Analysis of NATO Action on Nuclear Weapons

Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
Chairman, Middle Powers Initiative
April 28, 1999

SUMMARY: In a development lost sight of in the media-focussed attention tothe Kosovo crisis, the NATO Summit in Washington, D.C. , April 23-25, openedthe door to a broad ranging review of its nuclear weapons policy. AlthoughNATO's 1999 Strategic Concept showed only scant movement over 1991 onnuclear weapons, the "Washington Summit Communique" committed NATO to areview. This was confirmed by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister LloydAxworthy. This has significant implications for the New Agenda Coalition(NAC). It also provides a stronger base for MPI to advance its work.

  1. The Washington Summit Communique, (NAC-S(99)64) a 45-paragraphdocument, "An Alliance for the 21st Century," issued by NATO heads April 24,1999, states in Paragraph 32: "In the light of overall strategicdevelopments and the reduced salience of nuclear weapons, the Alliance willconsider options for confidence and security-building measures,verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament. TheCouncil in Permanent Session will propose a process to Ministers in Decemberfor considering such options. The responsible NATO bodies would accomplishthis. We support deepening consultations with Russia in these and otherareas in the Permanent Joint Council... ."
  2. At a news conference April 24, Canadian Foreign Affairs MinisterLloyd Axworthy confirmed the willingness of NATO "to have a reviewinitiated" of its nuclear weapons policies. Explaining that this was thethrust of the recommendations that came out of the report of Canada'sForeign Affairs Committee, Mr. Axworthy added: "It's a message that the[Canadian] Prime Minister took [to] certain NATO leaders... . I think wehave now gained an acknowledgment that such a review would be appropriateand that there would be directions to the NATO Council to start themechanics of bringing that about."
  3. The above important development was missed by reporters andobservers who read only the 65-paragraph document, "The Alliance's StrategyConcept" (NAC-S(99)65), which reaffirmed NATO's present commitment tomaintain nuclear weapons for political reasons. NATO said: "They willcontinue to fulfil an essential role by ensuring uncertainty in the mind ofany aggressor about the nature of the Allies' response to militaryaggression"(Paragraph 62). The 1999 use of the word "essential" inreference to nuclear weapons repeats 1991 language. Therefore, at firstglance, it appears that NATO has not moved.
  4. Actually, there are subtle shifts contained in the new StrategicConcept. For the first time, NATO has spoken seriously about disarmament:"The Allies take seriously their distinctive role in promoting a broader,more comprehensive and more verifiable international arms control anddisarmament process" (Paragraph 40). Whereas in 1991, NATO spoke of the useof nuclear weapons as "even more remote," now use is "extremely remote"(Paragraph 64). And "NATO's nuclear forces no longer target any country"(Paragraph 64). This distancing is movement of only modest dimensions whenviewed in present-day terms. But read in the context of the Communique'scommitment to start a review process, these small steps take on addedsignificance.
  5. Without a doubt, NATO's leadership is proceeding to a reviewgrudgingly. There is almost a suggestion in the convoluted prose of thedocumentation that they wish the whole idea would go away. But the NATOdoor has been opened.
  6. This gives the NNWS in NATO, particularly the 12 abstainers on theNAC 1998 resolution, a new opportunity to press for a quality review, notjust a perfunctory one. It gives a new opening to the NAC to work with theNATO NNWS on common goals, particularly supporting the 1999 NAC resolution.And it enables the NPT PrepComm III to start on a more hopeful note thanwould otherwise be the case given the nuclear weapons ramifications of theKosovo crisis.
  7. This is an important gain for all non-governmental organizationsthat have been pushing for progress. The Middle Powers Initiative considersthat the NATO action strengthens the base for appropriate representations tobe made to a number of important countries around the world. It was Canada,in its official policy statement, that urged NATO to begin a nuclear weaponsreview which was carried into the NATO Summit. MPI gave support to thedeveloping Canadian position and hopes to be of further assistance.