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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 49, August 2000

"Obligations For Us All": NATO & Negative Security Assurances
By Thomas Graham and Leonor Tomero


With the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has become the major threat to international security. Our principal line of defence against this threat is a sustained commitment by the international community to address the danger and take significant steps to support and enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The NPT embodies a fundamental bargain: the non-nuclear-weapon states agree to submit to international verification that they will never acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for a pledge from the nuclear-weapon states to work toward eliminating these weapons entirely. The negative security assurances (NSAs - the pledges by NPT nuclear-weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against NPT non-nuclear-weapon states unless attacked by such a state in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state) made in the context of the NPT regime play a central role in upholding the credibility of this bargain. As NATO continues an internal review of its nuclear doctrine, recent suggestions that the NSAs related to the NPT do not bear on NATO policy (even though three of the five states that made the negative security assurances are members of NATO) negatively impact the NPT regime. The role and implications of the negative security assurances deserve close examination in the context of the commitments of NPT parties, especially NATO states that identify nuclear proliferation as a significant threat.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy eloquently emphasized these commitments under the NPT in his address to the North Atlantic Council on May 24, 2000:

"The nuclear-weapon states made particular undertakings, but there are obligations for us all. As the world's pre-eminent security Alliance, we have a leadership role to play in realizing the promise of New York. Our on-going review of NATO's non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament policies should set our agenda for doing so… We must all make our nuclear posture in NATO coherent with our non-proliferation and disarmament posture in New York and Geneva… In the NPT and in the Conference on Disarmament, we are confronted regularly with the argument that if nuclear weapons are good for NATO, then they are good for others too. The contradiction in our declaration policy undermines the credibility of our non-proliferation and disarmament efforts."

Strengthening the NSAs represents an important and achievable step toward fulfilment of the commitments undertaken pursuant to Article VI of the NPT and, in the short term, strengthening the NPT regime. They have significant political importance in reducing the prestige value of nuclear weapons, which is an integral part of the nuclear arms control and disarmament process.

Historical Overview

In the 1960s, as the number of states possessing nuclear weapons rose to five, there were projections that 20-30 additional states would acquire nuclear weapons over the next two decades, and if such a scenario had occurred, there would have likely been many more in the following decades. As part of an effort to stem the trend toward the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons, 62 states signed the NPT on July 1, 1968, the first day the Treaty was open for signature. During the NPT negotiations, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states sought negative security assurances from the nuclear-weapon states, arguing that after all, if the non-nuclear-weapon states were to foreswear nuclear weapons, the least the nuclear weapons states could agree to was not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.1 In 1965, the United Arab Republic (UAR) rejected the idea of bilateral security guarantees, claiming that it would result in "a situation where vast areas were divided under a nuclear trusteeship of this or that Power."2 Several non-nuclear-weapon states requested that assurances or guarantees from the nuclear-weapon states accompany or be included in the emerging non-proliferation treaty. Soviet Premier Kosygin proposed (on February 1, 1966 in the Soviet draft of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) "a clause on the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear States parties to the treaty which have no nuclear weapons on their territory."3 The UAR, Mexico, Nigeria, and India (ultimately not a signatory of the NPT) supported this initiative. UAR Ambassador Khallaf submitted treaty language that incorporated Kosygin's proposal, specifying that "each nuclear-weapon state undertakes not to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state Party to this Treaty which has no nuclear weapons on its territory."4 Romania and Switzerland made similar proposals.

US President Lyndon Johnson had assured nations that did not seek nuclear weapons that they would, if the need arose, enjoy strong US support "against nuclear blackmail threat,"5 but the United States refused to accept the Soviet proposal. Canada also refused such a proposal arguing that reaching a consensus to include it in the Treaty would prove difficult, and attempting to do so would unacceptably prolong negotiations. Canadian representative Burns suggested instead that the nuclear-weapon states make parallel declarations that could include negative security assurances. More specifically he proposed that the nuclear-weapon states pledge in these declarations "not to use nuclear weapons against non-aligned non-nuclear parties."6

In the beginning of 1968, the revised draft treaty still did not include any security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon states.7 In the thirteenth session of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Commission (ENDC), certain non-nuclear-weapon states voiced their regret regarding the absence of any such assurances and the Federal Republic of Germany stated that the treaty should ban nuclear blackmail against the non-nuclear-weapon states. Romanian Ambassador Ecobesco again requested that the nuclear-weapon states include an undertaking not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.8 In March 1968, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom agreed to offer some positive security assurances.9 Such assurances generally refer to action that would be taken by the Security Council or by its permanent members to assist an NPT non-nuclear-weapon state if it was attacked or threatened with nuclear weapons. However, US Ambassador de Palma stated that the draft treaty did not include security assurances because the issue proved "too difficult and complicated to be reduced to a treaty provision."10 Thus, NATO concerns about the conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact and the credibility of the Western Alliance's "flexible response" policy, as well as the Soviet Union's reluctance to give negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states members of NATO, precluded any agreement among the nuclear-weapon states on negative security guarantees at that time.11 Only China (not a NPT party until 1992) unilaterally pledged a no first use policy.

Ten years later, in 1978, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, at the First United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, formally stated that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against an NPT non-nuclear-weapon state party unless attacked by such a state in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. Specifically, the United States pledged to "not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT or any comparable internationally binding commitment not to acquire nuclear explosive devices, except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by any state allied to a nuclear-weapon state or associated with a nuclear-weapon state in carrying out or sustaining the attack." The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union also individually pledged similar NSAs. No exception was made in the 1978 NSA declarations to allow for nuclear retaliation against (or pre-emption of) attacks involving chemical or biological weapons, or indeed any weapon except in the context of an attack in alliance with a nuclear weapons state (this exception was principally aimed at the Warsaw Pact members). China's policy of no first use, declared when it acquired nuclear weapons in 1964, represents the strongest commitment by a nuclear-weapon state not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT or any other state: it makes no exceptions and applies to all states (the declaration reads "at all times and in no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons").12

During the Cold War, mutual fear on both sides of the Iron Curtain prevented further progress in this area as the nuclear-weapon states denied repeated requests by non-nuclear-weapon states for the NSAs to be made legally-binding. The primary reason lay in distrust across the East-West divide. It was contended that non-nuclear-weapon states in the Warsaw Pact countries, as an alliance, possessed conventional superiority over NATO, and were closely allied to the Soviet Union. For its part, the Soviet Union argued that NATO stationed nuclear weapons on the national territories of its non-nuclear-weapon state members.

NSAs in the Post-Cold War World

The Warsaw Pact has now passed into history and the danger of thermonuclear war has abated. The principal threat to US and international security in this new era is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly of nuclear weapons. Fissile material may be diverted or sold illegally to states of proliferation concern or fall into the hands of terrorists. Stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons is thus a crucial priority if we are to ensure future security, build toward enhanced stability and peace and strengthen international cooperation in the post-Cold War era.

Militarily, the United States and the NATO Alliance currently maintain conventional superiority over any possible adversary. Only acquisition of nuclear weapons could threaten US or NATO military superiority on the battlefield. Threatening to use nuclear weapons against an NPT non-nuclear-weapon state party undermines the credibility of a strong US and NATO conventional deterrent, and may incite proliferation by emphasizing our sole strategic vulnerability. If US military and NATO forces need to reserve the option of threatening a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT with nuclear weapons to deter chemical or biological attacks for example, then certain NPT non-nuclear-weapon states such as Iran or Egypt, who face equally immediate (and perhaps even more proximate) chemical and biological threats, may be encouraged to adopt a similar approach by pursuing nuclear weapons.

Maintaining the option to introduce nuclear weapons first into a future conflict thus reduces US leverage to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In turn, if the United States and NATO are not able to stop nuclear proliferation and a future opponent acquires nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO would be significantly limited in what they could accomplish and where they could intervene. This political leverage remains crucial to controlling proliferation in many states. For example in 1994, the United States effectively contributed to a change in the Indian Government's plans with respect to testing a nuclear device.

The five nuclear-weapon states reaffirmed, and to a degree harmonized, their political commitments not to threaten NPT non-nuclear-weapons states parties with nuclear weapons in the context of the NPT extension in 1995, and in effect when signing the relevant protocols to the African, South Pacific, and Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) Treaties. The protocols to these NWFZ Treaties strengthen the NSAs as they require the nuclear weapons states (they have all signed the relevant protocols) not only to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons against the states parties to the NWFZ Treaties, but also from the threat of use of nuclear weapons. In accordance with the original 1978 NSAs, the United States maintained the only exception that this assurance would be invalidated if such a state attacks the United States in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.

Moreover, as reaffirmed and harmonized by 1995 NSA statements by the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France, and joined with China's no first use doctrine, the NSA regime is an integral part of the political basis on which the NPT was indefinitely extended. As the NPT came under scrutiny in preparation for the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, Indonesia, acting on behalf of the NAM, requested at the Third NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting that the NSAs be made universal, unconditional, and legally-binding. While the nuclear-weapon states did not comply with this request, a reaffirmation of the NSAs by the five nuclear-weapon states became a politically necessary minimum for securing the indefinite extension of the NPT without conditions. US Vice-President Al Gore explained the significance of updating and reaffirming the NSAs in the context of making the NPT permanent:

"[T]he fourth argument made against the indefinite extension of the Treaty is that the Treaty exposes non-nuclear states to the risk of intimidation by nuclear-weapon states…Since the nuclear-weapon states clearly understand that damaging the NPT also damages their security, they have strong motives to refrain from nuclear threats, and instead to provide credible assurances designed to allay the concerns of others. That is why…President Clinton issued a declaration providing robust positive and negative security assurances. Each of the four nuclear-weapon states has provided parallel statements."13

The five nuclear-weapon states thus reaffirmed to the then-173 NPT non-nuclear-weapon states parties that the five would not use their nuclear weapons against states parties to the NPT who were renouncing forever the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The NSAs thereby became intrinsic to the NPT as its basic bargain was reinforced. Again, as in 1978, no exception was made for chemical and biological weapons. These NSA pledges are referenced in UN Security Council Resolution 984 (1995). Without this renewed commitment, the NPT likely would not have been extended indefinitely. The NSAs thus represent a crucial element of the NPT regime and a primary factor in the decision of prominent NPT non-nuclear-weapon states parties, including leaders of the NAM, not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Wavering on the NSAs?

Certain US statements and NATO proclamations regarding nuclear weapons use policy made in recent years appear to be potentially inconsistent with the NSAs and thus to an extent undermine these commitments. In December 1997 President Clinton issued Presidential Directive (PDD) 60 which may preserve the option of US retaliation with nuclear weapons against an attack involving chemical or biological weapons.14 US Defence Secretary Cohen also reaffirmed this position when he rejected the German proposal in late 1998 that NATO adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons in future conflicts. In this context, Secretary Cohen claimed that "the ambiguity involved in the issue of the use of nuclear weapons contributes to our own security, keeping any potential adversary who might use either chemical or biological [weapons] unsure of what our response would be."15 In addition, the US Administration declared upon signing the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (ANWFZ, or Pelindaba, Treaty) protocols that Protocol I of the Treaty "will not limit options available to the United States in response to an attack by an ANFZ party using weapons of mass destruction."16 The Administration argued that in the event of a NWFZ member state (such as Libya) attacking the United States with chemical or biological weapons, the United States could invoke the long-standing international law doctrine of belligerent reprisal. This doctrine holds that if a state is attacked by another state in violation of international law, and an attack with chemical or biological weapons would violate the Geneva Protocol which is considered part of customary international law binding on all states, the state attacked is freed from all international commitments with regard to the attacking state, and therefore has the option to respond with whatever weapons it may choose, including nuclear weapons. However, the response must be proportionate and necessary to stop any further attack; thus, it is unlikely that a response with nuclear weapons would ever be justified by this doctrine (except perhaps in the unlikely case of a strategic biological weapon attack on a major city, which left hundreds of thousands dead).

NATO retains the option to use nuclear weapons first in future conflicts as part of its deterrence posture, despite NSA commitments by the three NATO nuclear-weapon states. For the Alliance, nuclear weapons are still considered essential to preserving peace in the post-Cold War world.17 Moreover, it has allegedly reaffirmed its right to use nuclear weapons in retaliation against a chemical or biological attack in the classified document MC 400/2, setting out NATO's new military doctrine.18

These statements undermine general US (and French and British) commitments for the past 22 years - re-affirmed in 1995 - that nuclear weapons will not be used (or threatened in NWFZ Treaties) against NPT non-nuclear-weapon states. Undermining this pledge erodes the credibility of the nuclear-weapon states and weakens the NPT regime. In this context, making NSAs legally-binding would be a significant step toward strengthening the NPT regime.

The NPT 2000 Review Conference

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, certain leading non-nuclear-weapon states parties, such as the NAM led by Indonesia, and Mexico, which was speaking on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden), again raised their concern that the NSA commitments were not being taken seriously by the nuclear-weapon states.19 As a result, Egypt renewed its demand that the NSAs be made legally-binding.20 Canada also supported this initiative.21 This issue was of particular importance during the Conference as many states parties questioned the continued viability of the NPT regime in the context of renewed efforts by the United States to pursue a national missile defence program that might lead to a renewed nuclear arms race and the US Senate rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) last fall.22 It is notable that for the first time in this context, many NATO non-nuclear-weapon states appeared to publicly lend their support to the request by the NAM states for legally-binding negative security assurances. Together, Germany, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium proposed language to bridge the differences between the nuclear-weapon states and the NAM. The Conference thus agreed that:

"[L]egally-binding security assurances by the five nuclear-weapon states to the non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons would strengthen the non-proliferation regime. The Conference calls on the Preparatory Committee to make recommendations to the 2005 Review Conference on this issue."23

Conclusion: Next Steps

Making NSAs legally-binding, for example as a protocol to be attached to the NPT, would be an important step forward, responding effectively to repeated calls for such a move from many non-nuclear-weapon states parties. Such positive actions are urgently needed, as tensions between the nuclear-weapon states and the non-nuclear-weapon states have grown somewhat since 1996. Furthermore, strengthening the NSAs would demonstrate a significant commitment by the United States to the multilateral effort to stem nuclear proliferation, at a time when many states, including allies, are becoming concerned that the US is shifting toward unilateralism and retreating from international commitments, a development that could spell disaster for the NPT. Since CTBT ratification and national missile defence issues have become politicised in the United States, especially in the run-up to the Presidential elections, these problems are more difficult to resolve in the short-term. In comparison, legally-binding NSAs offer a low-profile option to shore up the potential erosion of international confidence in this NPT regime.

Legally-binding NSAs would also reaffirm and clarify the US NSA commitment not to retaliate against non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear weapons in the case of a chemical or biological attack, in the face of repeated statements to the contrary. Strengthening the NSAs would contribute to decreasing the incentives for certain states to potentially opt for the acquisition of nuclear weapons in response to the continued high political prestige value of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the United States and NATO are known to be capable of exercising a devastating conventional retaliation in response to any future CBW attack, thus maintaining a strong deterrent against any such attacks.

In the context of the NATO Review, a majority of Alliance members likely would not oppose - and many would actively advocate - a policy of not introducing nuclear weapons into future conflicts, a reform currently strongly opposed by the United States. Remedying the inherent contradiction between the Alliance's current policy of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first and the NATO nuclear-weapon states' NSA pledges should be a principal objective of the Review. At a minimum, NATO should pledge not to use nuclear weapons against NPT non-nuclear-weapon states, thereby bringing its stated policy in line with the NPT states parties' commitment under the Treaty.

These steps would contribute to reducing the role of nuclear weapons to that of core deterrence - deterring only the use of other nuclear weapons - and thereby lowering the political prestige value of nuclear weapons. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, as threats to US and international security have evolved, reducing the political prestige value of nuclear weapons would have important implications for discouraging other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. This in turn would strengthen the NPT regime, while preserving US and NATO military superiority and concomitant ability to help ensure future peace and stability. The NPT regime stands as our first line of defence. Strengthening this regime is an essential part of working to preserve US, Allied and world security for the coming decades.

Notes and References

1. On March 9, 1967, the Nigerian representative argued before the ENDC that it would be unfair to ask any responsible government to adhere to a NPT without guarantees. The Brazilian delegate added that non-nuclear-weapon states signatories to the NPT would be surrendering "the most important means they might otherwise have at their disposal to counter possible aggression." See International Negotiations of the NPT, ACDA (US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), p73.

2. Statement by the UAR representative in the UN First Committee, see International Negotiations of the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, publication 48, January 1969, p26.

3. International Negotiations on the NPT, ACDA, p42.

4. Ibid., p89.

5. Ibid., p73.

6. Ibid., p89-90.

7. Ibid., ,p112.

8. Ibid., p112.

9. For more detail, see Tripartite Proposal on Security Assurances, March 7, 1968, ibid. p112.

10. Ibid., p112.

11. George Bunn, "Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear-weapon states," The Nonproliferation Review, The Monterey Institute of International Studies, Fall 1994, Volume 2, Number 1.

12. Ralph Clough, A Doak Barnett, Morton H. Halperin, Jerome H. Kahan with Alton H. Quanbeck and Barry Blechman, The United States, China, and Arms Control, Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1975, p91-92.

13. Statement by US Vice-President Al Gore at the NPT Review Conference, April 19, 1995.

14. "Clinton Decides US Could Go Nuclear Against Chemical, Biological Attackers," Associated Press, December 7, 1997.

15. Dana Priest and Walter Pincus, "US Rejects 'No First Use' Atomic Policy; NATO Needs Strategic Option, Germany Told," The Washington Post, November 24, 1998, pA24.

16. Statement by Bob Bell, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Defence Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council (NSC), made at a White House press briefing, April 11, 1996.

17. See paragraph 46 of the Alliance's Strategic Concept, approved at the Washington Summit, April 23-24, 1999.

18. See Luke Hill, "NATO Military Doctrine Sets Goals for Force Structure," Defence News, June 12, 2000.

19. See Senator Doug Roche, An Unequivocal Landmark: The 2000 Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, p26, available online at www.ploughshares.ca/index.html

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. US failure to ratify the CTBT came as a striking disappointment as it ran contrary to the agreed Statement of Principles and Objectives negotiated in 1995 as part of the effort to achieve the indefinite extension of the NPT.

23. Senator Doug Roche, op.cit.

Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. is President of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS). From 1994-1997, he served as President Clinton's Special Representative for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation, and Disarmament, and led the US Delegation to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Leonor Tomero was the LAWS Program Director for Western Europe and Latin America. She has recently left LAWS to pursue law studies.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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