Why NATO Is on

the Right Track

October 28, 2010

Detlef Waechter

The Alliance will start a rethink of its nuclear posture—but not jump to conclusions on
tactical nuclear weapons. This modest but realistic approach deserves support.

A core deliverable of the November NATO summit in Lisbon will be a new Strategic Concept to guide the
Alliance’s work over the coming decade. Although debate continues about how the new concept should address NATO’s future nuclear policy, the broad outline appears set. It will likely reflect U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton’s April presentation to the meeting of foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia, where she proposed that NATO retain its nuclear status with shared responsibilities, but reduce the role of nuclear weapons, seek further arms control agreements with Russia, and pursue missile defense.
•• The Clinton principles represent a realistic approach. They effectively incorporate divergent interests
of NATO members, while also offering a constructive role for NATO to play in arms control.
•• NATO should endorse the Clinton principles at Lisbon and then work out the details of how to
explain the role of nuclear weapons in an internal Nuclear Posture Review. It will quickly become evident that the questions involving U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and solidarity between Alliance members are not insurmountable problems for NATO.
•• The NPR could also lay the groundwork for talks with Russia on a next round of arms control negotiations. Any dramatic changes in NATO’s nuclear posture (such as withdrawal or redeployment of
weapons) should be a result of, and not a precondition for, future talks with Moscow.
•• Isolated talks and negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons will not produce results. Instead, the Alliance should adopt a multi-track approach that combines the issues of tactical nuclear weapons, stockpiled U.S. strategic weapons, conventional arms control, and missile defense. The Alliance’s ultimate
goal should be a nuclear-weapon–free zone from the Atlantic to the Urals.

The November 19–20 NATO summit in Lisbon has the potential to become the
most pivotal gathering of NATO leaders since the 1999 Washington summit that
marked the Alliance’s fiftieth anniversary. NATO will address the Alliance’s relations with Russia and the European Union, reforms in the Brussels secretariat
and of its military headquarters, new threats and challenges, and the so-called
“comprehensive approach” (that is, how to effectively bring together military and
civilian capabilities in theaters such as Afghanistan).
The summit will also attempt to reconcile the traditional defensive assurances of
Article V of the Washington Treaty with new out-of-area operations NATO has
undertaken in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Alliance members will need to clarify
that NATO can effectively carry out both territorial defense and out-of-area
operations with a single set of forces.
While NATO summit meetings are by themselves important gatherings, they
are only meaningful to the extent that they produce decisions affecting Alliance
capabilities or changes in doctrine and policy. This is one reason why NATO
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is determined to reach an Alliance
decision to adopt territorial missile defense as a future NATO mission and to
update the Alliance’s Strategic Concept. In this context, the future of NATO’s
nuclear policy has come to the fore as a pivotal issue—one that will absorb much
energy in the lead-up to the summit and probably dominate the event itself.

The Debate on NATO’s Nuclear Policy
NATO’s nuclear policy epitomizes the Alliance’s will to deter and defend. It is a
core element that differentiates the Alliance, and the U.S. approach of extended
deterrence has been a successful and inventive means
of integrating transatlantic security commitments.
But recent nonproliferation initiatives by former U.S. policy makers George
Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, along with scores of
European elder statesmen—combined with President Obama’s arms control
agenda—have revived public debate over NATO’s nuclear posture that had been
dormant since the days of the fierce discussions over the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987.
Rarely before has a speech by a U.S. president been so selectively perceived as
was President Obama’s Prague speech, especially in Europe. Many praised his
vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, but largely ignored the conditions that
framed it—the time span (“perhaps not in my lifetime”) and the continued will
to deter (“the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal”).
So far, the debate over NATO’s nuclear policy has not come close to the agonized public deliberation over the Alliance’s 1979 “dual-track” decision to station

NATO’s nuclear
policy epitomizes
the Alliance’s
will to deter and

intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe if necessary. However,
some experts have warned that a new debate would be too divisive and should
not be included in discussions about a new Strategic Concept. Many observers
believe that such a debate, if not handled carefully, could open Pandora’s Box:
An Alliance that badly needs guidance and reassurance on its nuclear stance
could instead be spooked by an unsettling issue thought to be resolved.
Fretting by Alliance members reached its peak in spring 2010 before the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia. At that meeting,
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully bridged the gap that had occurred within the Alliance by proposing that:
1. NATO remain a nuclear Alliance
2. As a nuclear Alliance, member states share risks and responsibilities
3. NATO should reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons

speech in

4. NATO allies should take on a mission pursuing territorial missile defense

Prague and

5. NATO should specify the conditions for further arms control agreements
with Russia


Clinton’s initiative proved a success for U.S. diplomacy and leadership within
NATO. In addition, Obama’s speech in Prague and Clinton’s remarks in Tallinn
clarified where the United States wanted to lead the Alliance.
As a result, it came as little surprise that the “Group of Experts”—tasked by the
2008 NATO summit “to lay the ground for the Secretary General to develop
a new Strategic Concept,” and led with considerable determination by former
U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright—came to very similar conclusions.
According to the Albright group, NATO should maintain secure and reliable
nuclear forces as long as nuclear weapons exist.
In addition, NATO should share responsibility for deployment and operational
support widely. Changes in the geographic distribution of NATO nuclear deployments should be made by the Alliance as a whole. NATO should also start
a dialogue with Russia on nuclear perceptions, doctrines, and transparency. This
dialogue could set the stage for further reductions and possible elimination of
tactical nuclear weapons.
Finally, the Albright group suggested that NATO adopt a declaratory policy
similar to the negative security guarantee included in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear
Posture Review: no use of weapons or threat of use against non–nuclear-weapon
states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance
with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.


remarks in
Tallinn clarified
where the
United States
wanted to lead
the Alliance.

A course like the one described and provided by the United States and the
Albright group might be too conservative for those hoping for a more radical
overhaul of NATO nuclear policy. It might also be too ambitious for those fearing the Alliance is treading down a portentous path of defeatism.
There will no doubt be open debate before and during Lisbon on how to draft
language for a new Strategic Concept, especially concerning NATO’s Missile
Defense mission and how it affects the Alliance’s nuclear weapons policy. But
there will not be any surprises. The elements for possible language are already
on the table.

A Realistic Way Forward

As important as

Is this middle-of-the-road course uninspired, too cautious, or overly bureaucratic? Perhaps, but it is most likely the right course because it is the only realistic
way forward. It takes into account the will of the member states while still allowing for progress on arms control and disarmament.
As important as arms control is to international security, NATO cannot base
its nuclear policy wholly on arms control–related considerations. NATO’s core
objectives will continue to be providing for the defense of member states,
encouraging solidarity between allies, and tailoring defense and solidarity to
fit current security realities. The commitments are of particular concern to the
newest members of the Alliance: the Baltic states and Poland. To them, geography and history matter, and NATO’s nuclear policy is seen as an assurance
against potential coercive actions by Russia’s nuclear weapons. These states
sometimes believe they have reason to fear that NATO is capable of and
willing to uphold its Article V commitment and point to NATO’s perceived
lack of contingency planning and exercises to deter or defeat the range of
twenty-first-century threats.
On the other hand, one can argue that Russia is now a partner of NATO, with
whom the Alliance shares vital interests. Moreover, it can be asked whether
NATO’s nuclear weapons, with their very limited military utility, really underscore its credibility as a defensive Alliance. But these counterarguments ignore
the fact that political perceptions are political realities. It takes time for societies
to adjust their perspectives and strategic cultures to new circumstances.
Another factor to consider is Turkey, an Alliance member since 1952. Turkey is
in the middle of important political-cultural adjustments and a reorientation of
its foreign policy based on its societal identity and geography. However, despite
Turkey’s recent attempts to block tougher UN sanctions on Iran, Ankara is concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.


arms control is
to international
security, NATO
cannot base its
nuclear policy
wholly on arms

Turkey’s new political class is only beginning to grapple with the intricacies
of nuclear policy and doctrine. While changes in NATO’s nuclear policy (like
redistribution or withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons) would not automatically
lead Ankara to reconsider its nuclear policy, it could prompt Turkey to consider
alternative strategies for addressing its long-term security interests.
It is hardly surprising, then, that not one of the 36 signatories to the September
27 European Leadership Initiative (the “Group statement on NATO Nuclear
Policy”)—which called on NATO leaders to create conditions for global nuclear
disarmament—came from a Baltic country, Poland, or Turkey.
There are, however, options for the Alliance to send a clear message from its
Lisbon meeting that NATO is committed to defending its members and to
rethinking its nuclear mission in light of a changed strategic environment. This
rethink must be done jointly and cannot be rushed by artificial deadlines. Process is key and the steps forward must occur in the right order for the Alliance to

After Lisbon: Policy Recommendations for NATO
The 1999 Strategic Concept, which devoted three chapters to “the characteristics
of nuclear forces,” did not include a detailed account of NATO’s nuclear posture.
The 2010 Strategic Concept, which is expected to be much shorter, will presumably endorse the Clinton principles, but not much more. The short language to
be found in Lisbon, however, would not give the military planners the appropriate political guidance they need.
•• The heads of state should task the North-Atlantic Council in Permanent
Session with conducting a NATO Nuclear Posture Review and, in this
context, construct detailed proposals on the Alliance’s future nuclear
policy to be reviewed or endorsed at the next summit meeting. Internal
debate on the proposals should be kept as discreet as possible to maintain
an open discussion, although external expertise (through conferences,
hearings, etc.) should be taken into account when helpful. There is a great
variety of elements that could even more credibly exemplify that NATO is
determined to hold up nuclear deterrence in solidarity beyond the present
nuclear posture. And NATO states surely have the creativity, resources,
and political capacity to address the future of U.S.-theater nuclear weapons without undermining the solidarity and future of an alliance that
must be able to adapt to twenty-first-century realities.
•• The Secretary General must give the NATO Nuclear Posture Review his
full attention and authority to help bridge diverging member-state interests. Otherwise, no solutions are likely to be reached.


Lisbon must
signal that
committed to
defending its
members and
to rethinking
its nuclear
mission in light
of a changed

The Nuclear Planning Group has hosted NATO’s nuclear policy debates for
more than 40 years. But France is not a member of the group, making it unfeasible for NATO to decide its nuclear posture without all three of the Alliance’s
nuclear powers (the United States, Britain, and France) present.
•• NATO should establish a capital-driven review process to assess the
NATO Nuclear Posture Review. This could take the form of a reinforced
North-Atlantic Council (NAC-R) committee that is supported by capital
representatives from both ministries of defense and foreign affairs.
Russia’s cooperation with NATO is pivotal for arms control progress on tactical
nuclear weapons. Even the German government—which some regard as particularly insistent on the need to reduce and eliminate tactical nuclear weapons
in Europe—never promoted unconditional or unilateral withdrawal. Instead,
Germany always framed the issue within the larger context of an arms control
agreement with Russia and a final end to the Cold War legacy. The United States
and NATO dramatically reduced the number of tactical nuclear weapons from
more than 7,000 in 1990 to the present low number—a considerable unilateral
disarmament measure.
•• The remaining theater nuclear weapons-systems must be used to bring
Russia to the negotiating table. This means that redeployment or elimination of weapons by NATO must come as the result of an agreement with
Moscow, not as a precondition to it. As in the past, there must be a give
and take between Russia and its negotiating partner.
•• NATO’s Nuclear Posture Review could pave the way for discussions with
Russia on transparency, reductions, and redeployment, which ultimately
could lead to a fresh round of arms-control negotiations. President Medvedev has been invited to attend the Lisbon summit. This issue should
top the agenda of the NATO-Russia Council Meeting.
•• Moscow’s fear of conventional inferiority will vex an insulated tactical nuclear weapons negotiation. To succeed, the arms control agenda must be
broadened. Negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons should be included
in a larger discussion of the connected issues of U.S. non-deployed strategic systems, conventional forces, and missile defense. As a result, there
would be a multi-track approach on U.S.-NATO-Russia arms control
negotiations. Negotiations on both deployed and non-deployed strategic
weapons, theater nuclear weapons, missile defenses, and conventional
forces would likely not be formally connected but convergent.
The NATO-Russia Council could serve as the lead body for the tactical weapons
track of this multi-track approach. Ideally it would lead to the withdrawal of all
remaining nuclear weapons from Europe. In addition, for the first time since its
founding in 2002, the Council would have a chance to prove that it really matters.


with NATO
is pivotal for
arms control
progress on
tactical nuclear

This approach requires considerable will to compromise on the part of the
United States, which owns the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as well as
the strategic weapons systems. But the result—a European continent free of
nuclear weapons, a NATO reconciled with Russia, and an Alliance free to tackle
emerging security threats—would certainly make the effort worthwhile.


Detlef Waechter is a German diplomat and a visiting fellow at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served on Chancellor Angela
Merkel’s foreign and security policy team in the Federal Chancellery from 2007
to 2010, and from 2005 to 2007 served in the German Permanent Representation at NATO in Brussels. The views expressed in this paper are his alone.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is a private, nonprofit
organization dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and
promoting active international engagement by the United States. Founded in
1910, its work is nonpartisan and dedicated to achieving practical results. The
Endowment—currently pioneering the first global think tank—has operations
in China, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and the United States. These five
locations include the centers of world governance and the places whose
political evolution and international policies will most determine the near-term
possibilities for international peace and economic advance.


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