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NATO and Nuclear Weapons

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NATO Foreign Ministers' Meetings, Brussels, 2 - 3 December 2008

The Future of NATO and the 2009 Summit

By Martin Butcher

There was a time when NATO Summits were unusual events, but now the Alliance is in the run-up to its third Summit since December 2006. Riga was not a memorable event, the Heads of State and Government barely met and nothing of any consequence was decided. Bucharest was an enlargement Summit. There are indications that the gathering of Heads of State and Government on April 3-4 in Strasbourg and Kehl could be more significant.

The public justification for the Summit is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Alliance, and the reconciliation of World War II enemies - hence the sharing of the Summit across the Franco-German border in a region the two contested for one thousand years.

European leaders will be queuing up to be photographed alongside Barack Obama. He will have attended a G20 Summit in London and probably an EU Summit in Prague just before the NATO event, but many leaders will be happy to bask in the reflected glory of new American President. Whether they will be so happy on his policies towards Afghanistan and his ideas for NATO engagement there remains to be seen.


Assuming all NATO members have ratified the Treaties of Accession (and that seems likely at the time of writing) then Albania and Croatia will join NATO. Local officials have described the intense preparations that these nations are making to be ready for entry to the Alliance. Macedonia appears to be firmly entrenched in its dispute with Greece over the country's name that blocked a membership invitation at Bucharest. Regional experts seem to think that the chance of movement is low, and that Macedonian politicians see more value in facing up to Greece than in joining NATO. While the Obama administration is likely to continue the Bush policy of support for membership for Georgia and the Ukraine, it seems (according to several sources at NATO) that most in Europe anticipate a more cautious approach to further enlargement that will see Membership Action Plans (MAPs) delayed for a few years while NATO develops relations with the two nations through their respective Commissions.

As Secretary of State Rice said "we did not take up the issue of a decision on MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. A lot has transpired since Bucharest. We reaffirmed Bucharest and all of its elements, but what we did do here, which is very important, is to empower the commissions - the NATO-Georgia Commission and the NATO-Ukraine Commission - to intensify their work in helping these states to make progress toward the Bucharest goals and aspirations."

Essentially, European opposition to further enlargement has stopped the process. This opposition has strengthened since the war in the Summer. Bush administration staffers have been briefing all year that the MAP delay was temporary and as late as mid-November they were hoping to move the process forward in Brussels. The Bush administration has been forced to find a face-saving mechanism to cover for its loss of momentum, and to push enlargement off for another year.

Missile Defence

NATO continues to take a cautious approach to missile defence issues. Decisions have yet again been put off. The imprint of the Bush administration is clear in the statement that:

Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies' forces, territory, and populations. Missile defence forms part of a broader response to counter this threat. We therefore recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long-range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European-based United States missile defence assets.

In reality, however, many in NATO are extremely concerned about the adverse effect that these unilateral American actions have had on relations with Russia, and are deeply skeptical about the benefits of missile defences. The Obama administration is also skeptical, and it will be interesting to see how the Alliance position on the European deployment of the US strategic missile defence system alters once President-Elect Obama takes power. This meeting merely decided to ask the Summit to review things yet again, a favoured NATO mechanism for avoiding difficult decisions. Since it is likely that that Bush administration efforts to deploy a radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland will slow or stop next year, the political situation will be very different in Strasbourg.

For the meantime, the Allies punted the question of actual NATO support for integrating theatre and strategic defences into 2009 (when they will merely be reviewed again, for a future eventual political decision, rather than actual political decision at the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit). The communiqué also contained strong enough language in the communiqué for the Americans, Poles and the Czechs to say that the Alliance supports their actions - although Ministers only 'noted' the bilateral agreements now signed. Even Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg, a very strong BMD proponent, has been forced to admit that the US may delay deployment.


One could not guess from the bland language in the communiqué on Afghanistan just how critical to the future of the Alliance it is, and how some major Alliance political issues divide NATO.

NATO leaders recognize that success (however that is measured) in Afghanistan is essential to the credibility of the Alliance. And yet, they are unable to build a unified NATO military force, or even agree tactics to use. Many countries still place caveats on the use of their forces, and some such as Germany refuse to deploy into areas where fighting is fierce, such as the south of Afghanistan.

The United States continues to operate two military forces in the country, one part of NATO, the other independent, and the war waged by the impendent US forces including attacks inside Pakistan are contributing to a deterioration of the situation on the ground.

If NATO is to have any chance of success its commanders need a unified strategy, agreement on tactics and the free use of forces to achieve the goals that are set. And yet, there is no sign that protracted efforts by the NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer have persuaded recalcitrant Allies to take such a path.

The New Strategic Concept and the Future of NATO

These issues all point towards a fascinating Summit in April 2009, and a wide ranging debate afterwards as a new Strategic Concept is agreed. Diplomatic sources say that talks on the terms of reference for the Strategic Concept renewal are ongoing. It is almost certain the review will happen, but much of the content remains to be decided. In particular, there is no agreement yet about whether the nuclear paragraphs of the Concept should be changed. There are such fears that any changes will lead to an unraveling of NATO nuclear policy that it is entirely conceivable to some officials that the nuclear paragraphs will be left unchanged.

There is little sign that NATO is ready to take on the nuclear debate. The role of nuclear weapons remains controversial (and in Europe unpopular except in a few Defence Ministries), but it may simply be more politically expedient to avoid difficulty when so many other big questions have to be debated. This would be a mistake. NATO staffers and diplomats have discussed this question recently with the author. All agree that arms control and non-proliferation must take a higher profile in NATO policy. But some disagree on the need to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance defence. At this point, we simply don't know which way this will break.

This would be a major omission. But NATO is confronted at this time with many major challenges. The first is to decide, as one NATO international staffer put it recently, what the mission of the Alliance is? Is it a 'global security provider' as the Secretary General has suggested in a number of speeches? Or is it, as some new members wish, still a purely defensive Alliance whose aim is protect its members from Russia?

Once this is decided (and that will be a heated debate since, as some in the Alliance have noted, Poland and other Eastern Europeans may have joined a new NATO, but they are convinced they joined the old one), then other difficult questions remain.

Can the Alliance change the way it does business? Since the Kosovo War, members of the North Atlantic Council have claimed the right to vet Alliance military operations down to whether individual bombing targets can be struck. This is clearly ridiculous. Now, Supreme Allied Commander General Craddock, wants the Alliance to agree missions, such as intervention in Afghanistan and Kosovo, by the traditional consensus, but then to leave military officers to get on with running the operations as they see fit. He also wants NATO forces unified, and to have nations unable to restrict the use of forces in missions they have agreed to. Craddock has also spoken of the need to have lower level committees work by majority, not consensus - it seems that enlargement to 27 has slowed down decision-making to an unacceptable level.

This would be a major change, and will not be easily agreed. And yet, its ramifications are clear. If NATO is to continue on its current path, then to do so properly, it must follow General Craddock. No military force can be hobbled as NATO currently is in Afghanistan and hope to win. Whether NATO should be there at all is another question.

A further point on military forces is that Barack Obama is known to favour asking Europe to spend more on defence and to equip its soldiers for more expeditionary roles. This will be controversial if pressed, and I was unable to find a European diplomat or NATO staffer who thought that the US would have much success in such a quest. The outcome of this technical point may have profound implications for US enthusiasm or otherwise for NATO, and therefore for the future of the Alliance.


The Brussels meeting pointed the way to Strasbourg-Kehl, but without answering any fundamental questions. All the big questions were delayed into the Obama administration, and will likely be kicked further down the road as the new administration is unlikely to be ready to take big decisions in April. The coming two or three years will be very significant, NATO needs to manage missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the same time as defining itself for the 21st century.

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