new Strategic Concept. According to diplomatic sources, he shared several drafts with capitals and Brussels-based NATO ambassadors in the seven weeks prior to the summit. By contrast, much of the declaration was drafted among NATO ambassadors in Brussels, the sources said.

In a Nov. 22 interview, a senior U.S. official described the endgame of summit preparations as tense, with final versions of the two texts being finalized at 3 a.m. on Nov. 19. “Discussions went to the very brink,” he said. “One ally held language on NATO’s nuclear policy, on missile defense, and on NATO-Russia relations hostage until the very end of discussions,” he explained, clearly alluding to France, which he described as “inconsistent and phobic to any kind of nuclear language.” Other diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also described France as being uncooperative and hard-nosed on key nuclear policy issues.

In a Nov. 24 interview, a French diplomat defended the French position. “France did link missile defense, NATO’s nuclear posture, and NATO-Russia relations because these issues are interrelated,” he said. “Our position reflects the fact that there are real connections between these topics. It was not an attempt to complicate agreement ahead of the Lisbon summit.”

The Future of Nuclear Sharing

In the new concept, titled “Active Engagement, Modern Defence,” NATO for the first time commits itself to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons,” but cautions that this goal must be pursued “in accordance with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in a way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” The 28 NATO members agree that “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.”

Under NATO nuclear sharing arrangements, the United States is believed to deploy an estimated 200 tactical weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Pilots from these countries prepare to deliver these weapons in times of war, although the nuclear strike mission of the Turkish air force has probably expired. (See ACT, June 2010.) A German initiative in October 2009 to advocate withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe triggered a lively and unprecedented debate about NATO nuclear policy. (See ACT, December 2009.)

In the new concept, NATO members pledge to “ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.”

Rasmussen, at a Nov. 20 press conference, described the “essence of that passage” as reflecting “the fact that we attach strong importance to the principle of solidarity also when it comes to our nuclear policies. So what we have decided is that, at the end of the day, of course, any decision is a national decision, but we have also decided to move together, to consult with each other.”

The U.S. official said the language on nuclear sharing “was very carefully drafted.” He maintained that it does not preclude future changes in NATO’s nuclear posture. “It applies very nicely to a situation where a country suggests that it is no longer possible for it to participate in nuclear sharing for domestic reasons,” he argued. “The questions allies need to ask [are]: What kind of participation in nuclear sharing is politically acceptable? Is participation by one country enough? Is it sufficient if two countries participate?”

Several other diplomats, however, said the new concept strongly commits NATO to nuclear sharing and therefore will make it difficult to reach a consensus on a possible withdrawal of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe in the foreseeable future. The French diplomat agreed. “It is a reaffirmation of the importance of nuclear sharing, but also reaffirms that participation in the Nuclear Planning Group remains a national decision,” he said.

France, which had left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, returned in April last year, but it does not participate in the Nuclear Planning Group. Paris wants its nuclear deterrent to remain independent of the alliance.

Debates About Deterrence

Ahead of the summit, some NATO members expected the alliance to change its current nuclear first-use policy to bring its declaratory policy in line with U.S. policy.

The Obama administration has restricted the circumstances under which the United States might be prepared to use nuclear weapons. The April “Nuclear Posture Review Report” declares that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” (See ACT, May 2010.)

In a November policy paper on NATO nuclear policies, Peter Gottwald, the federal commissioner for disarmament and arms control at the German Federal Foreign Office, pointed to the new U.S. nuclear doctrine and maintained that “[n]ow it is NATO’s turn to adapt its strategy.” Gottwald argued that “classic nuclear deterrence is poorly suited, or even completely useless” to counter new threats such as terrorism or proliferation and that advanced conventional capabilities and missile defense imply a reduced salience of nuclear weapons. Gottwald reasoned that “it is time to draw the appropriate conclusions.”

The new concept remains ambiguous about NATO’s declaratory policy. It concludes that NATO has reduced “reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy,” but confirms that the alliance will continue to have at its disposal “the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations.” It states that NATO will maintain “an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.” The strategic nuclear forces of the alliance, “particularly those of the United States,” are described as the “supreme guarantee” of the security of allies, while the British and French nuclear forces are said to have a “deterrent role of their own,” which contributes to “the overall deterrence and security of the Allies.”

The new concept echoes similar language from the previous Strategic Concept, adopted in 1999, by stating that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”

An earlier draft of the new concept apparently had contained even more explicit language on NATO’s declaratory policy, emphasizing that NATO would remain a nuclear alliance to deter any attack or coercion against it. According to the diplomatic sources, that language was dropped because allies were unable to agree on it.

The French diplomat said, “From our perspective, NATO’s nuclear strategy has not been changed at the Lisbon summit. For reasons of brevity, some elements of NATO’s declaratory policy that were part of the 1999 concept were not repeated in the new Strategic Concept. But as long as there is no explicit statement that NATO’s policy has changed, the old policy remains in place.”

NATO’s declaratory policy is expected to be one issue on the agenda of a “comprehensive review” of NATO’s deterrence posture agreed in Lisbon. The U.S. official predicted that NATO “will not see movement until we get to the comprehensive review. Declaratory policy will definitely be included under the comprehensive review,” he said.

According to the Summit Declaration, the review will address NATO’s “overall posture in deterring and defending against the full range of threats to the Alliance.” Essential elements “would include the range of NATO’s strategic capabilities required, including NATO’s nuclear posture, and missile defence and other means of strategic deterrence and defence.”

Several diplomats argued that, despite the broad mandate, the review will focus on NATO’s nuclear posture. “The comprehensive review is the nuclear posture review by another name,” the U.S. official said. “The other issues included under that review—missile defense and conventional deterrence—simply got tacked on in the end. This is just window dressing,” he said.

The French diplomat disagreed. “Certainly, the comprehensive review will be broader than a nuclear posture review,” he said.

According the Summit Declaration, the review “should be undertaken by all Allies” under the auspices of the North Atlantic Council, which is the principal political decision-making body within NATO.

The U.S. official said, “[I]t is not clear who exactly will be conducting the review, but I expect it to take place between political and military experts.” It is going to be a different type of body from the Nuclear Planning Group and the High Level Group, he predicted, “because if we just stick with the same institutions, we would not have any changes” in NATO’s nuclear posture.

The Nuclear Planning Group takes decisions on the alliance’s nuclear policy; the High Level Group is the senior advisory body to that group.

The declaration limits the scope of the review by saying that it “only applies to nuclear weapons assigned to NATO.” The French diplomat said the language “implies that French nuclear doctrine and French nuclear forces will clearly remain outside the scope of the review.” But the diplomat said that “France is ready to discuss all issues on the agenda of the comprehensive review.” He conceded that “insofar as discussions within the [Nuclear Planning Group] impact the alliance posture as a whole, they cannot be isolated from the broader posture review.”

Several diplomats said that passage provides France, which opposed the idea of a NATO nuclear posture review, with the opportunity to “opt out” of discussions on nuclear issues. “It offers France the best of both worlds,” one diplomat said, because Paris could influence NATO’s overall nuclear posture while avoiding discussions on its own nuclear doctrine or forces. Asked about French participation in the comprehensive review, the U.S. official remarked sarcastically, “That will be the fun bit.”

He said that “the agreement on the comprehensive review was at the heart of the debate about the relationship between missile defense and nuclear deterrence” between France and Germany.

Germany argues that agreement on a European missile defense system under NATO auspices paves the way for a reduction of reliance on nuclear weapons. By contrast, France maintains that nuclear deterrence and missile defense are “complementary.” (See ACT, October 2010.)

Although the Summit Declaration itself does not give an end date for the review, several diplomats said they expect a report to be delivered by mid-2011, but were skeptical whether it would recommend any far-reaching changes on NATO’s nuclear weapons posture.

NATO’s Role in Arms Control

Several officials and diplomats argued that NATO members in Lisbon did not establish Russian reciprocity as a direct and explicit precondition for future changes of NATO’s nuclear posture. One diplomat said that there now exists some “constructive ambiguity,” but most conceded that the summit outcome creates a de facto linkage between changes in NATO’s nuclear posture and an agreement with Russia on the reduction of its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia is believed to have around 2,000 operational tactical nuclear weapons and thousands more in various states of readiness.

The new concept states that “any further steps” to reduce nuclear weapons in Europe “must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.” It also states that, “in any future reductions, [NATO’s] aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members.”

The U.S. official said the language “falls well short of where we could have been” and explained that the linkage to Russia was a sticking point until the very end of the negotiations. “But the statement does not mean that we can’t do anything until the disparities between the stockpiles are resolved,” he argued. The greater number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons “is just one element that has to be factored in when NATO decides on its future nuclear posture,” he said.

Paris also does not necessarily link changes in NATO’s nuclear posture to Russian measures. “Certainly, there is an element of reciprocity here because we need Russian movement on transparency, but it remains to be seen how this can best be achieved. It should be discussed within the review,” the French diplomat said.

The Summit Declaration lists “the overall disparity in short-range nuclear weapons” as one issue that NATO wants to be discussed in the NATO-Russia Council, but the topic is not mentioned in the NATO-Russia Council Joint Statement adopted in Lisbon.

The new concept reflects a greater NATO ambition on arms control more generally by stating that NATO members want to continue to play their part “in reinforcing arms control and in promoting disarmament of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, as well as non-proliferation efforts.”

Toward this end, allies agreed to set up a new arms control committee, under the auspices of the North Atlantic Council, in the face of what several sources described as strong French objections.

The Summit Declaration says the role of the committee is “to provide advice on [weapons of mass destruction] control and disarmament in the context of the [comprehensive review], taking into account the role of the High Level Task Force (HLTF).” The HLTF is a consultative and advisory body that brings together government experts to give advice on conventional arms control issues. There are different views on how the work of the HLTF will be affected by the new committee.

Several diplomats said the committee mandate is a “mixed bag,” as one of them put it, and that it remains to be decided what specific issues will be discussed there. Some sources suggested that it may continue some of the work being done in other NATO committees, including such issues as threat assessments or preparation of arms control meetings. Others argued that it will be free to develop its own agenda, including on such issues as tactical nuclear weapons and conventional arms control.

In a Nov. 23 interview, a senior official from a western European NATO country said he views the summit outcome on nuclear policy as representing a good balance. “Looking ahead, the big gain from Lisbon is that we now have the structure to discuss nuclear issues, we have nuclear issues on the agenda, and we have to review the issue from time to time in the arms control committee,” he said. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said he wants to make disarmament a “trademark” of the alliance. On the Foreign Office’s Web site, he praised the agreement on a stronger role for NATO in arms control as historic. “This is the most disarmament NATO has ever had,” he said.

The French diplomat took a different view. “We have argued and continue to believe that NATO is not the best place to discuss arms control and disarmament issues,” he said. “We can live with the agreement on the arms control committee, but we are skeptical whether tangible results can be achieved in this forum.”

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, told the Financial Times Germany Nov. 21 that he views Westerwelle’s initiative for disarmament as a “failure” because NATO has “not stated clearly whether and how it wants to reduce nuclear weapons in Europe.” He said Germany also failed because the Strategic Concept does not contain any linkage “between missile defense and nuclear weapons.”

Asselborn, with his counterparts from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, in February wrote a letter to Rasmussen urging him to initiate a comprehensive review of NATO nuclear policies. (See ACT, March 2010.)

NATO allies in Lisbon also welcomed “the conclusion” of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and stated that they “look forward to its early ratification and entry into force” (see page 43). NATO summit documents do not mention the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), despite the fact that all NATO allies, with the exception of the United States, have ratified the accord. Several diplomats described NATO’s support for these two key nuclear arms control treaties as lukewarm, but said that the Obama administration, which is seeking Senate approval of New START and has pledged to pursue CTBT ratification aggressively, did not push for stronger language. They said they were under the impression that Washington feared this might be interpreted by congressional Republicans as “meddling in domestic affairs” by U.S. allies. The U.S. official had a more mundane explanation. He said the near-deadlock toward the end of the negotiations caused so much resentment that, “in the end, people just refrained from adding another topic to the agenda.”