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NATO and Nuclear Weapons

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NATO nuclear policy: Opportunities to Strengthen the NPT

NATO's sixtieth anniversary summit in Spring 2009 should take the opportunity to review and update policy on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament as part of a wider review of NATO's Strategic Concept. NATO needs to end nuclear sharing, withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, and work more closely with Russia to eliminate all tactical nuclear weapons and strengthen the existing treaties and non-proliferation regime.

With a new president in the White House there is an opportunity to reshape NATO policy to support and strengthen the non-proliferation regime. Following the reported withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from RAF Lakenheath the UK is well placed to work closely with its ally to promote this.

Since the end of the Cold War NATO has dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. However, the weapons, policies and doctrines that remain in place are disproportionately damaging to relations with Russia and to the non-proliferation regime. They are a Cold War anachronism that undermine European Security.

What does NATO nuclear policy entail?

NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept asserts that nuclear weapons provide the "supreme guarantee" of Alliance security. Three NATO members - the United States, Britain and France - possess over 10,000 nuclear weapons between them. Five NATO members that are formally non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT - Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey - maintain "nuclear sharing" arrangements under which they could be given wartime use of some of the 200 American-owned and controlled nuclear free-fall bombs believed to be still stored in Europe. Despite serious concerns raised by Russia, the Bush administration pushed hard to have military bases in Poland and the Czech Republic for missile interceptors and tracking radar to support US ballistic missile defence (BMD) deployments. Moreover, these countries have privately raised the possibility that they might also join in "nuclear sharing" arrangements. Such developments would antagonise Russia and destabilise European security further.

NATO nuclear sharing in the cold war was credited with persuading countries like Germany and Italy to give up their national nuclear weapons programmes and join the NPT. But it now stands in the way of more effective nonproliferation approaches and progress towards building a world free of nuclear weapons.

NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept states that war prevention requires "widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements". Some NATO countries host US nuclear bases and tactical weapons on their soil; some of their aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear weapons and their pilots are trained to fly nuclear missions. Since Britain's Trident nuclear weapon system is assigned to NATO, it participates in nuclear policy but not in nuclear sharing per se.

Undermining Articles I and II

NATO members hold that their nuclear sharing is in compliance with the NPT, arguing that the arrangements predated the NPT and that "general war" would end the validity of the NPT. Both interpretations are open to challenge. If any other NPT states tried to share nuclear weapons using similar arrangements, the NATO countries would be the first to condemn them for breaching Articles I and II of the NPT. In effect, NATO maintains a privileged practice that it would not want others to emulate.

In 1985, the NPT Review Conference agreed as part of its Final Document that the Treaty remains in force "under any circumstances". Though not made explicit, this language was intended to constrain NATO nuclear sharing arrangements. Since then, a growing number of NPT Parties, including more than 100 nations in the Non-Aligned Movement, have called on NATO members to transform their doctrine and policies to bring them into conformity with their NPT obligations.

Backdoor Proliferation in Wartime

NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements would amount to de facto proliferation in times of war. This is particularly destabilizing in the post 9/11 context: the US has declared a 'war on terror' and changed military doctrines to provide for nuclear weapons to be used in pre-emption or retaliation. As other nuclear weapon possessors pursued similar doctrines, the non-nuclear-weapon states may become vulnerable targets for weapons that they have themselves renounced.

In 1999, rhetorical criticisms were translated for the first time into diplomatic action aimed at NATO when Egypt proposed "that the PrepCom recommend that the 2000 Review Conference state in clear and unambiguous terms that Articles I and II of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons allow for no exceptions and that the NPT is binding on State parties in times of peace and in times of war alike." Though not adopted then, this needs to be put back on the NPT table.

Nuclear solidarity impedes NPT implementation

NATO countries claim to support the full implementation of the NPT, but have often been put under pressure by the Bush administration to oppose disarmament proposals endorsed by the majority of non-nuclear nations in multilateral fora such as the NPT and UN First Committee.

The Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament adopted as part of the decisions to extend the NPT in 1995 contained a number of commitments relevant to the Alliance, including the establishment of additional nuclear-weapon-free zones and further steps to assure non-nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. NATO's nuclear policies have constituted an obstacle to improving negative security assurances and to any initiative to establish a nuclear weapon free zone in Central Europe.

Similarly, NATO policies run counter to much of the Programme of Action adopted by NPT states at the 2000 Review Conference (and endorsed by NATO itself in December 2000), notably the commitments to transparency, further reductions in non-strategic weapons, reductions in the operational status of these weapons, and a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies.

Paragraph 13 of the Chair's Factual Summary from the 2008 NPT PrepCom reflected concerns raised during the meeting as follows: "Concerns were also voiced about the increased role of nuclear weapons in some strategic and military doctrines, and the apparent lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Calls were made for the re-evaluation of the strategic utility of nuclear weapons and their role in national security policies in the post-Cold War context." For diplomatic reasons NATO is not named, but it is clear from the context (and a reading of the various statements during the NPT PrepCom) that these concerns related principally to NATO states and Russia.

What needs to be done now?

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