NATO: Increasing the role of nuclear weapons

The Heads of State and Government that participated in the NATO summit in Warsaw Poland on 8-9 July 2016 issued a series of documents and statements, including a Summit Communiqué and the Warsaw Declaration on Transatlantic Security. Whereas the majority of countries worldwide are ready to end the danger posed by nuclear weapons and to start negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons, both NATO documents reaffirmed the NATO commitment to nuclear weapons, and the Communiqué included a return to cold war style language on nuclear sharing.

Setting a bad example: NATO weakens commitment to nuclear disarmament

The summit documents weaken previously agreed language on seeking a world without nuclear weapons by tacking on additional conditions. Instead of simply saying that NATO is seeking to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, now NATO is seeking to create the conditions “in full accordance with the NPT, including Article VI, in a step-by-step and verifiable way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” Not only that, but instead of creating conditions for further reductions, now the alliance only remains “committed to contribute to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future on the basis of reciprocity” (emphasis added).

NATO member states needs to address the inherent proliferation push that results from their own refusal to end their reliance on nuclear weapons. With three nuclear armed member states, five states hosting US nuclear weapons, at least 15 states actively involved in NATO exercises practicing nuclear attacks, and a consensus document reemphasising the intention to keep the ability to threaten others with nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons exist – NATO continues to set a bad example.

Tightening the nuclear noose on the host states

The last several summits, since about 2010, had effectively removed language that explicitly linked the concept of ‘burden sharing’ with nuclear weapons, and had no direct reference to the forward deployed US nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. This document however adds new language and says:

NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture also relies, in part, on United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and on capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned. These Allies will ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective. That requires sustained leadership focus and institutional excellence for the nuclear deterrence mission and planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements.

This puts pressure on NATO members not only to make sure that they’re meeting the agreed target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, but also to make sure that they remain actively ready to participate in decisions to use nuclear weapons. By agreeing to this language, NATO heads of state and government have acknowledged that they are not acting in good faith towards a nuclear weapons free world, but instead will invest significantly in this weapon of mass destruction. It also means that despite efforts by several host countries, there is less scope for an alliance wide decision to remove the US nuclear weapons from Europe. This is not surprising though, the removal of forward deployed nuclear weapons has happened in the past, with host countries asking forgiveness for changing the posture, instead of permission to do so beforehand.  The fact that this escalatory language was agreed at the highest level by NATO members shows that there is significantly less interest in taking any disarmament or non-proliferation responsibility at this time, reaffirmed by the Communiqué itself which says “We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favourable today”.

Leaving it up to Russia to make the next nuclear move

Through the repeated emphasis throughout the documents on reciprocity, NATO almost looks as if it is handing over decision making power over its nuclear weapons future to the Russian Federation, instead of leading the way towards de-escalation. For an alliance responsible for 60% of global defense spending, this relinquishing of control is plain peculiar. The document suggests that any future reductions are dependant on reciprocal action by the Russian Federation. Even the issue of transparency, a priority issue for a number of host countries (particularly the Netherlands & Germany,) is now contingent on reciprocal action by the Russian Federation.

And then there’s Turkey

The recent coup attempt in Turkey brings additional, and clearly unanticipated, concerns to the continued nuclear sharing practices in the alliance. Turkey has a slightly different situation than the other host countries. Turkey hosts the most American bombs (about 50) of the approximately 180 in Europe, but Turkish planes are not currently certified to drop the bombs in the same way the others are. Instead, use of nuclear weapons from Incirlik (the Turkish base where they are stored) would be done by US pilots. Currently, US (and German) pilots are stationed there, as Incirlik is used to fly (non nuclear) bombing missions over Syria. The chances that the nuclear weapons on the base could be stolen or used is slim, but it is not zero.

Opportunities for disarmament in times of tensions: the humanitarian initiative

In the last three years, nearly all NATO members (the exception being France) have participated in at least one of the conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. These conferences have reaffirmed that nuclear weapons are unique, and that there is no way to adequately prepare for or mitigate the consequences of their use. While the majority of state have seen this as an impetus to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate the weapons, the small group of NATO states have instead chosen to ramp up the rhetoric on nuclear weapons instead, saying:

If the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened however, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that an adversary could hope to achieve.

NATO continues to say that its deterrence is based on a mix of nuclear and conventional forces, but this language boldly returns to cold war style rhetoric, and increases the ongoing escalation that is leading to a new nuclear arms race.

While the majority of the world recognizes that nuclear weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances the minority – those within NATO and Russia- are increasing the possibility of use. It is important to remember that all significant nuclear weapons treaties that are currently in force were negotiated during the Cold War. The increased perception of threat inspired creative action by those not engaged in the conflict, resulting in multilateral agreements with positive global ramifications. Multilateral negotiations on nuclear weapons have not progressed during decades of reduced great power tension leaving one to wonder if the rising threats now are the incentive needed to galvanize the international community to finally negotiate the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Without clear milestones, timelines, and consequences there is no incentive for progress on nuclear disarmament or penalty for failure to disarm. This shows how the step-by-step approach advocated by NATO members has effectively become a delaying tactic. A nuclear ban treaty would eliminate the distinction between recognised nuclear weapon states and nuclear armed states, and put the focus on the illegality of the weapons, regardless of who possesses them. This would facilitate the delegitimizing of the weapon, and provide the legal underpinning to complete all of the ‘steps’ necessary to achieve and maintain a nuclear weapons free world.

In the past we’ve seen that rising tensions can force countries to reconsider the role of nuclear weapons. Most of the major disarmament and nonproliferation treaties were negotiated in times of heightened tensions: The Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the NPT (1970), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) and bilateral treaties such as the SALT and first START agreement. It is in those moments that governments seem to most aware of the insane dangers posed by the continued possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons by some states. The idea of the NPT, the cornerstone of multilateral nuclear weapons disarmament was introduced by Ireland, a small non-aligned country that changed the world for the better. NATO has never been a leader when it comes to international law or international humanitarian law, but it always manages to adapt to whatever the rest of the world decides. Although these nuclear weapons addicted NATO states are not likely to join negotiations on a new treaty in a positive and cooperative manner, as the global context is changed through new multilateral negotiations to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, all NATO heads of state (and the democratic countries they represent) will take notice and find ways to embrace the change, as they always do.