NATO leaders seem ready to adopt a new Strategic Concept defining the alliance’s core mission for the next decade when they meet at the
This schedule does not give the 28 member states much time to reach compromise, a point worth emphasizing in light of the serious remaining divisions on a number of key problems. Not least among them is the future role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s defense posture, which Rasmussen, at a September 7 press briefing in
Rasmussen admitted “that there are different positions when it comes to our nuclear posture.” In fact, 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. Rasmussen said that his “task will be to find the right balance and platform on which we can trace consensus,” but it is highly unlikely that he will come up with a formula that will satisfy the divergent views on all the political and strategic elements of NATO’s nuclear policy needed to develop military guidance. Thus, allies will probably merely agree to a lowest common denominator around the fundamentals of alliance nuclear policy within the new Strategic Concept, confirming a continued if reduced reliance on nuclear deterrence within a broader suite of capabilities for the immediate future but leaving many key issues ambiguous or open. “We will adopt a new strategic concept which, in broad terms, will give direction,” Rasmussen said at the September 7 briefing. “And then, of course, it is for follow-up negotiations to produce more concrete facts and figures.”
This phased approach presents an opportunity for NATO to commit itself in principle within the Strategic Concept to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in its deterrence posture. Practical details of that policy, including the future of nuclear sharing arrangements and NATO’s future declaratory 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 the following 12 months. Such an initiative would follow a similar effort recently completed by the
• 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, the Strategic Concept itself will likely establish only general principles and be too nebulous to shape operational doctrine. That would leave the real operational decisions to be made behind closed doors in a “business as usual” mode 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.
The Need for a New Nuclear Posture
The alliance can no longer avoid a fundamental reform of its nuclear weapons policy. First, the policy is outdated. Despite a drastic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons deployed in
The alliance retains around 200 free-fall
Second, NATO needs to respond to the new nuclear arms control agenda as outlined by U.S. President Barack Obama. NATO has so far been unable collectively to endorse the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, which the
Third, NATO has to bring its policy in line with the one enunciated in the U.S. NPR Report, which has updated U.S. nuclear weapons policy by reducing Washington’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. For example, the United States has now declared that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations and also declared that it is the goal of the United States eventually to limit the role of nuclear weapons solely to deterring nuclear weapons use. For NATO to have a less restrictive policy than the principal state deploying nuclear weapons on its behalf is, for all practical purposes, strategically meaningless. Maintaining a “first-use” policy also would give the impression of obstinate resistance to the disarmament agenda for no good cause.
There may be several reasons for NATO to consider its own leadership contribution to Obama’s agenda. Such leadership would likely be greatly appreciated by many within the Obama administration at this moment, as they themselves are more directly constrained by hostility within Congress and the need to display a commitment to strong defense. Furthermore, NATO is responding only to the strategic situation in Europe, arguably a great deal more secure than that in many other regions and independent of strategic relationships for which the
Fourth, the nuclear status quo in the alliance is politically untenable because the dual-capable aircraft designated to deliver U.S. bombs in Europe are aging, and current host states will likely not have the political and financial capital to drive through investment decisions within the next decade on their replacement. Germany has already indicated that it does not intend to replace these aircraft, although there are proposals to extend the life of the current systems; other host countries will face difficult domestic challenges if they choose to procure new aircraft. A refusal by some NATO member states to accommodate host-nation concerns by blocking alliance-wide change and effectively pressuring them to procure nuclear-capable delivery systems against the expressed will of their parliaments and publics could severely harm alliance cohesion.
Several key western European allies, including three of the five nuclear host nations, have been champions of change. The German government has been most vocal and, with the support of all its significant political parties, has adopted a formal policy that advocates withdrawal of
Resistance to Change
NATO allies generally recognize that this time “a status quo oriented ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach might not work, as a number of political and military developments require an open discussion.” Yet, there are differences as to how far-reaching the reforms should be. In many people’s minds, certain factors counterbalance the need for a radical reduction of NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence and, in particular, a change in nuclear sharing practices.
Some in central and eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic states, fear that changes in NATO policy and doctrine could signal a weakening of collective defense commitments and a further U.S. decoupling from Europe, a process they perceive started as attention moved away from Europe around a decade ago. Although rarely willing to declare this directly in public, they worry about emboldening a resurgent Russia within their region. Opposition to change comes not so much from an attachment to particular deployments or from specific worries about balancing nuclear forces, but rather from concerns about signaling, local strategic balances, and the long-term credibility of alliance cohesion. Nevertheless, central European caution with regard to changing NATO’s nuclear posture does not mean that these countries oppose a review of nuclear policy. Thus, in a September 9 telephone interview, a source close to the Polish government said, “
Before they agree to a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s posture, these countries are looking to the alliance to put in place stronger non-nuclear instruments of reassurance to fill a “commitment gap” they fear could result from a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.
French objections are another hurdle. Even though
The other European nuclear power, the
Those that believed that
Ahead of the
A Minimalist Strategic Concept
NATO member states are currently discussing which aspects of NATO’s future nuclear posture need to be determined by the new Strategic Concept and which ones can be left to the follow-on process after the
There is no debate as to whether NATO should remain a nuclear alliance, if only because the three nuclear-weapon states—France, the United Kingdom and the United States—have pledged to use their nuclear assets for the protection of NATO allies. Rasmussen said he expects NATO allies to state that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the alliance will remain a nuclear alliance, while gradually reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons.” Beyond this, a few other principles should guide deliberations on what the Strategic Concept should say on nuclear policy.
First, a new concept should not preclude changes in NATO’s nuclear posture, which would come as the result of a formal review with adequate time for consideration. Any attempt to close down debates could damage the longer-term support for NATO’s nuclear posture and for the alliance more generally.
Second, the new concept needs to reflect the widespread support within NATO for the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, the dominant paradigm on nuclear issues ever since Obama’s April 2009 speech in
To be sure, a failure by NATO’s new Strategic Concept to endorse Obama’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and to explicitly reduce the salience of nuclear weapons would cast serious doubt on the credibility of its members and on the ability of the alliance to act cohesively on all matters surrounding nuclear weapons.
Third, the new Strategic Concept should move beyond the current unequivocal commitment to ongoing deployment of
What the Review Should Do
A minimalist Strategic Concept would provide “a framework that is both durable and flexible.” By committing the alliance to reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons and initiating a process to implement such a policy, it would reflect the most important political changes that have taken place since 1999. Such a process, a “NATO NPR,” should not be seen as “reopening” the Strategic Concept. On the contrary, a NATO NPR would consider the posture of the alliance in the light of the general principles contained within the Strategic Concept; it would not revise them. It is therefore not too early to consider what ought to be covered by a NATO NPR and what its principles might be as its framework within the Strategic Concept is hammered out over the next month or so. Previous Strategic Concepts have been implemented through military guidance, an opaque process free from any significant accountability and often ignoring the political implications of NATO’s military posture. The fact that the current MC 400, which translates the political principles in NATO’s Strategic Concept into guidance for military commanders, is almost 20 years old and has been revised only twice underlines the urgency of a thorough review. A true NATO NPR by contrast would be more open-ended, focusing on political and military aspects. Five principles should guide a NATO NPR.
First, a NATO NPR should be comprehensive and address operational and political aspects of NATO’s nuclear sharing policies. All options, including a continuation of current practices, their reform, and their demise should be on the table.
Second, the strategic issues facing NATO are clearly linked to other unresolved issues, such as support for strategic missile defense and the broader alliance relationship with
Although a NATO NPR undoubtedly will sit within broader discussions, it would be a mistake to allow the review to be held hostage to unneeded linkages. According to several sources,
If there was a decision to subsume the NPR into a broader strategic review to address strategic conventional capabilities and missile defense alongside nuclear posture—an option that, according to diplomatic sources, is being considered—there would be a serious risk that agreement would be impossible. The Strategic Concept will recognize the strategic links; it might be advisable to establish parallel tracks on other specific issues, such as NATO’s role in arms control. Such an approach would ensure that NATO nuclear policy is not perceived as the only “unfinished business” by the time alliance heads of state and government meet in Lisbon.
Third, in line with the new Strategic Concept, a NATO NPR would have to outline in greater detail the implications of a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. There is broad agreement that tactical nuclear weapons no longer serve any conceivable military purpose. The
Given that NATO nuclear assets are tightly controlled by the
The group of experts headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended that NATO bring its negative assurances into line with the U.S. policy. Such a course of action, however, would bring its own problems because NATO could be split over assessments of whether a target state is in noncompliance with nonproliferation obligations, how serious a particular breach of international obligations might be, and which institution has the authority to make such judgments. Such debates would remind many of the deep rifts in the alliance before the invasion of
This possibility would seem risky enough that NATO members would be well advised to instead adopt a clear-cut “sole purpose” policy and declare that nuclear weapons would be used only in response to an attack by a nuclear-armed state. It would be reasonable for NATO to have a more restrictive declaratory policy than any of its nuclear members because the NATO policy would apply only to the subset of nuclear assets that are currently assigned to the alliance and applicable to the European theater.
Guidance for Nuclear Sharing
Fourth, a NATO NPR will have to give guidance on future operational aspects of nuclear sharing arrangements, including the future deployment of nuclear weapons on member states’ territory. This issue is perhaps the most contentious and has been uppermost in the minds of those discussing the nuclear aspect of alliance policy for the last year or so. It would seem appropriate to consider the option of a time frame for withdrawing remaining
Fifth, a NATO NPR should be conducted in an inclusive, open, and timely fashion, taking full account of the politics of the situation. In the past, NATO nuclear policies have been determined in private by the U.S. Department of Defense and within NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group and High-Level Group of defense ministry representatives. Military considerations have trumped political arguments within NATO’s nuclear discourse, creating a credibility gap between the diplomatic positions of its members and actual alliance policies and deployments. This undermines policy and leads to a skeptical attitude toward alliance members within the wider international community. Thus, South Africa at the NPT review conference pointed out that “[w]hile some argue that steps have been taken since the end of the Cold War to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons, the continued reliance on such weapons in strategic doctrines, regrettably, would seem to indicate the opposite.” The Polish source argued that “given the fact that foreign ministers were already addressing the alliance nuclear posture in
This also would ensure that France, which has recently returned to NATO’s integrated military structure but is still not a member of the Nuclear Planning Group, was no longer excluded from formal discussions over nuclear posture, ensuring greater chance of French buy-in and, ultimately, long-term cohesion of the alliance more generally. The Polish source echoed the sentiment of several diplomats and officials interviewed when he said that a NATO NPR “should be inclusive, involving all alliance members.” The French diplomat, however, pointed out that there is currently a debate in
The deferral of difficult conversations from the Strategic Concept to a NATO NPR should not be an excuse for an open-ended process that unduly delays or avoids decisions. Thus, the Polish source pointed out that
It would be important for the process to be transparent and involve relevant stakeholders. The “public diplomacy” phase of the group of experts process could serve as a model. Thus, NATO could set up a NATO NPR Web site and stimulate debate within the media to enhance the legitimacy of the outcome. Given the acute interest that many parliamentarians have shown in the issue, NATO should be particularly interested in involving national parliaments, their committees, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in the process.
A 21st-Century Force Posture
NATO policy up to now has shown all the hallmarks of being dominated by military considerations and far-fetched worst-case scenario planning, with the consequence that its nuclear posture, particularly in recent years, has been a handicap to crucial diplomatic agendas aimed at promoting global security through managed nuclear disarmament and strengthened nonproliferation efforts. A review of NATO’s nuclear posture would be an opportunity to overcome this dynamic and establish NATO as an institution that bolsters the international nonproliferation regime. In addition, although there are clearly elements of fundamental consensus around the need for some form of nuclear deterrence in the near future, there is little or no chance of reaching sufficient agreement on the operational aspects prior to the
The starting point for such a nuclear review must be an awareness that NATO members “cannot and should not avoid a re-examination” of NATO’s current nuclear doctrine and “what it means in practice,” as the statement of more than 30 senior European political, military, and diplomatic figures that are members of the European Leadership Network on Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation recently put it. 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. Nuclear weapons were a central component of NATO capabilities in the past, but clinging to them now because of nostalgia or an inability to evolve could represent a major stumbling block for successful transformation.
Decisions will be made by consensus, but this should not be seen as an opportunity to block evolution. To do so would greatly damage alliance cohesion because in
Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the
5. For the most extensive discussion, see Simon Lunn, “Reducing the Role of NATO’s Nuclear Weapons: Where Do We Stand after
11. Central and eastern European politicians and scholars complained to Obama in a July 2009 open letter “that central and eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.” David Hayes, “
12. See Lukasz Kulesa, “Reduce U.S. Nukes in Europe to Zero, and Keep NATO Strong (and Nuclear): A View from
14. For a list of measures to “compensate” for such a withdrawal, see Ian Anthony and Johnny Janssen, “The Future of Nuclear Weapons in NATO,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung International Policy Analysis, April 2010, pp. 29-32, http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id/ipa/07151.pdf.
15. At the time of this writing, the government is undergoing a Strategic Defence and Security Review that will have important implications for the
20. “Speech by Guido Westerwelle, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Opening of the Ambassadors Conference at the Federal Foreign Office,” September 6, 2010, www.auswaertiges-amt.de/diplo/en/Infoservice/Presse/Reden/2010/100906-BM-BokoEroeffnung.html.
22. See Steven Andreasen, Malcolm Chalmers, and Isabelle Williams, “NATO and Nuclear Weapons: Is a New Consensus Possible?” RUSI Occasional Paper, August 2010, p. 1, www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/NATO_and_Nuclear_Weapons.pdf.
25. The NATO group of experts tasked with developing elements of a new Strategic Concept has recently recommended that NATO should revive the Special Consultative Group on Arms Control. See NATO Group of Experts, “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement,” May 17, 2010, pp. 43-44, www.nato.int/strategic-concept/expertsreport.pdf.
29. “Statement by Ambassador Jerry Matjila, South African Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, in Main Committee I of the 2010 Review Conference of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” New York, May 7, 2010.
31. European Group Statement on NATO Nuclear Weapons, Sept. 29, 2010, www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org.