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NATO and Nuclear Weapons

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NATO Foreign Ministers discuss nuclear withdrawl, december 2009

By Martin Butcher, December 2009


The NATO Foreign Ministers meeting which met in Brussels on December 3rd and 4th was largely focused on new plans adopted by the Obama administration for the war in Afghanistan. NATO has many thousands of troops committed to its ISAF mission, and many see the future of the Afghan War as central to the future of the Alliance.

However, there was also discussion of a German initiative for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, and of the future of Alliance cooperation on missile defences. These strategic issues have been deeply divisive in NATO in recent years, but the evidence is that they are becoming less so.

Nuclear Withdrawal

Germany, Belgium and other nations recently committed to seeking the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from their soil had promised they would raise the question of NATO nuclear strategy at the Foreign Ministers meeting. Foreign Ministers gathered at NATO HQ did discuss the future NATO Strategic Concept, but little was revealed of their discussions. There was certainly no discussion with the press of nuclear issues. The Final Statement of the meeting stated:

19. We are committed to renewing our Alliance to better address today’s threats and to anticipate tomorrow’s risks. At their Strasbourg/Kehl Summit, our Heads of State and Government tasked the Secretary General to develop a new Strategic Concept and submit proposals for its implementation for approval at the next Summit, keeping the Council in Permanent Session involved throughout the process. We have discussed the preliminary work of the Group of Experts which is helping to lay the ground for the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept. This work has so far covered the changing international security environment; NATO’s fundamental tasks; relations with other nations and organisations; and internal reform. We thank the Group for the work it has done until now, and encourage its continued close consultations with all Allies. We look forward to discussing the Group’s findings at our informal meeting next April in Tallinn. We encourage all our partners to continue to present their views on our new Strategic Concept during its elaboration. The new Strategic Concept will play an important role in guiding and shaping a 21st century Alliance to face existing and emerging threats and challenges, while maintaining strong collective defence.

It seems that the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy, and the posture of forward deployment of some weapons from the US to Europe may have been raised in a discussion of “NATO’s fundamental tasks” the statement says were discussed, but no detail was forthcoming.

However, in a trip to NATO in the week after the meeting, it was learned that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle did raise his coalition's policy of withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany with his colleagues at the North Atlantic Council last week. There was no immediate reaction from his colleagues, but it has been accepted that the issue will be discussed as part of the Strategic Concept negotiations next year. Several NATO briefers said that they would not be at all surprised to see an end to US nuclear deployments in Europe as the end result of those talks.

This matches with information coming from elsewhere. Oliver Meier at the Arms Control Association has published an interesting review of the debate in Germany. It stresses that Germany expected a positive reaction from allies (which indeed seems to be the case), and that several nations engaged with Germany in the margins of the NATO meeting on the future of nuclear sharing.

In the wider context, there are continued suggestions that change may be on the way. The Italian Atlantic Committee has published a discussion paper on the Strategic Concept review, in which they write that:

6. Nuclear Forces
·        In a troubled world, the nuclear deterrent remains the indispensable support for NATO conventional forces when facing serious dangers;
·        However, it is inevitable that the nuclear posture be considered afresh on the basis of agreed criteria, in order to ensure its continued relevance in our era with special mention to its connections with the vitality of the Transatlantic Link.

This paper was discussed at a seminar held in Rome by the IAC and the Italian Foreign Ministry on November 23rd. it certainly leaves room for considering the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, while maintaining a strategic nuclear deterrent for NATO.

In the UK, the government was questioned in the House of Lords recently on the NATO Strategic Concept. On November 25, Lord Hannay asked the government about possible changes to NATO nuclear strategy.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this review of the strategic concept will include NATO's nuclear posture? What input will the British Government make on that aspect? Will they ensure that any revision of NATO's nuclear posture is firmly in line with the unanimous decision of the UN Security Council under President Obama's chairmanship to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons?

Lord Brett: My Lords, yes.

It is thought that the UK government has expressed a private willingness to see all US nuclear weapons removed from Europe. This answer is in line with that position. The UN Security Council resolution calls for further efforts on nuclear arms reductions and disarmament, so any revision of the nuclear paragraphs of the Strategic Concept would need to move in that direction.

The German opposition SPD issued a call through MDB Uta Zapf, the SPD spokesperson on foreign policy in the Bundestag, for the government to make good on its promise to discuss nuclear withdrawal at the NATO ministers meeting, and also called on NATO to discuss a tactical nuclear weapons ‘zero option’ with Russia.

It is really too early, at least in the framework of the Strategic Concept revision, to expect much substance from NATO ministers. The US Nuclear Posture Review has not yet been reported to Congress, and that will send a major signal to US allies. There is a shift in the political mainstream opinion on forward basing of nuclear weapons. Poland and the Baltic States have to decide whether they want to stand with the new European mainstream inside NATO, or against it. Opinion is forming that says that at best these weapons do not contribute to European security, and may actually decrease it. Diplomats have begun to look for other ways that the US commitment to Europe can be visibly signaled.Undoubtedly NATO foreign ministers will return to this topic in the near future, perhaps as early as their informal Spring meeting in Tallinn.

Missile Defences

When the Bush administration proposed siting elements of its mid-course ballistic missile defences (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Alliance was badly divided.

Many in Europe were dismayed that the future of a strategic programme with obvious security implications for the entire alliance was being dealt with at a bilateral level. For many this was yet another blow against NATO by the US, and the political damage caused by this and other unilateral Bush administration actions will take years to heal.

There was deep concern at deteriorating relations with Russia, and the reduction in security that a hostile relationship entails, something fundamentally at odds with the stated intention of deploying a BMD system to Europe in the first place. Also, the Europeans stressed the indivisibility of Alliance security since, even if the mid-course BMD system worked as advertised (which it has never done), it would not cover south-Eastern Europe. Worse, debris from intercepted warheads would likely fall on Belgium and the surrounding area (just as debris from the Pacific system intercepting a missile from North Korea would fall on western Canada).

There were abortive attempts to link Russia in with the BMD proposals, as the Russians proposed the use of some of their radars. The Bush administration rejected these ideas – claiming (against the advice of scientists) that the Russian systems weren’t well placed. There was a stated intention to somehow merge the strategic system with the incipient NATO theatre missile defence system. But the whole thing looked like (and indeed was) a desperate attempt ex post facto to justify Bush administration actions through an Alliance lens.

Then, this September, to the dismay of Poland and the Czech Republic and the delight of other Alliance members, the Obama administration announced that it was halting the European deployments. This has formed part of summer discussions with Russia on strategic issues. In place of the mid-course BMD system, the Obama administration announced an intention the existing ship-based Aegis defense system in the Mediterranean. This is designed to intercept short- and intermediate-range missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, and the deployment is clearly aimed at Iran. The mid-course proposal has been pushed off into the future. There are technical problems with the new proposal, as the Union of Concerned Scientists noted:

A key technical problem with this approach is that the Aegis interceptors (current and planned) also are designed to intercept missiles above the atmosphere and therefore, would be vulnerable to decoys and other countermeasures, just like the current ground-based interceptors.

However, the main purpose of the system is reassuring Allies about US intent to defend Europe, and to do so in a NATO framework. A side-benefit in this case is to be non-threatening to Russia. In this, the new system has been remarkably successful. As the NATO Monitor noted back in October, Allies have been reassured by the consultations that the Pentagon has undertaken on this issue, in stark contrast to the previous administration. Their concerns about relations with Russia have also been answered.

Indeed, as Ria Novosti reports:

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed hope on Thursday that the alliance and Russia would establish a joint missile defense system by 2020. Addressing students at the Moscow State University of International Relations, Rasmussen said the joint shield would unite Russia and NATO politically and ensure nuclear security between the two parties.

They had previously reported after the NATO-Russia Council meeting on December 4, that:

Russia and NATO have formed a working group on missile defense issues and the first meeting will be held in January, Russia's envoy to the military alliance said on Friday.
Dmitry Rogozin was speaking after a Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels.
"A program on military cooperation, including the creation of a working group on missile defense, was adopted," he told journalists. He said the first meeting would take place "straight after the Christmas holidays."

At NATO HQ, on the trip for bloggers just after the Ministerial and another trip a few days later, I heard several suggestions from national delegations and from international HQ staff, that missile defence would be the best way to show Iran that the Alliance is serious about its defence. Some went so far as to suggest that the deployment of the new Obama missile defences, and other elements, would be the best way to show US commitment to Europe if the Alliance agrees the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons in 2010 – and that indeed in the post-9/11 world, they are the most useful way to do so.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that the text on missile defence in the Foreign Ministers’ Final Statement says:

14. The proliferation of ballistic missiles poses an increasing threat to Allies’ populations, territory and forces. Given the central importance of the Alliance’s collective defence mission to ensure our security and protect our populations, territory and forces against the threat of armed attack, including from ballistic missiles, missile defence plays an important role for the Alliance as part of a broader response to counter ballistic missile threats. We welcome the new phased adaptive approach of the United States to missile defence, which further reinforces NATO’s central role in missile defence in Europe. This approach would further anchor European missile defence work in NATO, which continues to bear in mind the principle of the indivisibility of Alliance security as well as NATO solidarity.

15. NATO’s current Theatre Missile Defence programme (ALTBMD) will facilitate the integration of missile defence elements from nations in order to protect deployed troops. Heads of State and Government, at their last Summit, tasked the Council in Permanent Session to identify and undertake the policy, military and technical work related to a possible expanded role of the Theatre Missile Defence programme beyond the protection of NATO deployed forces to include territorial missile defence. Such a role would be a key milestone towards providing territorial missile defence in Europe.

16. Heads of State and Government, at their last Summit, tasked the Council in Permanent Session, taking into account the Bucharest Summit tasking, to present recommendations comprising architecture alternatives for consideration at the next Summit; these should draw upon the work already done and the United States’ phased adaptive approach. If the Alliance decides to develop a NATO missile defence capability in Europe to protect populations and territory, the United States’ phased adaptive approach would provide a valuable national contribution to that capability and, thus, to Alliance security.

17. We continue to support increased cooperation between NATO and Russia on missile defence including maximum transparency and reciprocal confidence-building measures. We reaffirm the Alliance’s readiness to explore the potential for linking United States, NATO and Russian missile defence systems at an appropriate time. The United States’ new approach provides enhanced possibilities to do this.

As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told the press after the Ministerial “On missile defense, our allies strongly expressed their support for the new American approach, and NATO officially noted the important role missile defense plays in the protection of our population, territory, and forces.” On this issue, at least, the Alliance is once again, united.


The imminent debate on the Strategic Concept has focused minds at NATO HQ, and in national capitals. The German proposal to withdraw US nuclear weapons has met a warmer reception than expected. There are obstacles to achieving this goal, but the outlines of a deal at NATO to make it happen are already emerging. Much will now depend on the outcome of the US Nuclear Posture Review. Much will also depend on the future of US missile defence deployments in Europe. There is unfortunately a fairly low profile in the Alliance for the use of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament measures that could enhance NATO security and that of its immediate neighbours, as a better long term approach to security building in the Euro-Atlantic area than a north-south military stand-off.

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