"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
NATO Sticks With Nuclear Policy
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Oliver Meier

Leaders from NATO’s 28 countries, meeting at a May 20-21 summit in Chicago, adopted a report that confirms the basic tenets of the alliance’s nuclear posture and lays the groundwork for future confidence-building talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons.

It describes the contributions of nuclear and conventional forces as well as missile defenses and arms control and finds that nuclear weapons remain a “core component” of NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities.

In 2009, Germany had triggered an extensive debate about the continued deployment of about 180 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey by promising to advocate withdrawal of U.S. weapons from Germany. (See ACT, December 2009.) At NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010, the allies launched the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, primarily to resolve differences among them on the future role of nuclear weapons and to define the mix between NATO’s different defense capabilities. (See ACT, October 2011.) The seven-page document that the NATO heads of state and government formally adopted on May 20 is the result of that review.

The report finds that NATO’s “nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture,” but the allies also pledge to “ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance.”

A senior Polish official said in a May 23 interview that this statement “is related primarily to the replacement of aging delivery means,” a reference to nuclear-capable aircraft in Europe that are scheduled to go out of service this decade. The U.S. life extension program for B61 gravity bombs in Europe, which will lead to the deployment of newer and more capable nuclear weapons after 2019, “is of secondary importance in this regard,” he said.

The report calls on NATO members “to develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe,” but a senior official from a western European country argued in a May 21 interview that this does not represent a significant departure from the existing perspective on nuclear sharing arrangements. That perspective is described in the 2010 Strategic Concept, which was adopted at the Lisbon summit.

A senior French diplomat said on May 22 that “France’s nuclear deterrent will not be directly affected by discussions on the possible reduction of tactical nuclear weapons but we still have to decide in which format such discussions could take place.” France does not commit any nuclear forces to NATO and does not participate in the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group.

Those who had hoped that NATO’s renewed commitment to territorial missile defense might lead to a reduction of the role of nuclear weapons were disappointed. Ahead of the summit, newly elected French President François Hollande had made protection of the French nuclear deterrent a precondition of France’s support for missile defense. As a result, the posture review report states that “[m]issile defence can complement the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence; it cannot substitute for them.”

Arms Control Proposals

The report links changes in the alliance’s nuclear posture to Russia’s nuclear policy by stating that “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Like NATO, Russia keeps the numbers and locations of tactical nuclear weapons secret, but is estimated to possess about 2,000 operational weapons.

In the report, NATO states that it wants “to develop and exchange transparency and confidence-building ideas with the Russian Federation in the NATO-Russia Council, with the goal of developing detailed proposals on and increasing mutual understanding of NATO’s and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear force postures in Europe.”

The western European official said that “NATO would like to enter into a dialogue with Moscow on this issue as quickly as possible,” but conceded that “realistically we might have to wait until after the U.S. elections. In the meantime, allies should try to elaborate the package of proposals they would like to bring to the table.”

The allies agreed to establish a new committee “as a consultative and advisory forum” on arms control issues, whose name and mandate will be decided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest decision-making body.

The Polish official predicted that the new arms control committee, which replaces the Weapons of Mass Destruction Control and Disarmament Committee set up in Lisbon, “will try to build its own identity and expand its role, including a general discussion of what role NATO can play in arms control and disarmament.”

The French diplomat, however, argued that the “added value” of the new committee is “to define the conditions for reciprocity of nuclear reductions.” He added, “We do not see a role for this committee in addressing the alliance’s nuclear posture or declaratory policy.”

Confusion on Nuclear Doctrine

Repeating language from NATO’s Strategic Concept, the report states that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”

Yet, in the report the allies attempted to reflect recent changes in the nuclear doctrines of the United Kingdom and the United States. Both countries pledged in 2010 not to use or threaten to use their nuclear weapons against members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that comply with their nonproliferation obligations, although the specific conditions of these negative security assurances differ slightly between the two countries.

The western European official said that “agreement on declaratory policy was among the most difficult issues” in drafting the report. In the end, allies merely “acknowledge” the “independent and unilateral negative security assurances offered by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.”

The French diplomat said that “the agreement in the [report] was a useful step because NATO now recognizes the value of national security guarantees.”

Because France does not assign any of its nuclear weapons to the alliance, NATO’s nuclear planners draw only on British and U.S. nuclear weapons. The posture review report notes that “the states that have assigned nuclear weapons to NATO apply to these weapons the assurances they have each offered on a national basis, including the separate conditions each state has attached to these assurances.”

Most officials described the impact of these statements on NATO’s nuclear policy as marginal at best. In contrast, during a May 22 conference call with reporters, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder called it “a very significant step” that “the U.S. policy as enunciated in the [2010] Nuclear Posture Review is now recognized by NATO as applying to U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.”

The western European official predicted that discussions on declaratory policy “will be off the table for the time being” even though the United States and some European allies were willing to go further on negative security assurances. An Italian diplomat in a May 22 interview said Italy was “open to a discussion on a declaratory policy specifically addressed to the nuclear forces assigned to NATO.”

What Next?

Official and independent assessments of the posture review report differ markedly. The French diplomat said it “is the best possible agreement, nobody had to cross any redlines, and the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence, as defined in NATO’s Strategic Concept, remained untouched.” By contrast, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the co-chairman of the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative, argued in a May 21 statement that the report indicates “little progress in defining a clear strategy for changing the nuclear status quo and deserves, at best, a grade of ‘incomplete’.”

The Italian diplomat said that Rome is happy with the outcome because it “sets the stage for further debates on NATO‘s reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in a May 22 interview with Deutsche Welle, described the posture review report as “remarkable” because, “for the first time a security alliance like NATO has made disarmament a constituent part of its own strategy.” Daalder said the report represents “major progress” because “we now have an alliance firmly on record as wanting to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons, wanting to find ways to shift the focus to other means of deterrence and defense and to do so on a consultative and reciprocal basis.”