NATO Reiterates Controversial Nuclear Doctrine

Otfried Nassauer and Thomas Neve

 NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted today at the Washington Summit, leaves the Alliance’s controversial nuclear doctrine unchanged. The language adopted by NATO’s leaders is almost identical with the one used in NATO’s Strategic Concept of 1991. However, some minor changes have been made, the amount of nuclear language has been somewhat reduced and the Alliance committed itself to continue to review its nuclear policy.

„The fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war.“ They ensure „uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the Allies’ response to military aggression“. NATO continues to perceive strategic nuclear weapons to provide „the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies“. (para 62) It believes, that „a credible Alliance nuclear posture and the demonstration of Alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning  in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements“. Thus NATO’s controversial policy of nuclear sharing is left untouched for the time being. Sub-strategic nuclear weapons are described as to „provide an essential political and military link between Europe and the North American members of the Alliance“.

„The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated“ are said to be „extremely remote“ rather than „rather remote“ in 1991. NATO praises itself for the „dramatic reduction of the types and numbers of NATO’s sub-strategic forces“ undertaken since 1991, the „relaxation of the readiness criteria for nuclear-roled forces; and the termination of standing peacetime nuclear contingency plans“. (para 64) The Alliance will „maintain, at a minimum level consistent with the security environment, adequate sub-strategic forces based in Europe, which will provide an essential link with strategic nuclear forces, reinforcing the transatlantic link.“  The new strategic concept does not reiterate the political assurances given to Russia on the non-deployment of nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s new member states  during peacetime.

However, some news is contained in the Alliance’s Summit Communique. „In the light of overall strategic developments and the reduced salience of nuclear weapons, the Alliance will consider options for confidence and security building measures, verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament. The Council in Permanent Session will propose a process to Ministers in December for considering such options. The responsible NATO bodies would accomplish this.“ This cryptic formula seems to announce the Alliance’s indirect answer to German and Canadian demands for a nuclear policy review by NATO. While both countries demanded a full-scale review of all aspects of NATO’s nuclear doctrine, posture and policy  NATO announces a review of its arms-control, disarmament and non-proliferation policies. While this still leaves open the possibility that the debates asked for by Germany, Canada and others will be held behind closed doors (as some internal sources suggested before the summit), the Alliance is preparing in public for an initiative that is likely to be directed at the NPT Review Conference planned for 2000. However, it remains unclear, whether NATO’s nuclear doctrine will really be revisited in the months to come. „There’s no such thing as a profound review or study of strategy“, said a German official working for the Defense Ministry, which opposed Foreign Minister Fischer’s call for a strategy review.

The process will require utmost attention by both arms-control groups and the wider public interested in nuclear disarmament.

For further information please call Otfried Nassauer or Thomas Neve on (202) 785-1266