Notes for a presentation at a seminar on
"Interrelations between NATO's New Strategic Concept Review
and the NPT Review Process"
Clingendael Institute, April 19, 1999.

Oliver Meier

The importance of the review of NATO's nuclear policy for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation can hardly be overestimated.  The language found in NATO's new Strategic Concept on the role of nuclear weapons will provide the framework within which the nuclear weapons policy of the three Western nuclear weapon states will be formulated in the foreseeable future.  This policy is likely to stay in place for a long time, since Strategic Concepts are usually not rewritten every couple of years.  What makes NATO's new nuclear policy even more important is that it will have the approval of 16 important non-nuclear weapon states.

NPT members ‑ nuclear and non-nuclear ‑ are aware of the importance of NATO's nuclear policy for disarmament and nonproliferation.  NATO's nuclear policy has been at the center of attention in the NPT in the past,  and this year it will be watched even more closely because the meeting of the Preparatory Committee will take place two weeks after the NATO summit and the announcement of the New Strategic Concept.  All NATO member states will have had plenty of time to analyze the outcome of NATO's Strategic Review and can use the PrepCom to make their interpretation of NATO's new nuclear policy known.

I. Assessing NATO's new nuclear policy from a NPT point of view

NPT members are likely to look at NATO's new nuclear weapons policy from at least three angles:

1. How serious are NATO members about Article VI commitments?

Nuclear disarmament has been at the core of discussions about the obligations of nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT.  While NATO has rightly pointed out that it has drastically reduced its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, it has become also clear that this has been a consolidation process:  Many Cold War systems have been shelved or dismantled while the modern nuclear weapons have been kept operational and some of them have been or will be modernized.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, NPT members therefore might no longer see it as sufficient to simply repeat references to past reductions in the New Strategic Concept.  Decisions taken in the new Strategic Concept will be seen as an indication about how NATO intends to deal with nuclear disarmament in the future.  If there is no change or if there are only minor changes in the language this will be perceived as an indication that NATO members intend to rely for the indefinite future on nuclear deterrence and for the time being are not willing to enter a process which will eventually lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Clearly, the basic choices about the future course in nuclear disarmament cannot be delegated to a consultation mechanism that will be put into place during the summit.  It is a decision that has to be taken in the Strategic Concept and that NPT member states will assess based on the content of this document.

2. Does NATO reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons?

Increasing or decreasing the role of nuclear weapons is directly linked to one main question about the future role of nuclear weapons, i.e. the deterrence of an attack with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ‑ nuclear, biological or chemical ‑ with nuclear weapons.

So far, NATO has followed a two-track approach in dealing with proliferation of WMD:  It has dealt with proliferation of WMD politically while at the same time not ruling out military responses. 

Institutionally, this has been reflected in setting up two committees in 1994, Senior Politico-Military Group on Proliferation (SGP) and the Senior Defence Group on Proliferation (DGP).  It is important to remember that one of the reasons for the division of labor between the "political" and the "military" group working on proliferation was the political split between some Europeans and the US about how to deal with proliferation.

Politically, discussions within NATO about how to deal with the proliferation of WMD are still ongoing and one underlying reason for disagreement about the future nuclear weapons policy of NATO. 

On the one hand there are those who emphasize political responses to proliferation.  The Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy for example pointed out at the December Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels that

"(...) new rationales are emerging for retaining nuclear weapons, impeding disarmament efforts and fueling the claims of proliferators.  NATO must be part of the answer to these problems. This will require new initiatives, new approaches and new thinking. (...)  Now more than ever, any discussion of using Alliance nuclear capabilities - even in retaliation - raises very difficult questions of means, proportionality and effectiveness that cause us significant concerns."[1]

On the other hand, there are those that are increasingly leaning towards a deterrence approach:  They believe that would-be-proliferators can be prevented from acquiring ‑ or using ‑ WMD if there is a credible nuclear threat of retaliation is in place.  US Defense Secretary Cohen for example said in February:

"It is my firm belief that the best hope for protecting ourselves against those who would unleash weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, biological or chemical, is to reserve the right to respond to such attacks with any means at our disposal. (...) Any question about that policy undermines our deterrent capability. "[2]

Many NPT members however are pointing out that there is an inherent contradiction between saying that nuclear weapons are useful tools in dealing with proliferation while at the same time denying other states these weapons.  They argue that nuclear weapons are part of the problem of proliferation of WMD, not part of its solution.  They also point out that if NATO continues to argue that it needs nuclear weapons to deal with proliferation, then other states will use this argument to justify building their security on military means, and that ultimately includes possession of WMD, just like India and Pakistan did use the continued reliance on nuclear weapons to justify their own nuclear weapons.

NATO faces a similar  contradiction in its nuclear relationship towards Russia:  It will be come more and more difficult to treat Russia as a strategic partner, for example in former Yugoslavia, while at the same time, NATO nuclear arsenals are supposed to be a hedge against a political reversal in Russia.

There have been some indications lately that nuclear deterrence will now be widened to include missions such as deterrence of attacks with chemical and especially biological weapons.  Such a shift to new missions is highly problematic for at least three reasons:

·      It signals that nuclear weapons will be there forever, because there is a view emerging today that proliferation of chemical and biological weapons can be slowed but never be completely prevented;

·      Such a widening of deterrence leads to new military requirements.  Already we are seeing the US military successfully argue that it needs new or modified nuclear weapons in order to address BW and CW proliferation threats;

·      Deterring biological and chemical weapons with nuclear weapons lowers the nuclear threshold.  Developing a credible strategy of nuclear deterrence for new scenarios of course entails the credible threat of use of nuclear weapons. 

NATO has responded to the new emphasis on proliferation in a number of ways, not only by strengthening deterrence.  In December 1998, the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" initiative was launched.  The NATO approach to WMD proliferation will be reflected in a separate document on proliferation coming out of the summit.  The WMD initiative aims at strengthening those institutions within NATO that are concerned with proliferation, for example by sharing information on proliferation threats.  Initiatives like the WMD initiative will be perceived positively within the NPT if their aim is to address the underlying causes of proliferation.  If they however are perceived to give a new legitimization to nuclear deterrence, they will continue to be a cause for criticism in the NPT.

3. Does NATO undertake steps to align nuclear sharing with NPT obligations?

NATO nuclear sharing has been a cause of criticism within the NPT for a long-time, both on legal as well as political grounds.  Legally, it is argued that nuclear sharing does in fact constitute a form nuclear proliferation and therefore contradicts Articles I&II.

Regardless of whether the criticism that NATO nuclear sharing mechanisms violate Article I&II of the NPT is justified, politically the damage in the NPT has been done and will continue to be done. 

The majority of NPT members sees nuclear sharing as violating the spirit of the NPT.  The argument is quite simple:  The NPT is all about limiting the access to nuclear weapons, nuclear sharing is all about expanding access to nuclear weapons.  In times where reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons is the yardstick with which to measure the nuclear weapon policies of the nuclear weapon states, expanding nuclear sharing by expanding NATO is seen as an anachronism.  This criticism will not go away as long as nuclear sharing exists ‑ and as long as NATO keeps its door open to new members.

From the legal perspective, another question may be raised:  One of the foundations on which nuclear sharing is built is the argument that in times of peace, national control over all nuclear weapons is guaranteed.  Vice versa, the argument goes, in times of general war (which during the Cold War understood to be a general nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the US), the NPT would no longer be controlling.

What does this "wartime exception" clause mean under today's circumstances?  Would the "wartime exception clause" be applicable to scenarios of an attack with biological and chemical weapons as well?  NATO argues that it needs to maintain the uncertainty in the minds of an aggressor in order to deter any attack on the Alliance.  But such an aggressor would hardly choose to openly attack with biological weapons if he can do so quite well in a concealed manner.  The credibility of deterrence is also undermined by the fact that the the consent of 19 nations is needed to launch a (nuclear) retaliation.

The continuation and geographical expansion of nuclear sharing will therefore remain to be thorn in NATO's side. 

II. Some steps to solve the contradictions between NATO's nuclear policy and the NPT

It is clear that the outcome of NATO's Review of its nuclear policy will have a profound impact on the stability of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the success of NPT Review Process.  The NPT Review Process was created to take account of progress made in the implementation of the treaty's obligations and to create a forward-looking agenda to this end.  NATO's new nuclear policy will be judged from both perspectives .

The most likely scenario from today's perspective is that NATO will postpone some decisions about its future nuclear weapons policy.  There are two reasons for this:  First, serious divisions within the Alliance still exist on such crucial issues as a nuclear no-first-use option, and other parts of the nuclear paragraphs of the Strategic Concept.  Second, some in NATO fear that the new Strategic Concept will be perceived as not making enough progress on disarmament.  Therefore, we can expect a new body to be charged with a review of NATO's nuclear policy after the summit. Alternatively an existing body such as the High Level Group could be charged with reviewing NATO's nuclear policy.

Based on this scenario, there a number of steps NATO can and should take to strengthen the NPT and contribute towards a successful outcome of the 2000 Review Conference. 

1.    NATO should limit the functions of nuclear weapons to nuclear deterrence.  Every expansion of the role of nuclear weapons will send a clear signal that NATO is not serious about living up to its obligations under Art. VI and the Principles and Objectives which were agreed in 1995.
There are a number of ways to signal a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons:   
NATO nuclear weapons can be called "weapons of last resort", which would be an indication that they would be used only in the most extreme circumstances.  The 1990 Strategic Concept contained the "last resort" phrase but President Bush objected it in 1991 because he feared that it would raise questions about extended deterrence.  Europeans therefore should be very clear with the US about how important extended deterrence is to them.      
A no-first-use pledge, as it has been suggested by Germany, is highly desirable, but unlikely to become part of NATO's new nuclear weapons policy.  There are two reasons for this:  There is currently no language on first use in the Strategic Concept and changing this would therefore require the creation of new language, which is usually more difficult than to change existing language.  A no first use pledge would also necessitate a change in the nuclear doctrines of France the US and the UK because on this point the nuclear doctrines of NATO and the three nuclear members have to be completely compabtible.

2.   NATO should eliminate all reference to nuclear weapons being an important political link between the United States and Europe.
The old Strategic Concept states that      
"Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe."[3]        
This and similar references can and should be dropped.  Transatlantic solidarity today hopefully does not rest on the presence of nuclear weapons in European NATO member states.

3.   NATO's New Strategic Concept can and should contain language on nuclear disarmament that is forward-looking.  The old Strategic Concept is void of any reference to new initiatives on disarmament.  Twelve out of the 19 NATO member states abstained in the vote on the New Agenda resolution in the General Assembly thereby indicating their tacit approval with many of the points contained therein.  Therefore, the resolution offers a good menu from which to start discussions about a new disarmament agenda that can involve NATO states.   
Two topics come to mind that are especially urgent:       
First, tactical nuclear weapons.  On both sides of the Atlantic the inclusion of these weapons into the nuclear arms control process has been recognized as a necessity.  The Strategic Concept is a good place to make reductions in tactical nuclear weapons ‑ with the goal of eliminating these Cold War systems ‑ a high priority.   
Second, NATO could take new initiatives with regard to transparency in nuclear weapons.  This topic is extremely important with regard to Russia's nuclear stockpiles.  There has been some movement lately within NATO, for example in the UK's Strategic Defence Review.  However, transparency standards between NATO members and within NATO leave much to be desired:  For example, we still do not know how many US tactical weapons are deployed at what sites in Europe.  The United Kingdom's holdings of fissile material have been made pubic , but the number of Trident warheads is still secret.  We do know the French warhead numbers, but we do not know their fissile material holdings.  Taking new initiatives in the area of transparency ‑ possibly in the context of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council ‑ would be an important Confidence Building Measure and could set the stage for more far reaching arms control measures.

4.   Finally, if NATO decides to launch a review of its nuclear policy at the summit such a review should have a clear cut mandate, be comprehensive, transparent, and be completed as soon as possible.
Establishing a separate body charged with a review of NATO's nuclear policy would signal that the review is serious and will not be conducted as a matter of "business as usual".  The mandate of this body should be clear-cut and include all those nuclear issues that need to be discussed:  nuclear strategy, including first use, number and deployment of nuclear weapons as well as de-alerting and other arms control measures.  Any attempt to limit the scope of the review of the role of nuclear weapons to some uncontroversial aspects, is likely to be perceived as not seriously discussing the issues.  Transparency of the review will be important also.  While it is clear that this debate about the new role of nuclear weapons cannot be a public one, regular updates on topics discussed and progress made will be important.  Finally, NATO should finish its Review before the 2000 Review Conference.  One year is certainly enough to discuss these issues and the outcome could then be presented to the NPT and thereby help to ensure a positive outcome of the Review Conference.

At the same time, there are steps that can be taken inside the NPT Review process to facilitate a change of NATO's nuclear policy.  It is up to the majority of NPT states to reiterate their views on the compatibility of NATO nuclear sharing and the NPT.  This has two aspects:

1.    The PrepCom should state that NPT is binding in times of war and peace.  This has been done already at the 1985 Review Conference and would simply have to be repeated.

2.    The PrepCom could reiterate the statement made by the member states of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1998 which demanded that        
"the Nuclear-weapon States parties to the NPT (...) refrain from, among themselves, with non-nuclear weapons states, and with States not party to the Treaty, nuclear sharing for military purposes under any kind of security arrangements."[4] 

Finally, if NATO initiates a review of its nuclear policy at the summit, the PrepCom should urge NATO to conclude this Review before the 2000 Review Conference.

Some have argued that such public pressure on NATO can be counterproductive because it will only force NATO states to move closer together and strengthen the hands of those who oppose a change of its nuclear policy.  This would be true if there were clear indication that a process of change is going on.  Unfortunately, few indications exist that this is the case.  On the contrary: it seems as if those calling for an open and comprehensive review of the nuclear paragraphs have been silenced.

III. Conclusion

If the contradictions between NATO's nuclear policy and the nonproliferation regime are to be solved, in the end, NATO will have to become a non-nuclear alliance.  The possession of nuclear weapons ‑ especially by military alliances ‑ will continue to weaken the non-proliferation regime, even if some progress on disarmament is made.  We already have two non-discriminatory nonproliferation regimes ‑ the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention ‑ and it is impossible to justify why nuclear weapons should be different in this respect.  It is important to remember that NATO is the only alliance today which has a nuclear defense component.  Even though it is hard to imagine, there is always the possibility that other states will decide to follow NATO's example,

At the same time, it is clear that de-nuclearizing NATO will take time.  The new Strategic Concept however presents NATO with a unique opportunity to signal that it is serious about fulfilling its NPT commitments.

[1] Address by the honourable Lloyd Axworthy minister of foreign affairs to the North Atlantic Council Meeting, Brussels, December 8, 1998.

[2] Remarks by US Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 6, 1999.

[3] The Alliance's New Strategic Concept,  Agreed by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Rome on 7th-8th November 1991.

[4] Working Paper presented by the Members of the Movement of the Non-Aligned Countries, Parties to the Treaty, presented at the Second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Geneva, 28 April, 1998.