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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central and Eastern Europe, NATO Enlargement, and a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World
By Francesco Calogero


A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central and Eastern Europe (NWFZC&EE) might include the 3 Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), the 4 Visegrad States (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary), 3 ex-Soviet Republics (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), Romania and Bulgaria: resulting in a not-too-thin strip cutting across Europe all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. All these countries are now Parties to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as Non-Nuclear-Weapon States; moreover, none of them deploys now, on its territory, nuclear weapons (as long as they belonged to, and were controlled by, a Nuclear-Weapon State, this would be permitted by the NPT), nor has any desire to accept such deployments in the foreseeable future.

Hence the creation of a NWFZC&EE would merely turn a de facto situation into a de jure regime. But such a development would be important: it would positively contribute to European security, and it would properly fit into that transition towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World which is slowly but progressively taking place.

The creation of such a NWFZC&EE has been recently proposed by Belarus and by Ukraine; it is therefore "on the table." But nowadays the debate on European security is monopolized by the controversies about NATO enlargement. As a matter of fact, most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe seem interested in joining NATO. Admission into NATO of three applicants - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - was agreed in July 1997; its implementation is now conditional upon ratification by all parties involved, including all NATO countries, who will be required to extend to all new member States the principle that any aggression against any NATO member shall be deemed as directed against all members, and responded to likewise.

Logic, Risks and Politics

After the disappearance of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, it might have been natural and logical to disband NATO as well. However, in the real world of international politics, what appears natural and logical is not necessarily also feasible and practical. NATO might play a useful peacekeeping role in a variety of contexts, as recently demonstrated in the former Yugoslavia, where however this intervention succeeded only when it became possible to act in cooperation with Russia (this is an important lesson). Moreover, by providing a strong coupling between the strategic policies of Europe and America, NATO is instrumental in avoiding some dangerous trends which might develop in a more isolationist context. Finally, becoming part of NATO appears to muster ample popular support in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and this demonstrates a feeling of insecurity that it would be unwise to ignore (by NATO as well as by Russia). Hence it is probably sensible (also for Russia!) to make the best of NATO, rather than trying (most likely unsuccessfully) to do away with it. Many take a dim view at the prospect of NATO enlargement, mainly because they fear it will be perceived as a threatening move in Russia, and thereby it will reinforce anti-Western forces there, entailing several negative consequences. This concern is well justified. But under the present circumstances the controversy about NATO enlargement appears, rather than a yes/no issue, a how question.

Of course, the essential, highest priority is to preserve the main achievement of recent times: the end of the Cold War, the transformation of the relations between the "Western World" (North America, Western Europe, Japan, NATO, etc.) and Russia from antagonistic to friendly, from confrontational to cooperative. It is clearly essential for "the West" to avoid recreating an enemy out of Russia, for Russia to avoid rebuilding a new Iron Curtain.

The obvious solution is to enlarge NATO in the context of an understanding with Russia; an agreement which should eventually lead to the inclusion of Russia itself, in some form, into a NATO which would thereby be transformed, from a military alliance arrayed against a definite potential enemy (Russia), into a collective security arrangement for the Northern Hemisphere (indeed, I go as far as to envisage an eventual inclusion, in some form, of China as well, to avoid the reproduction of another Iron Curtain at the border between Russia and China). This solution (the part concerning Russia and NATO - the part concerning China is clearly only an idea for the distant future) is now the basis of an American-Russian-NATO understanding - embodied in the so called Russia-NATO Founding Act - that tries to avoid the dangerous consequences mentioned above, and aims instead at realizing an arrangement acceptable to all parties and envisaging a continuous evolution in the direction of more and more cooperation, possibly accommodating a continuing process of NATO enlargement (at least in the sense of a progressively increasing involvement by Russia).

In this context, the possible deployment of NATO (i. e., American) nuclear weapons in the territory of new NATO members is an important and difficult issue. None of the countries in question likes such a prospect, but as long as they are knocking at the door of NATO, they do not feel in the position to put any condition which might make their acceptance into NATO less likely. As for NATO, it has indeed stated that it has "no plans, no intentions and no reasons" to deploy nuclear weapons there. Yet it is unwilling to accept any obligation to this effect in the form of a binding international commitment; although NATO did accept the obligation not to station nuclear weapons in that part of Germany which was formerly East Germany - a commitment enshrined in the so called "2+4 Treaty" that opened the way to the unification of Germany.

NATO is also against the idea of a NWFZC&EE. But this is largely a gut reaction caused by the fact that the notion of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in Europe was, in the Cold War past, a prime tool of Soviet propaganda (no public opinion loves nuclear weapons - fortunately). Moreover, in the Cold War past, NATO nuclear weapons deployed in Europe played a crucial role in NATO strategy, and NATO had a hard time convincing public opinions of the soundness of such a strategy (no public opinion loves nuclear weapons - fortunately!). Hence NATO thinking became so conditioned by its own past propaganda efforts at propagating the notion that "nukes are good," to have now some difficulty in adjusting to the post-Cold-War circumstances, which suggest instead that now, also from NATO's point of view, "nukes are bad."

However - gut feelings notwithstanding - it is at least now recognized by NATO that nuclear weapons play much less of a role in its strategy than in the past. Hence a transition of NATO thinking, from opposing to supporting the establishment of a NWFZC&EE, should not be ruled out by the optimist, who believes that reason, good sense and self interest eventually prevail (especially if they all push in the same direction). Moreover, NATO should eventually learn to avoid that classic mistake of looking at any arms control development only from the point of view of the restrictions it entails for oneself, ignoring the restrictions it also entails for others. Would it not be desirable, for instance, from NATO's point of view, to have in place a binding international commitment - in the guise of a NWFZC&EE - which would exclude any redeployment of Russian "tactical" nuclear weapons on the territory, say, of Belarus (even in the case in which Russia and Belarus became federated or even united)?

In any case, it is clear that in the context of all debates on NATO enlargement, the nuclear issue is a crucial one, especially in determining the attitude of Russia to this development, and as well for its impact on all the countries potentially involved. As for the former question ("impact on thinking in Russia"): any hint at the possibility of bringing NATO's "tactical" nuclear weapons closer to the border of Russia (even if couched in the form of the benign statement that NATO has "no plans, no intentions and no reasons" to deploy any nuclear weapons there, but coupled with the refusal to undertake any binding commitment to this effect) is likely to have a negative repercussion in Russia, in the sense of reinforcing there the feelings and the political forces antagonistic to "the West," as well as the dangerous trend, already emerging there, to rely more on "tactical nukes." And for the latter question ("impact on all the countries potentially involved"): while there is widespread support in Central and Eastern Europe to join NATO, there is also strong opposition to any prospect of being forced to accept - even just in principle - the deployment of nuclear weapons. Politicians in these countries are aware of this, and are embarrassed by this situation, also due to the (outdated but still prevalent) sensitivity of NATO about nuclear weapons, which tends to make a taboo of this issue.

Incidentally, an important risk those who are in favor of NATO enlargement must seriously consider, is the possibility that, after having paid a high cost by damaging the crucial relationship between NATO and Russia (a likely result if the issue is managed with insufficient flexibility and adroitness), the outcome will be finally blocked by a decision coming from inside NATO, for instance a negative vote by the United States Senate (34 Senators are sufficient to carry a veto), or by the Parliament of some other NATO country - not to mention the possibilities that referenda be called in any one of the countries involved to allow the voters to make a direct pronouncement. A negative decision blocking suddenly the entry of new members is likely to undermine NATO and damage European security, leaving in its wake a heightened feeling of insecurity and frustration. Every effort - including in particular much wise forethought - should be applied to avoid the risk of such a politically destabilizing outcome. In this respect, it is clear that the situation would be much facilitated if nuclear weapons were taken altogether out of the picture; and the most drastic, but probably also most acceptable and reasonable way to do so, is via the institution of a NWFZC&EE (which has, incidentally, the advantage of minimizing the "singularization" of any country).


In conclusion, it seems rather clear that, from the points of view of NATO, of Russia and of the Central and Eastern European countries - also in connection with the question of NATO enlargement and how to defuse the (politically explosive) nuclear component of this issue, so that this development has a positive evolution rather than negative consequences - there might be much to gain from the early establishment of a NWFZC&EE. Not to mention the obviously positive contribution to European and world security that would ensue per se from such a development.

A separate, and also most positive, step would be the decision to complete the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Western Europe. This would make a lot of military sense: the small deployments left are a costly and dangerous nuisance. It would also establish the de facto norm that nuclear weapons are only based within nuclear-weapon countries. But this question - which would be in the nature of a unilateral American and NATO decision - should not be confused with the creation of a NWFZ in Western Europe, that entails an internationally binding commitment and - desirable as such a development would be - might be hardly feasible, as long as Great Britain and France cling to their nuclear arsenals.

These developments would contribute to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons, thereby strengthening the world-wide nuclear-weapon nonproliferation regime that has been reaffirmed recently by the indefinite extension of the NPT; a regime whose viability depends on the nuclear-weapon countries demonstrating their capability to adjust to the novel world circumstances in which nuclear weapons should only be deemed appealing by desperate terrorist groups (incidentally, this entails a threat against which the availability of nuclear weaponry provides no protection whatsoever; indeed, it only adds to the risk).

We opened this piece by outlining what the boundaries of a NWFZC&EE might be. Let us close by emphasizing that there should be maximal flexibility in this respect, both by envisaging the possible presence from the beginning of other countries besides those listed above (including even parts of Russia and of Germany, for instance the Kaliningrad enclave and the territory of the former East Germany), as well as by envisaging a regime for the NWFZC&EE which is open to participation by additional partners. Eventual candidates are, for instance, Finland and Sweden at the North, Austria at the center, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania at the South, as well as Greece and Turkey. Moreover, a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia (NWFZCA) has now been established, which includes the five ex-Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and is therefore contiguous to the envisaged NWFZCⅇ and an additional self-declared single-country NWFZ, essentially contiguous to the NWFZCA, is Mongolia.

All these developments can be interpreted as adding more and more "finite elements" to a step-by-step process whose final goal is to cover the entire globe with NWFZs. The achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World (NWFW) by such a route is an old idea (the "Swiss cheese" method): it is an approach synergistic to the realization of a NWFW via a universal convention analogous to that Chemical Weapon Convention which has recently entered into force, opening thereby the way towards the realization of a Chemical-Weapon-Free World. The prospect of achieving a NWFW is of course less imminent than the creation of a NWFZC&EE, which could and should be realized immediately. But neither is it too remote: for instance, Brazil has recently tabled at the United Nations General Assembly the proposal to turn the entire Southern Hemisphere into a NWFZ. Indeed, this half of our globe is already almost completely covered by NWFZs which are partly or completely in force.

Francesco Calogero is Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Rome I "La Sapienza", Rome, Italy. He served as Secretary General of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from January 1989 to August 1997, and serves now as Chairman of the Pugwash Council (1997-2002). The opinions expressed here are his own.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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