NATO approves "new" Strategic Concept

NATO leaders approved a new Strategic Concept document at their Lisbon summit meeting on Friday. The document lays out NATO’s vision of its role in the world, the Alliance’s goals, and how Alliance members intend to pursue those goals.

Among other elements, it also spells out the fundamental tenets of NATO’s nuclear weapons policy. On this subject, although better in some respects than the nuclear policy delineated in NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept, NATO policy remains largely mired in Cold War-era thinking about the Bomb.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists describes the new policy, perhaps generously, as “one step forward and a half step backward” (“NATO Strategic Concept: One Step Forward and a Half Step Back,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, 19 November 2010):

The forward-leaning part of the nuclear policy pledges to actively try to create the conditions for further reducing the number of and reliance on nuclear weapons, recommits to the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament, and reaffirms that circumstances in which the alliance could contemplate using its nuclear weapons are “extremely remote.”

But the strategy fails to present any steps that reduce the number of or reliance on nuclear weapons. As such, the new Strategic Concept… falls short of the Obama administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the policy is its continued insistence on retaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Kristensen sees some signs for hope on this topic, however:

To be sure, the document still contains what appears to be a commitment to some form of U.S. nuclear presence in Europe, by committing to “the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.” (Emphasis added)

But this is vague language compared with the 1999 document. It could simply be met by Allies taking part in Nuclear Planning Group meetings, deployment of some U.S. dual-capable aircraft in Europe but without weapons, and Allies continuing to be part of the decision making process for potential use of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the document then goes on to link any future reductions of those forces to the Russian tactical nuclear stockpile:

The 1999 Strategic Concept did not mention Russia at all as a factor for sizing the U.S. deployment.

The new Strategic Concept, in contrast, returns Russia to a central position for how the Alliance sizes the number of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

“In any future reductions,” NATO declares, “our aim should be to seek Russian agreements to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members.”

Moreover, “Any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.”

While seeking to achieve reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons is important – it has more than 5,000 of them, formally linking the U.S. deployment in Europe to Russia seems to contradict the policy of the past two decades that the U.S. weapons in Europe are not directed against Russia. And NATO has repeatedly made unilateral reductions without demanding Russian reductions. Indeed, the new Strategic Concept declares that “NATO poses no threat to Russia,” and that the Alliance “does not consider any country to be its adversary.”

So to begin now to argue that the size of the U.S. arsenal in Europe is linked to Russia after all resembles the Cold War policy when NATO looked to Russia for sizing the U.S. arsenal in Europe.

Moreover, Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons posture is less tied to the U.S. nuclear posture in Europe and more to Russia’s perception of countering NATO’s superior conventional forces and defending the long border with China. Since those factors determine the size of the large Russian tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, it is hard to see why Moscow would agree to reduce its tactical nuclear weapons in return for reductions of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament Paul Meyer’s recommendations on NATO nuclear policy, written before release of the new Strategic Concept, are also worth reading (Paul Meyer, “NATO needs to modernize rusty nuclear policy,” Toronto Star, 18 November 2010).

The new Strategic Concept also addresses a broad range of other topics. As expected, the document commits NATO to building a ballistic missile defence system for Europe. It also discusses defence against terrorism, cyber threats, and threats to “energy security”, among other topics.

Oh, and it cites climate change as one of the “key environmental and resource constraints” that will “shape the future security environment in areas of concern to NATO and have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations.” That’s right, climate change.

Apparently, it’s too early to do anything to prevent or mitigate climate change, but it’s not too early to start preparing for the wars that will likely result.

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