Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym

NATO and Nuclear Weapons

Back to the NATO page

NATO Prepares to Review the Strategic Concept

NATO's summit in Strasbourg and Kehl has launched a review of the Strategic Concept - the Alliance's guiding political document. NATO's Secretary General is to convene a 'broad-based group of qualified experts' to lay the groundwork. The Secretary-General is expected to prepare a new Strategic Concept in time for NATO's next summit expected in late 2010 or early 2011.

NATO's current Strategic Concept was agreed in 1999 in the dying days of the Clinton administration and reiterated Cold War language commiting NATO to nuclear weapons as the "supreme guarantee" of Alliance security - language that has subsequently been used by proliferators in support of their nuclear programmes. The Strategic Concept maintained that allied security continued 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." "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," it continues - language that is looking increasingly dated as the allies struggle to find a common commitment to deploying troops in Afghanistan.

Whilst some within the Alliance no doubt hope that the nuclear paragraphs of the Strategic Concept will remain intact, a renewal of existing nuclear policy and doctrine would have a damaging effect on nuclear non-proliferation and appear increasingly unlikely in view of President Obama's speech in Prague committing the US to lead efforts for a nuclear weapon-free world.

The NATO Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl was convened to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Alliance. Conceived in the dying days of the Bush administration, with tensions rising in Europe and NATO in some disarray, it became the Barack Obama Summit - and the new President stamped his authority on the Alliance and began reshaping it for the 21st century.

When President Obama took power the European security situation was serious. With NATO enlargement and the proposed deployment of missile defences, the Bush administration had antagonized a resurgent nationalist Russia. Then, following Russia's summer war with Georgia (provoked by Georgian recklessness at least in part derived from a belief that America would support Georgia no matter what, a belief Bush's administration had encouraged) NATO cut off contact with Russia.

NATO was floundering in Afghanistan, with many allies doubting the mission could succeed at all. In some ways, with countries like Germany refusing to commit troops without caveats, and others refusing to deploy forces at all, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. President Bush, a wildly unpopular lame duck was unable to do anything to get things back on track - not least because his administration had devalued NATO, preferring to do business through coalitions of the willing (as in Iraq). Coalitions that would take an American lead without demanding too much of a say in how things were run.

When Obama won the election he carried into power a tremendous fund of goodwill from European public and politicians alike. His triumphant Berlin speech during the election campaign proved he had star power. But his message, when fully understood, would not necessarily be welcome. He promised to do more for European security, if Europe did more itself. And that message meant more European troops and money for Afghanistan; and better European coordination in defence policy, things not popular with his progressive audience.

And so, coming into the Summit, it wasn't a given that all would be smooth. In the end however, there was little in the way of disagreement - except over the appointment of the next Secretary General - and there are many signs from the official documents released at the end of the meeting that President Obama was able to begin the process of reshaping NATO to meet the challenges of global security.

Croatia and Albania Join the Alliance

There were few real decisions to be taken at the Summit itself. Croatia and Albania were welcomed as new members. There had been fears that a continuing border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia would lead Slovenia to block Croatia's entry. This concerns the Bay of Piran and dates back many years. Croatia claims half the bay, a claim disputed by Slovenia which says that if Croatia gets it way then Slovenia's access to the Adriatic Sea will be blocked. While Slovenia's parliament had ratified Coratia's accession to the Alliance, there was an attempt by Slovenian nationalists to collect enough signatures to force a referendum by the March 26 deadline, and so block the deal. To NATO's relief this failed, and Croatia became a NATO member the day before the Summit.

France Reenters the Integrated Military Command

Jacques Chirac tried to bring France back into NATO's integrated military structure in 1996 and failed. The US refused to relinquish a top NATO military command based in Naples that France wanted.

This time, President Sarkozy was successful, although only because he rammed the vote through the National Assembly on March 17 by making it an issue of confidence. Although enough of his party opposed the measure to have defeated it, they weren't prepared to bring down the government to do it, and the assembly backed Sarkozy over NATO.

France will now take command of Joint Command Lisbon, which notably includes responsibility for running the NATO Response Force and mounting missions using allied Combined Joint Task Forces. These mechanisms are those most likely to be used to project force beyond the NATO area. The JCL also has responsibility for military components of the Mediterranean Dialogue. France will also lead the Allied Command transformation, based in Norfolk, Virgina. The command has responsibility for managing the transformation of the Alliance from a static defence organisation to a flexible, expeditionary Alliance that can support security needs across the globe. In addition, France will be granted many places across the command structure for its officers, and rejoin all NATO committees except the Nuclear Planning Group.

Sarkozy was delighted to be able to do this at a NATO Summit in France, and NATO was pleased to have France reintegrate fully.

The New Secretary General

The only real drama, and it pushed things right to the wire, was over the appointment of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the new Secretary General of the Alliance. Initially the west European candidate for the job, by the time the Summit arrived everybody except Turkey supported him. Candidates from Poland (too anti-Russian), Canada (too inexperienced and not European) and Norway (outside the EU) were all rejected along the way.

Turkey opposed Rasmussen because of his vigourous defence of the cartoonists during the scandal of 2005; because of his opposition to Turkey's membership of the EU, and because he allows Roj TV, a Kurdish network linked by Turkey to the PKK separatist guerilla group. Turkey had no candidate of its own, and it became clear during the negotiations over two days that they were trying to extract concessions rather than block Rasmussen for good.

President Obama led skillful negotiations behind the scenes, assisted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and others. In the end Turkey was promised that Turkey could appoint a NATO Deputy Secretary General, that Roj TV would be closed, and that some additional NATO posts would be made available to the Turkish military. And two hours after the Summit should have closed, Rasmussen was introduced to journalists. The only potential embarrassment at the Summit had been avoided.

The Declaration on Alliance Security

The NATO Summit adopted the Declaration on Alliance Security. This is intended to be a kind of negotiating blueprint for the full-scale review of the Alliance Strategic Concept that is now underway. NATO will adopt the Concept at its next Summit, which will be held in Portugal, probably in late 2010 or early 2011. There are a number of points of interest in the Declaration.

The Importance of NATO as an Institution

In an early paragraph the Declaration states: NATO continues to be the essential transatlantic forum for security consultations among Allies. During the Cold War, and into the 1990s this was true. But NATO has been bypassed in some fairly important security discussions since then. For example, trans-Atlantic coordination on Iran's nuclear programme is a bilateral US-EU affair. Even though Iran presents a legitimate security concern for Turkey, a NATO member; and even though NATO as a whole is in a position to give the Iranian government the kind of security guarantees they require to negotiate with confidence; NATO is not involved. Twenty years ago that would have been inconceivable. After 9/11, although NATO invoked Article V, the US under President Bush was deeply reluctant to accept any assistance. Partly because the US did not need help, and partly because Bush did not want to have to work with the North Atlantic Council in making decisions on war or peace. Only later did he invite NATO into Afghanistan. Perhaps, under President Obama this can change. Or perhaps NATO is rebalancing, particularly with France reentering the integrated military command. Perhaps the US and the EU will do far more security cooperation in the future.

Nuclear Weapons

Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. This is a standard expression of the role of nuclear and conventional forces in Alliance policy, and suggests that the new Strategic Concept will not abandon nuclear deterrence. However, it may be significant to note the absence of the normal formulation (or some variant of it) 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. Will the new Concept give less salience to nuclear weapons? Will it allow for the withdrawal of the few remaining free fall bombs from Europe? It is interesting that the juxtaposition of nuclear deterrence with action on arms control in this statement mirrors the national policy expressed by the Obama administration in its joint statement with Russia. This may well allow NATO to downgrade and reduce nuclear forces, perhaps only relying on Trident, while negotiating away some potential external threats.


Enlargement is slow-tracked by this declaration. The Alliance maintains its open doors policy, but new members must: contribute to common security and stability. It is very hard to see how The Ukraine and Georgia could fulfil that criterion for the foreseeable future, although Macedonia would have an easier time if it can strike a deal with Greece over its name. The Bush policy of pushing NATO quickly to the southern border of Russia is gone.

Power Projection The Declaration states that: We will improve our ability to meet the security challenges we face that impact directly on Alliance territory, emerge at strategic distance or closer to home. Allies must share risks and responsibilities equitably. It seems clear that power projection, as in Afghanistan or off Somalia will continue. It is equally clear, as President Obama has made abundantly obvious this weekend, that European NATO members will be expected to do their bit in any missions that NATO agrees to take on. This is the 21st Century version of the old burdensharing argument from the Cold War, and will probably never be completely resolved. However, it will be incumbent on Europe to do more, more efficiently, with the money it spends on defence.

Multilateralism In another change of tone from recent years, multilateral cooperation is given a prominent part in the Declaration: We aim to strengthen our cooperation with other international actors, including the United Nations, European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and African Union...

NATO and the EU

France and the United States are together in their desire to see the EU play a greater role in European defence policy and practice. The Declaration reflects this. We are determined to ensure that the NATO-EU relationship is a truly functioning strategic partnership ... Can the EU step up into this role? Will the Conservative government that is likely to be elected in the UK go along? The UK is such a major defence player in the EU that its agreement will be essential. Tony Blair tried to move this way at the St Malo Summit with France in 1998, only to fail because France remained semi-detached from NATO. NATO-EU relations have been fraught with difficulty for years, but supporters of deeper European unity will be pleased to try to make this work, and Obama still has enough credit in Europe that it just may.


And finally, relations with Russia are deemed extremely important to European stability and security, as they should be. A strong, cooperative partnership between NATO and Russia, based on respect for all the principles of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act and the 2002 Rome Declaration, best serves security in the Euro-Atlantic area. While difficult discussions over Georgia lay ahead, and undoubtedly there will be other areas where Russian and NATO interests do not align, this weekend has already been a positive restart. Obama has done enough in the short term to defuse Russian anger at the way NATO has pressured them (as they see it) over the years. Backing the good words with action will be harder, although new and deep cuts in nuclear weapons will help, as will the back-tracking on missile defence. A desire for true cooperation through the NATO-Russia Council will be vital.

There is enough of the 1999 Strategic Concept in this declaration that, if things go badly, nothing much will change. However, there is enough that is new and positive that, if things go well, NATO could be substantially reformed.

There are immense problems to be overcome. The Afghan mission is far from a guaranteed success. The scission in views of Russia between old and new NATO is very deep. The reluctance to even discuss the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy has enormous inertia that makes change very hard. These are only some of the difficulties. But in Strasbourg President Obama proved adept at negotiating the shoals of the Alliance, and this will serve NATO well over the coming year or more of negotiating a new Strategic Concept.

Arms Control and Disarmament

Communiqué language on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation is somewhat disappointing. There had been hopes that, with the Obama administration publicly committed to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that would be mentioned in the communiqué. Also, with the US and Russia issuing a joint declaration on strategic arms control this week, it would have been better had some greater detail on those issues emerged from Strasbourg.

During the Bush years, NATO's commitment to arms control and disarmament has dwindled, as the consensus rule for NATO decision-making meant that nothing opposed by the Bush administration (more or less all arms control) could be mentioned. However, the strong language on the NPT, and the promise to work constructively for the success of the 2010 NPT Review Conference gives some hope for future NATO activities in this field.

Similarly it is to be hoped that the new atmosphere of cooperation with Russia can lead to progress on restoring the CFE Treaty to full operation.

Ballistic Missile Defence

The Summit Communique has several paragraphs on missile defence. The language on the controversial proposed US mid-course ballistic missile defence deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic has softened considerably since last year. Under President Bush, the communique in Bucharest read:

We therefore recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long-range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European-based United States missile defence assets. We are exploring ways to link this capability with current NATO missile defence efforts as a way to ensure that it would be an integral part of any future NATO-wide missile defence architecture.

By contrast, the Strasbourg-Kehl communique reads:

In response to our tasking at the Bucharest Summit to develop options for a comprehensive missile defence architecture to extend coverage to all European Allied territory and populations, several technical architecture options were developed and subsequently assessed from a politico-military perspective. We recognise that additional work is still required. In this context, a future United States' contribution of important architectural elements could enhance NATO elaboration of this Alliance effort.

This is clearly a much less supportive wording, which reflects the doubts of the Obama administration about the value of deploying unproven and ineffective missile defences, doing little beyond irritating Russia. This is not least because, saying that missile defences are part of the response to missile threats places it squarely in an arms control context, and positions missile defences as something of a last resort.

This new communique is also strong on involving Russia:

We support increased missile defence cooperation between Russia and NATO, including maximum transparency and reciprocal confidence-building measures to allay any concerns.

This is something that has, up to now, been vetoed by the Czech Republic and Poland.

In short, NATO will not be endorsing a political decision to go ahead with missile defences any time soon. Those NATO members who pursued a 'delay and hope' strategy last year before the US elections have been vindicated. They pushed off a political decision until this year, hoping that President Obama would be elected, and that they would thereby be saved the need to go ahead with major BMD deployment and the confrontation with Russia that seemed inevitable.


Finally, and most importantly, the Alliance adopted a new strategy for Afghanistan. This is based on the US strategy announced earlier by President Obama and the work of the Hague meeting that preceded the Summit. And at his press conference after the Summit, the President was clearly pleased with the deal he had achieved.

We start from a simple premise: For years, our efforts in Afghanistan have lacked the resources needed to achieve our goals. And that's why the United States has recommitted itself to a clear and focused goal -- to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

This effort cannot be America's alone. All of NATO understands that al Qaeda is a threat to all of us, and that this collective security effort must achieve its goals. And as a signal of that commitment, I am pleased that our NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support for our new strategy. Keep in mind it was only just a week ago that we announced this new approach. But already with Secretary Clinton's work at The Hague and with the success at today's summit we've started to match real resources to achieve our goals.

We're leaving Strasbourg and Kehl with concrete commitments on NATO support. Our allies and partners have already agreed to provide approximately 5,000 troops and trainers to advance our new strategy, as well as increased civilian assistance. To support critical elections for August 20th, NATO will fully resource our election support force to maximize security. And our allies have committed additional funds to an Afghan elections trust fund that will provide the necessary resources for free and fair elections.

To accelerate and enhance our training of Afghan security forces, a new NATO mission, a new NATO training mission, will focus on high-level support for Afghan army, and training and mentoring for the Afghan police. And many of our allies and partners have also pledged support for a new trust fund to sustain Afghan national armies going forward.

And to strengthen Afghan institutions and advance opportunity for the Afghan people, we are working with our NATO allies and partners to achieve substantial increases in non-military assistance and to provide the kind of doctors, engineers, educators and agricultural specialists that are needed to make a difference on the ground.

NATO will, in the end, stand or fall on what it achieves in Afghanistan. Obama has managed to corral the Allies more or less into line, although there was no hiding the disappointment that more troops were not available from Europe. If things go well over the coming year, then NATO will prosper - otherwise, who knows?


NATO is entering a challenging year. The next Summit, which will meet in Portugal, will happen in late 2010 or early 2011. By then, a new Strategic Concept will be ready and we will know much more about the future shape of European security. But all in all, this was a promising beginning for President Obama. We have to hope that he can take his disarmament pledges into NATO, and downgrade the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy. We can hope he will remove nuclear weapons from Europe. If he can do that, and work with the EU to reshape Euro-Atlantic defence cooperation inside NATO, then this will have been the start of something historic. NATO could re-emerge as the primary structure for discussing security amongst Allies, something it has drifted away from. If his regional political-military strategy for Afghanistan can rescue NATO from the mess it is in, then the Alliance will have a rosy future. There is much work still to be done.

Martin Butcher

Back to the Top of the Page

© 2009 The Acronym Institute.