A NATO flag is pictured next to a statue on June 13, 2021, at Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels.

A NATO flag is pictured next to a statue on June 13, 2021, at Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

NATO’s Nuclear Two-Step

An alliance that avows nuclear disarmament should not cling so dangerously to its weapons.

NATO wants to become a non-nuclear alliance. That sentence might surprise many, but it’s true: when the organization achieves its long-standing goal of full implementation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, its members will no longer possess nuclear weapons.

NATO has long recognized the threat that nuclear weapons pose; its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is based on a clear understanding of the scope and magnitude of this threat. Any use of nuclear weapons – whether on or near NATO territory, or far beyond – would have wide-ranging and catastrophic effects for member countries and their populations. 

As NATO leaders are no doubt considering at the June 14 summit, the threat is growing. Rising tensions among nuclear-armed states, aggressive behavior by Russia and China, and the build-up of nuclear forces are increasing the risks that these weapons will be used. Evolving security challenges – terrorism, emerging and disruptive technologies, cyber, hybrid, and “grey zone” warfare – are exacerbating the risks of use, and drawing the already-disputed effectiveness of nuclear deterrence further into question. 

Given the growing risks, it would be natural for NATO to be reinvigorating and accelerating its efforts on nuclear disarmament. Perversely, however, the alliance has been moving in the opposite direction. 

Despite NPT commitments to work to reduce stockpiles and diminish the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, the three nuclear-armed NATO members are all improving their nuclear arsenals. NATO rhetoric in favor of nuclear weapons is hardening, and the alliance is “circling the wagons” around nuclear deterrence. Although the North Atlantic Treaty makes no mention of nuclear weapons, NATO was officially dubbed a “nuclear alliance” in the 2010 Strategic Concept and this deliberate embedding of nuclear weapons in the alliance’s identity has steadily continued.

Political support by individual NATO members for retaining NATO’s nuclear weapons capability is increasingly seen as a test of loyalty and unity; discussion of alternatives is discouraged, even punished. Bizarrely, the NATO 2030 Reflection Group report recommended that “NATO should better communicate on the key role of its nuclear deterrence policy… so as to effectively counter hostile efforts to undermine this vital policy.” An uninitiated observer could be forgiven for thinking that NATO’s raison d’être is not “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization” of its members, but rather to defend and protect their right to use weapons of mass destruction.

When much of the world is strengthening the norm against nuclear weapons by joining the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW, NATO is undermining its own security by encouraging proliferation of nuclear weapons, by provoking arms races with nuclear-armed rivals, and by constraining the ability of alliance members to pursue effective steps towards nuclear disarmament.

Nowhere is the harmful effect of this trend clearer than in NATO’s counterproductive hostility to the TPNW. The treaty’s objective is also one professed by NATO: ending the nuclear weapons threat by eliminating nuclear weapons. Any differences therefore come down to the means by which this objective is to be achieved. Yet NATO has reacted to the TPNW as if it were some kind of dangerous assault on its core values, if not a threat to its very existence.

The reasons given for NATO’s opposition have been described by Hans Blix as “strained” and by former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy as “phoney baloney”. There is no legal reason that NATO allies cannot join the TPNW, and NATO’s obsessive focus on the treaty has prevented any consideration of what it can offer the alliance.

By supporting and joining the the treaty, individual NATO states can help to build a robust new global norm against nuclear weapons, strengthening barriers against proliferation, diminishing pressure for nuclear arms races, and reducing the overall reliance of NATO on nuclear weapons, opening up pathways for progress on disarmament. They will also demonstrate their commitment to fully discharging their disarmament obligations under the earlier Non-Proliferation Treaty, easing tensions among its signatories. 

Conversely, the approach of blanket dismissal of and hostile non-engagement with the TPNW will only constrain NATO’s options, alienate potential partners, and push the alliance’s nuclear disarmament goal further out of reach. 

Outside the alliance’s current leadership, there is growing support within a number of member states for joining the TPNW. A range of former leaders, including NATO secretaries general and defense and foreign ministers, have called on NATO states to join. Parliaments in NATO states have passed motions in support of the treaty; cities across the alliance have called on their governments to join it. Opinion polls in many NATO states consistently support, by a clear margin, accession to the treaty. 

NATO as a non-nuclear alliance would be something to celebrate. Yet rather than openly aspiring to such status, and discussing how it might look and function, the alliance seems to be actively avoiding – even suppressing – any consideration of the possibility. This is a dangerously counterproductive and shortsighted approach. 

It is time for NATO members to shake off the restrictions of reactive, short-term thinking about nuclear weapons, and instead to re-embrace the vision of nuclear disarmament as a preventative tool for shaping NATO’s security environment. While total elimination of nuclear weapons may remain a distant goal, envisioning and planning for NATO as a non-nuclear alliance should begin now. Positive and constructive engagement with the TPNW, including joining the treaty for those NATO members willing and ready to do so, would be a logical place to start. 

Richard Lennane is a former Australian diplomat and UN disarmament official. He is a principal co-author of A Non-Nuclear Alliance: Why NATO Members Should Join the UN Ban on Nuclear Weapons, published on 10 June 2021 by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).