NATO's New Strategic Concept, Nuclear Weapons, and Global Zero

By Rutherford, Ian P. | International Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

NATO's New Strategic Concept, Nuclear Weapons, and Global Zero


Rutherford, Ian P., International Journal


On 19 November 2010, at the Lisbon summit, NATO heads of state and government signed the "new strategic concept." The first such policy declaration since the infamous terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the document, entitled "Active engagement, modern defence," seeks to elucidate NATO's core tasks, principles, and values; the evolving security environment; and the alliance's strategic objectives for the next decade. It identifies these as collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security, and notes that "while the world is changing, NATO's essential mission will remain the same: to ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security and shared values." While none of this is particularly new or controversial, there is in fact an interesting conundrum that lies at the heart of NATO's new strategic concept: the relationship among NATO's nuclear posture and forces, the project to establish baUistic missile defence in Europe, and the "global zero" initiative announced by US President Barack Obama that seeks to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles to the vanishing point. The new strategic concept is clear: "It commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons - but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear AUiance."1

As this article will argue, the aUiance's twin goals of complete nuclear disarmament but the maintenance of nuclear weapons so long as they exist is the strategic equivalent of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King's famous World War II declaration of "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." In other words, it is a policy designed to deflect or divert criticism by embracing both (diametricaUy opposed) sides of the issue. Furthermore, an additional factor exists to complicate NATO's position: a case can be made that reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles while deploying increasingly technologicaUy sophisticated and capable baUistic missile defence systems can actuaUy serve to reduce, rather than improve, strategic stability in the international system, which seems contradictory for an aUiance policy that seeks stability, defence, and deterrence. Finally, parallels between the global zero initiative and the United Nation's "responsibility to protect" doctrine will be drawn to illustrate that both of these initiatives - resting as they do under the rubric of liberal institutionalism - carry within them unrealistic assumptions about state behaviour in the international system that will limit their usefulness as genuine instruments of security policy. Prior to examining these issues, however, a brief detour to consider the strategic role of these weapons systems within NATO's new strategic concept serves as a useful point of departure.

NATO'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS: RAISON D'ÊTRE

The drafters of "Active engagement, modern defence" are clear that NATO exists as a defensive aUiance, ready to invoke article five of the Washington treaty should any of its members suffer an attack (and indeed, such a declaration occurred in the aftermath of the September nth terrorist attacks against the US). Defence and its handmaiden deterrence are thus the key drivers that explain the existence of NATO. Nuclear weapons, in this context, are viewed as a critical component of the deterrent posture adopted by NATO as they contribute to the protection of member states and their populations in the alliance.

Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies. …

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NATO's New Strategic Concept, Nuclear Weapons, and Global Zero
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