NATO 2018: We love nuclear weapons!

12 July 2018. NATO met. NATO communiquéd. NATO doubled down on how much it loves nuclear weapons.

Once upon a time, NATO was an alliance of democracies. Way back then, it was also a group of countries that came together for collective defence. Now NATO looks like a bunch of old white dudes freaking out about #MeToo and quickly putting retro-active non-disclosure acts in all female staff contracts. On a personal level, this is awful, but when it comes to nuclear weapons it’s got the potential for global catastrophe.

Remember, NATO has 3 countries in it with nuclear weapons- the French, the Brits and the Americans, but there’s also a bunch of Americans bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands. They call it burden sharing. Once it was described as a way to make sure that the allies dipped their hands in the blood of any use of nuclear weapons. In other words, its to make sure that if one of the guys with nukes used them, they would at least have some political cover from their buddies (or allies, as the case goes).

What did the summit say?

The summit that just happened was a lot more about nuclear weapons than the last time around. Probably because nuclear weapons are now prohibited by international treaty (the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons celebrated its birthday a few days before the summit took place). When you look at the numbers, the world “nuclear” appears in the 139 paragraph long 2016 document 28 times, whereas in the much shorter (84 paragraph long) 2018 document, the word nuclear shows up 51 times. That’s a lot of airtime given over to weapons that every member of the alliance is obligated to get rid of.

Since 2010, NATO has been calling itself a ‘nuclear alliance’, so its members don’t really like to get behind the idea that nuclear weapons are so inhumane, so indiscriminate, so bad that they should be outlawed. NATO members think they’re kind of above that, that its okay if they use nuclear weapons, just as long as no one else can. (Or, as the communique says “remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist’).

NATO & disarmament

At the same time, the alliance talks about how it’s going to disarm. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t. It talks about how it’s going “to seek a safer world for all and to take further practical steps and effective measures to create the conditions for further nuclear disarmament negotiations”. Its funny that NATO used to say it would create the conditions for nuclear disarmament, but now they only create conditions for disarmament negotiations. I’m sure that the new HQ in Brussels will help with that- there have got to be lots of fancy meeting rooms and according to the NATO SG they even serve decent breakfasts (though not everyone agreed).

Let’s delve a bit deeper into that for a second, because this Communique includes a new paragraph all about the legal obligations for nuclear disarmament.

The full paragraph reads:

  1. Fifty years since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) opened for signature, it remains the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime and has an essential role in the maintenance of international peace, security and stability. Allies are strongly committed to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. NATO’s nuclear arrangements have always been fully consistent with the NPT. Consistent with the Statement by the North Atlantic Council of 20 September 2017, which we reaffirm, NATO does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, risks undermining the NPT, is inconsistent with the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy and will not enhance any country’s security. This treaty will not change the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons. The Alliance reaffirms its resolve to seek a safer world for all and to take further practical steps and effective measures to create the conditions for further nuclear disarmament negotiations and the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons in full accordance with all provisions of the NPT, including Article VI, in an ever more effective and verifiable way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all.


Now, to parse it out.


Yes, the NPT is a cornerstone. Cornerstones are meant to be built on, and that includes when it comes to nuclear weapons (think ending testing, missile restrictions, not producing bomb grade nuclear materials, etc).

NATO nuclear arrangements and NPT consistency.

For decades, this has been an issue- because (as the summit communique states earlier) several NATO allies are involved in the possible use of nuclear weapons, and the NPT makes transferring nuclear weapons from a country that has them to a country that doesn’t illegal. So, when NATO says “NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture also relies on United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and the capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned.” It is saying that there are capabilities in those hosting countries that are necessary to the use of nuclear weapons deployed there and those countries are complicit in the case the weapons are eventually used. But, it’s not clear how, until NATO goes on to explain “National contributions of dual-capable aircraft to NATO’s nuclear deterrence mission remain central to this effort.” And clarifying for the rest of us that these countries have airplane that are going to be used to drop the American bombs. But…. But… NPT prevents transfer of weapons right? So, maybe, just maybe, an American will be riding in the nuclear bomb carrying airplane to open the hatch and drop the bombs? (Although at least the Dutch planes only have one person in the cockpit when they’re flying.)

Undermining existing disarmament and non-proliferation architecture.

The claim that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons somehow isn’t building on the cornerstone mentioned above is just…. Incredulous. It’s a UN treaty, it was adopted by 2/3 of UN members (122 when only 98 adopted the NPT). What is NATO really complaining about? Prohibiting nuclear weapons is an important contribution to the framework of international law, in particular International Humanitarian Law, which gives vital reassurance that important constraints exist on the conduct and use of force by states. This is an added value for NATO, a contribution to security of all states.

NATO will have to do a lot better at arguing against this comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities, maybe if it provided some evidence instead of reacting hysterically to the possibility it’s (supposedly) democratic membership might engage in a treaty that makes its membership responsible for victim assistance and environmental remediation of any use of nuclear weapons. The real effort to undermine the NPT and existing disarmament and non-proliferation architecture comes from those with the greatest global military superiority but somehow are still so weak they need to have nuclear weapons as well to feel safe. Inciting proliferation is the real problem here- not making weapons designed to indiscriminately destroy cities illegal.

At the end of the day

It’s important to remember that chemical weapons were once considered a viable deterrent tool as well, and times change. NATO members need to start answering for their hypocrisy and actually doing something to reduce nuclear tensions. As long as NATO and its members continue to double down on these policies, inciting proliferation, increasing the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines, and even creating new types of nuclear bombs- nuclear weapons will be used.*






* (if it’s a massive use of nuclear weapons, no one will be left to assign blame, but if one or two bombs are used, there’s going to be a shit-ton of answers demanded by the world, especially if they let those tiny hands fumble the nuclear football).