Experts Urge NATO Ministers to Rethink Alliance Nuclear Policy

For immediate release: October 11, 2010

Media contacts: Oliver Meier, in Berlin (+49 171 359 2410); Paul Ingram, in London (+44 7324 4680); Daryl G. Kimball, in Washington, (202-463-8270 x107).

(Washington, D.C.) – Ahead of an important Oct. 14 meeting of NATO defense and foreign ministers to discuss the alliance’s draft “Strategic Concept,” two nuclear arms control and security experts are calling for the alliance to initiate a comprehensive review of outdated NATO nuclear policy at their Lisbon summit in November. The aim of the effort, they argue, should be to reduce the role and salience of nuclear weapons and support reductions of U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear bombs.

In the article “A Nuclear Posture Review for NATO” published in the October issue of Arms Control Today, Oliver Meier and Paul Ingram note that the 28 NATO member states remain divided over a number of key issues, including the future role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s defense posture.

Meier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council in London.

Under NATO’s long-standing “nuclear-sharing” arrangements some 150-200 forward-deployed U.S. tactical nuclear bombs are based in five European NATO countries—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Originally deployed in the 1950s to counter a possible Soviet land invasion, U.S. military officials acknowledge that the weapons no longer serve any practical military or deterrence function. Yet current NATO policy justifies the continued deployment of the weapons as a symbolic link between alliance members.

In February of this year, five NATO members, including three that host tactical nuclear bombs, called on the alliance to review its outdated nuclear sharing arrangements. In April in Tallinn, Estonia, NATO foreign ministers met briefly to begin discussions on the issue.

However, as Meier and Ingram note, “the divisions among the allies are so serious that NATO defense ministers decided at their June 2010 meeting in Brussels to delete all references to NATO’s nuclear policies from the final communiqué as there was no agreement on the wording.”

Given that the NATO Strategic Concept is due to be completed soon—in time for the alliance’s summit in Lisbon in November—Meier and Ingram argue that “it is highly unlikely” that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “will be able to come up with a formula that will satisfy the divergent views.” As a result, the allies will probably merely agree to a lowest common denominator language that will leave many key issues ambiguous or open.

Meier and Ingram argue that in order to bring “NATO’s nuclear posture in line with requirements of the 21st century,” NATO should “commit itself in principle within the Strategic Concept to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in its deterrence posture. Practical details of that policy … should be discussed among all allies in the context of a full review of NATO’s nuclear posture. The alliance could launch that review at the Lisbon summit and conclude it within 12 months.”

They argue that the NATO nuclear posture review should:

  • reduce NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons, open the way for transparency and reductions of U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear bombs, and endorse the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, in line with the policy of its member states to encourage moves toward global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation;
  • comprehensively address all political and military aspects of NATO’s nuclear policy, including declaratory policy, and thus reduce the commitment to ambiguity about the conditions under which the alliance might use nuclear weapons; and
  • be conducted in an open and consultative manner by a group of member states’ political representatives separate from the Nuclear Planning Group, which has had rather limited and more technical ambitions, but with military advice and within a clearly defined time frame.

“Without such a thorough, public review,” Meier and Ingram write “the real operational decisions would be made behind closed doors by the nuclear hawks among the military establishment at NATO headquarters and within national military establishments, which have an interest in maintaining the status quo.”

Maintaining the status quo, Meier and Ingram argue, “would greatly damage alliance cohesion because in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, there now exists broad parliamentary and popular support for a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from their territories.”

Meier and Ingram note that “most European allies support Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. NATO will have to reflect these changes, by reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and more actively supporting global disarmament and nonproliferation efforts, if it is to remain relevant in the 21st century.”

For more information on the tactical nuclear weapons issue, see: