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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 84, Spring 2007

NATO, Riga and Beyond

Martin Butcher

In November 2006, the Heads of State and Government of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) met in Riga, Latvia, with the ostensible purpose of plotting out a future course for the Alliance. The truth is that the Riga Summit was an exercise in papering over cracks, much more than it was ever a serious effort to decide on the future membership and core purposes of the Alliance at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, only months later, NATO members find themselves obliged to begin rethinking the future of the Alliance all over again.

Defining a new role for NATO encompasses an extremely difficult series of questions, at a time when the Alliance is already deeply engaged in day-to-day management of a volatile security situation in Afghanistan, as well as a range of other security challenges. Senior staff at NATO Headquarters in Brussels have long recognised that the Alliance has to be capable of carrying out ongoing operations while simultaneously managing a changing role, or it will struggle to retain its relevance in the global security context. Though some members are clearly thinking these issues through, there appears to be no clear vision for the future around which member states can coalesce.

Despite this lack of a common vision, and the existence of some sharp disagreements between member states, the future of NATO is being debated on at least two levels: the pragmatic and the conceptual. On the pragmatic level, NATO civilian and military leaders struggle with current crises and the role that NATO should play, as well as trying to reconcile these activities with NATO's stated purpose. On the conceptual level, a smaller number within the Alliance are struggling with its very identity - who should be in NATO, how can NATO relate to non-member associated states, what is the core purpose for the Alliance? These debates preceded the Summit, but they actually influenced its business very little.

The task for Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer now is to fashion the Riga elements into a coherent whole that will carve out a relevant role for NATO by its 60th anniversary summit in 2009. Along the way, NATO will hold an intermediate summit in 2008, which will need to move the Alliance forward substantively. Indeed, it appears that there is an enormous amount of work to be done if NATO is to be truly transformed as de Hoop Scheffer said, on the basis of "lessons of 21st century security".

Already it is apparent that NATO has moved beyond Riga. The thinking amongst some member states and in the international staff is focussing on the key questions and challenges. Whether NATO will face these forthcoming summits with confidence - or somewhat sheepishly, as in Riga - will depend a great deal on how well the Alliance has managed the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan, and the extent to which it is able to redefine itself to meet new challenges in the years ahead.

What NATO Did in Riga

The business of the Riga Summit was largely overshadowed by events in Afghanistan. Whilst publicly confident of success, everyone that Disarmament Diplomacy spoke to during the Summit recognised the challenges that the Alliance faces: NATO simply cannot afford to fail with ISAF if it is to have any future credibility as a military alliance, particularly in its ambition to be an exporter of security and stability. This view has been reinforced as Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 that "success in Afghanistan is, of course, of key importance for the positive answer to the question - can the Alliance deliver?"[1]

So the real business of the Summit focussed on lifting caveats and improving the management of ISAF. The latest expression of this need to succeed is the publicly-proclaimed ambition of Alliance leaders that Spring 2007 should herald a NATO offensive across Afghanistan (thereby precluding the anticipated Taliban offensive). Of course, the fact that NATO needs to carry out an offensive at all merely highlights the difficult situation in which the Alliance finds itself there.

In Riga, NATO leaders were able to do little more than find ways conceal their differences over the use of national troop contingents in ISAF. NATO now claims that the ISAF Commander has full command over 26,000 of the 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. According to sources present at the Summit dinner where this item was discussed, General James L. Jones, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR), told those present that lack of combat troops and restrictions on where they can be deployed, was not the problem. For the military, the problems lie rather in a lack of adequate helicopters and military intelligence to support airlift and on-the-ground operations.

Jones also highlighted failings in the non-NATO police training and drug interdiction missions. NATO spokespeople said that as a result of the Riga discussions, troop contingents would be able to respond to an emergency and be sent anywhere in the country, even into combat. However, military sources told reporters at the Summit that this had always been the case, that nothing has changed - and added that it would be a strange alliance where one country's soldiers refused to support their allies in an emergency.

In February 2007, little more than two months out from Riga, NATO found a need to host an informal Defence Ministers meeting in Seville to deal again with the unresolved problems that were debated at Riga. A contributory, and seemingly intractable, problem is the rise in drug production, now accounting for around $3bn or half the Afghan economy. This is fast becoming the greatest problem for NATO. This drug money funds the Taliban and other regional warlords who oppose the central government. And yet, as its representatives keep reconfirming, NATO has accepted no mandate to deal with drug production and will not take a lead in drug eradication or interdiction. The Alliance will merely continue to offer support to Afghan government anti-narcotics activities when asked to do so. Meanwhile, responding to the lack of Alliance solidarity, the UK has found it necessary to add over 1000 more troops to its force in Helmand province.

Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG)

At Riga, NATO Heads of State and Government approved and published the so-called Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG) that had been agreed by Defence Ministers in June 2006. The CPG is short, bland and self-contradictory. For example, it identifies the two greatest threats to NATO as terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), whilst simultaneously reaffirming the 1999 Strategic Concept as "remaining valid" despite the fact that it barely mentioned these threats.

The CPG states: "Collective defence will remain the core purpose of the Alliance", but it moves on quickly to describe potential NATO contributions to conflict prevention and crisis management. Much of the text is devoted to creating the planning and management processes and mechanisms that will allow the Alliance to carry out missions like that in Afghanistan, which the Summit Declaration described as NATO's "top priority".

While the CPG purports to provide guidance for the next ten to fifteen years, many commentators regard it as little more than a stop-gap. The Secretary-General reinforced this view by suggesting at Riga that he expected a new Strategic Concept to be debated and agreed by 2008. Later, at the Munich Security Conference, he again voiced his opinion that NATO's leaders "should endorse a new strategic concept" based in "lessons of 21st century security" learned in Kosovo and Afghanistan. These lessons, de Hoop Scheffer told his audience, "need to be enshrined in our guiding documents" so they can be fully implemented in future operations.[2]

Missile defence plans shake Alliance unity

Missile defence remains an issue with which NATO is still grappling, a decade after first agreeing to cooperate on developing theatre and regional missile defences. NATO did confirm at Riga its decision earlier this year to move ahead with a NATO-wide Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) system, intended to put an operational system in place by 2012 to protect against short range missile threats. At the same time, Alliance unity is being threatened by the Bush administration's push to have NATO members in Eastern Europe participate in its controversial strategic missile defence programme, giving rise to anxiety in Russia that could destabilise European security.[3]

The development of the ALTBMD system was agreed by NATO members in large part because it is limited. NATO members are deeply divided about the multi-tiered BMD architecture promoted by the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA). Though Britain has already agreed to upgrade the radar and tracking station at Fylingdales (due to become operational by the end of 2007), the major focus of concern is Washington's plans to establish a launch base for missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and a further X-band radar facility in Poland. Russia's reaction was immediate and hostile: perceiving any establishment of US bases and missile silos so close to its borders as a provocation and security threat, Moscow threatened to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and redeploy SS20-type missiles again if Poland and the Czech Republic agree to host the US bases. Some NATO leaders are also concerned that opposition to having new US bases and BMD facilities in these countries could spill over and fuel wider European hostility to NATO as a whole.

Previously, such a matter would have been regarded as a collective defence issue and raised in a formal NATO context. However, the Bush administration's preference for picking its own partners for ad hoc cooperation means these discussions have been taking place bilaterally, outside Alliance frameworks, despite their likely profound impact on European security. A number of NATO sources have commented on the long term corrosive effect on Alliance solidarity of pursuing projects like this outside NATO. Moreover, the apparent lack of US commitment to the formal structures of the Alliance is informing views at NATO HQ on the missions that NATO should centre itself around in future years.

The BMD issue therefore poses another challenge to NATO and makes it all the more urgent that the Alliance come to grips once again with nuclear arms control and disarmament. It also highlights the positive effect that the Alliance has had in the past in constraining US actions in Europe.

Wider Cooperation

A number of other issues in the Summit Declaration may provide significant pointers on the future direction of the Alliance, though they are of limited immediate importance. These include an initiative to provide for enhanced cooperation with the NATO "contact" countries, Japan, New Zealand and Australia; and a training initiative with Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan. This cooperative venture will initially be hosted for officers at the NATO Defence College in Rome, but may later be extended to the establishment of a training centre in the region itself.

Senior NATO staff have tended to highlight this project as evidence of NATO's forward thinking and its desire to avoid becoming party to 'clash of civilizations' thinking, even as NATO moves to take on counter terrorism missions. NATO also declared its 25,000-strong NATO Response Force (NRF) operational during the Summit. This standing force is intended to provide options for NATO commanders to undertake rapid deployment missions in a 5-30 day timeframe. There remain however, deep divisions about the uses to which this force might be put. Though these issues were low profile in Riga, if some influential figures at NATO HQ get their way, they could be resolved in ways that would truly transform the Alliance.

The need to rewrite the Strategic Concept

As stated in the 1999 Strategic Concept, "NATO's essential and enduring purpose, set out in the Washington Treaty, is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means." The previous rewrites of the Strategic Concept in the post-cold-war rewrites have so far represented incremental change, rather than any kind of wholesale adaptation to a transformed security environment. The end of the Warsaw Pact and then the fall of the Soviet Union brought about the reduction and then disappearance of the major military threat to NATO, as recognised in the subsequent versions of the Strategic Concept. However, even in the 1999 Strategic Concept, territorial defence of NATO member states - the Article V mission - remained the paramount underpinning of NATO's purpose.

Even then, however, there was evidence that the concept of 'territorial defence' was being redefined. In 1999, at a time when NATO was engaged in a war with Serbia over Kosovo, and a long-standing peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, the Alliance noted that, "[t]he achievement of this aim can be put at risk by crisis and conflict affecting the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. The Alliance therefore not only ensures the defence of its members but contributes to peace and stability in this region."[4] There was at that time no consensus for a NATO role further abroad - something that was to change in the wake of the attacks of 9/11.

As debate begins on a new Strategic Concept, the first area of rethinking is at the conceptual level, trying to provide an intellectual basis for future alliance roles and missions. Some NATO officials are challenging the centrality of Article V missions to NATO's identity, questioning whether Article V is still important to the Alliance and offering completely new interpretations of what it is about. Such officials posit a world where the threat of massive conventional and nuclear attack has gone, and there is no sign that any enemy could emerge that would come close to matching the former Soviet threat. In this model, if NATO has an Article V mission it is against far more diffuse threats: counterterrorism (including defending against the threat of terrorists armed with nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapons); missile defence; managing the destabilising effects of migration; and even guaranteeing energy security and filling a role in counter-narcotics operations.

An Expeditionary Alliance?

Some believe that NATO's main role in future will be as an organiser of voluntary missions beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. As President Bush told an audience in Riga last November, "Today, the Soviet threat is gone. And under the able leadership of the Secretary-General, NATO is transforming from a static alliance focussed on the defence of Europe, into an expeditionary alliance ready to deploy outside of Europe in the defence of freedom. This is a vital mission."[5]

NATO in Afghanistan (and in a smaller way in Darfur) is engaged in such missions. NATO officials defend these engagements as important to global security and emphasise their contribution to the security of the Euro-Atlantic region through their contribution to undermining the base for al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations who may seek to attack Alliance members. The fact that there is still a need to defend such missions shows the reluctance with which some NATO members allowed ISAF to go forward, and illustrates their doubts about involving NATO in such missions in future.

Exporting Security and Democracy?

Some senior officials have talked about NATO becoming part of a web of international organisations, where the European Union (EU), the World Bank, the UN and others all have important roles to play in stabilising critical security situations, such as Afghanistan. NATO would provide the military component of an overall task force, but could not operate alone. As the Secretary-General said in Munich, "Our security is not just military. NATO must be fully integrated into the emerging network of international institutions and I was very happy with the speech made by Chancellor Merkel this morning because this was one of her key themes. A NATO fully integrated in the network of international institutions. That means a more structured relationship with the United Nations and ... a true strategic partnership with the European Union."[6]

NATO staffers point to Bosnia and Afghanistan as examples of such missions, and say that things can be done better in the future. NATO will, in this view, work with global partners on a range of missions. De Hoop Scheffer puts it thus "Partnership, ladies and gentlemen, is a force multiplier. We must and will be working with nations from across the world to share our security burdens."[7]

Maintaining Article V

The role and maintenance of Article V is controversial. France, for example, would like to see the EU take on more of the new missions, confining NATO to a more limited role. The US Ambassador to NATO, Victoria Nuland, provided insight into the US position in a recent interview on the BBC World Hardtalk programme:

"BBC: What the Europeans fear is that the United States wants to turn NATO into an instrument of US foreign policy... Amb. Nuland:...What we are saying about today's NATO and today's security environment is if we want to be safe at home, if we want our values and the freedoms that we enjoy to be protected, we've got to go out there where the challenges are. BBC: The French Defence Secretary Michele Alliot-Marie says the new global role that America seems to envisage will dilute the natural solidarity between Europeans and North Americans.. Amb. Nuland: ...I do think that the consensus within the alliance that our values are under threat and our security is under threat, less at home and more out there, is growing. Therefore, we need to be where the challenges are or they will come to us."[8]

It is not only nations from "old Europe" that are questioning the US agenda. Welcoming NATO to Riga, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga, said last November that "[w]e truly are pleased to be now part of that family of secure nations who have entered into an agreement of solidarity, of mutual support, to ensure their security and their sovereignty and their territorial integrity."[9] This is a typical view amongst new NATO members, who are still inclined to look nervously at Russia, concerned by the possibility of its military resurgence. Even Germany, under a conservative government, appears more hesitant about full involvement in far-flung missions; hence Berlin's decision to approve troops for Afghanistan only in a peace-keeping role, maintaining its refusal to participate in direct combat. The UK has provoked scepticism by trying to square the circle for all sides: the government tells the British Parliament in December 2006 that there are no conventional threats to the UK or NATO and they foresee none arising; it participates fully in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan under the US banner of waging war on terrorism (and tries to persuade other NATO countries to contribute more as well); it is keen to provide the US with facilities for missile defence; and it justifies extending Trident for another 30 years in part for the defence of Europe.

Resolving the practical questions that the Alliance faces in Afghanistan and elsewhere could help point the way to future adaptations of the Strategic Concept, and thus to the future direction of NATO. For example, France wishes the NATO Response Force to operate only in extremis, when NATO must force entry to a country to carry out a mission for example, and also to operate only as a 25,000-strong unit. Others would like to see the NRF available in smaller battle groups, and on an ad hoc basis for different kinds of missions. This would allow the force to be used to reinforce British and Canadian forces in Helmand province, for example, providing NATO rather than national leadership for these troops. This model of NATO command worked in the face of the Soviet threat during the Cold War, but it is intensely controversial for voluntary missions now.

The Nuclear Weapons Conundrum

There is one major difficulty that NATO must overcome if it is to transform itself beyond the cold war: namely, the continuing role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy, and the impediment this poses to nonproliferation and arms control.

There has been no serious debate on the role of nuclear weapons in NATO since the withdrawal of thousands of US nuclear weapons at the end of the cold war. It is estimated that around 480 US nuclear weapons are based in six European countries, with some 200 free fall bombs directly assigned to NATO. These are for use not only of the United States, but of NATO nations in wartime. Additionally, Britain and the United States integrate their Trident nuclear forces with NATO.

The Alliance states a need to "conduct operations taking account of the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction" and to defend "NATO deployed forces" against WMD with missile defences. This approach is straight from the US National Security Strategy, and from the Pentagon's paper Joint Doctrine for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction.[10] Regarding diplomacy as a weak tool for dealing with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons threats, the Bush administration has promoted the use of military force for counterproliferation purposes. As a consequence, traditional expressions of support for arms control and multilateral nonproliferation measures have been downgraded or removed from NATO communiqués in recent years. For example, European nations, who by and large remain more convinced of the effectiveness of arms control for threat reduction, failed to insert any language whatsoever concerning threat reduction and diplomacy into the Comprehensive Political Guidance at Riga.

This may be beginning to change, as cracks are appearing in the Alliance show of solidarity on this issue. German and Norwegian government ideas on nuclear arms control and reductions, set out in their joint article on November 11 in the Frankfurter Rundschau may once again be pressed with more vigour. In this, the two governments underline the vital importance of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to European and global security, and then outline a number of steps that nuclear states should take to strengthen the treaty regime, including urgent ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), renewal of the START I accord or its replacement with a similar agreement when it expires in 2009, and finally, and most importantly in the NATO context, beginning arms control steps for non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Sources from both countries have indicated that they are looking for ways to advance concrete proposals based on the article. While the Social Democrats and Greens have traditionally been opposed to nuclear weapons, it appears that the German Christian Democrats are also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the basing of unpopular US nuclear weapons in areas of Germany that vote predominantly for them. (Norway has refused to allow US bases on its soil in peacetime.)

The influential Wall Street Journal op-ed from Henry Kissinger, George Schultz in January argued that US national security now requires that its nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Europe as part of a renewed commitment to nuclear arms control, leading to nuclear disarmament.[11] The alternative is that worsening nuclear proliferation will see the United States (and indeed NATO) increasingly unable to act in an ever more dangerous world.

NATO nuclear weapons also make it harder for nations outside Europe to accept NATO expeditionary missions as compatible with a framework of 'responsibility to protect' and global security. And the retention by NATO of nuclear weapons is a stumbling block to pursuing threat reduction through arms control and nonproliferation - an approach which most NATO members have endorsed through the European Union's non-proliferation strategy and Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The development of new generations of nuclear weapons by the US, UK and France only add to a perception that NATO's stance on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is at best hypocritical, and at worst self-defeating.

Significantly, NATO still maintains its cold war programme of nuclear sharing, under which military forces of nominally non-nuclear states are trained in the use of nuclear weapons. In addition to Britain, the United States maintains stocks of nuclear weapons in five non-nuclear countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. (It is understood that US nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from Greek territory, and it is unclear whether Greece continues to participate in this programme or not. The Greek airbase at Araxos is still capable of hosting nuclear weapons.)

The consequence of these nuclear deployments in non-nuclear countries is that in the event of 'general war' involving NATO, these countries would in effect become nuclear armed states, notwithstanding their non-nuclear status under the NPT. This arrangement was conceived in the 1960s to contain proliferation, but is now counterproductive. Though unlikely, it could conceivably even be used as an excuse by China, Russia, Pakistan or any other nuclear-armed nation to establish a similar arrangement with their own allies or neighbours.

Senior NATO sources have affirmed that, while ideas such as those put forward publicly by Germany and Norway were not discussed at the Riga Summit, they would have to be in the future. During and after Riga, sources told Disarmament Diplomacy that while the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan had brushed aside more traditional Alliance debates on nuclear weapons, if NATO wished to be a serious security player in the future, it needed to build on its strengths and once again deal with nonproliferation and arms control in formal NATO settings.

A narrow window of opportunity may now be opening to build security through nuclear threat reduction. If the United States carries through its policy of deploying missile defence interceptors in Europe, then (as noted above) Russia has threatened to withdraw from the INF treaty. If they do so, and follow this with a redeployment of nuclear missiles like the SS-20s of the 1980s, with a range appropriate for NATO targets, this would be a major set-back, severely compromising European and international stability and security. Under such circumstances, non-strategic nuclear arms control would be put even further out of reach. Such developments would once again face Europe with a nuclear threat we all believed had been negotiated away once and for all.


NATO needs to have some serious and difficult debates about its future over the next three years. Alliance solidarity has been slowly eroding and some of its leaders recognise the need to rebuild collective approaches and reshape NATO to fulfil a different role, as required in the new security environment. NATO must find a way to bring greater stability to Afghanistan, and extract itself from Kosovo, while using these experiences to craft a new Strategic Concept on which all members can agree, based on the security needs of the 21st century. This task is difficult, but not impossible. NATO leaders could do themselves a favour, and make the task less difficult by denuclearising the Alliance and emphasising arms control and nonproliferation as the most effective long-term mechanisms for reducing and eliminating WMD threats.


[1] NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Lesson Learned: NATO Must Shape Up For The 21st Century, 43rd Munich Security Conference, February 10, 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rebecca Johnson, Europe's Space Policies and their Relevance to ESDP, Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union, European Parliament, June 2006, pp36-38. The Riga decision was based on a still-unpublished report agreed by NATO ministers following a study into the feasibility of theatre missile defences.

[4] NATO Strategic Concept, 1999, paragraph 6.

[5] President George W. Bush, Speech on Future of NATO, Latvia University, Riga, November 28, 2006.

[6] NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, op cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Interview with Ambassador Victoria Nuland, BBC Hardtalk, February 15, 2007.

[9] President Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, Press Conference during NATO Summit, November 28, 2006.

[10] US Department of Defense, Joint Doctrine for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction., JP 3-40

[11] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, 'A World Free of Nuclear Weapons', Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007. p A15.

Figure 1: US nuclear weapons and bases in Europe

This article was written by Martin Butcher with input from Nicola Butler and Rebecca Johnson. Martin is the Acronym Institute's analyst on NATO and European security, and was previously the Director of Security Programmes for Physicians for Social Responsibility, based in Washington DC, where he oversaw work on reducing the threat of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons.

© 2007 The Acronym Institute.