December 1998
International Herald Tribune (op-ed)


Breaking NATO’s Nuclear Taboo
By Otfried Nassauer and Stephen Young

NATO's policy on nuclear weapons, one of the last standing Cold War monuments, is showing cracks. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s public statements last November – that NATO should give up the option of using nuclear weapons first – broke a virtual taboo. NATO's nuclear powers, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, rushed to oppose any changes in the Alliance’s strategy. They portrayed Fischer's call for change as an attack against the fundamental credibility of NATO. Nevertheless, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder backed Fischer’s call for a thorough review of nuclear policy. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed his support as well.

With the taboo broken, NATO can no longer escape discussing the future role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy. It is unlikely that NATO’s “first use” policy will be changed before the Summit – even Chancellor Schroeder has stated as much. However, the discussion will lead to a fundamental debate on nuclear policy as a whole. The most logical outcome of the debate is a basic change in NATO’s nuclear policy, to one where the Alliance only relies on nuclear weapons to deter their use by any other party. This begins the process of removing them entirely from NATO’s arsenal.

This debate began because NATO is rewriting its Strategic Concept, its mission statement. NATO members will approve a new Concept at the Alliance’s 50th Anniversary Summit in Washington this April. The Concept was last revised in 1991, and it is badly out of date. Among other glaring Cold War leftovers, it still refers to the Soviet Union. For years, NATO has avoided revisiting the Concept for fear of a divisive dispute. With the nuclear taboo broken, the Alliance can no longer evade the debate.

NATO faces three options: two vastly different futures for nuclear policy, or a compromise that postpones the debate. Of the first two, the alternatives could not be clearer: widen the role of nuclear weapons, or reduce it and head toward eliminating NATO’s nuclear arsenal.

If NATO decides to widen the role for nuclear weapons, the Alliance would adopt recent changes made in US strategy. It would pursue a deliberately ambiguous policy designed to deter the use and even possession of biological and chemical weapons by non-nuclear countries. US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe for use by both US and allied air forces would get additional assignments. NATO allies would conduct joint nuclear operations to counter proliferation. 

Most NATO countries, however, are unlikely to want to go that far. Most see little need for more roles for nuclear weapons. For example, in December, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution calling for faster progress on nuclear disarmament. The NATO nuclear states adamantly opposed it, and they lobbied hard to get others to vote against it. Despite this pressure, every non-nuclear country in NATO except Turkey abstained, a rare show of disunity in the Alliance. One NATO Foreign Minister privately made it clear that this was a coordinated and deliberate snub of the US.

Thus, should major changes happen, the more likely outcome is a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons. Given NATO’s enormous economic and conventional military advantages, this makes sense. However, a change to a “no first use” policy is doubtful. Instead, NATO may decide there is no longer a need to store US nuclear weapons in Europe, or to train nominally “non-nuclear” countries to use nuclear weapons in war. This would meet the objections of the 113-nation Non-Aligned Movement, which formally opposed NATO’s nuclear sharing policies last April. NATO could also formally declare a position it took in 1990 but never repeated or adopted, that nuclear weapons are only a weapon of last resort.

One compromise alternative – recently broached by the Germans – is the idea of establishing a task force to study nuclear issues after the Summit. The United States might support this idea, both to foreclose any divisive debate before the Summit, and as a forum for pushing the US agenda of expanding NATO’s nuclear doctrine to take on proliferation of chemical and biological weapons.

No matter what the outcome, one thing is clear: the taboo is broken. The debate has begun. NATO must reconsider its nuclear doctrine in the post-Cold War environment. Moving towards a non-nuclear Alliance fits best with the times.


Otfried Nassauer  is the Director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS). Stephen Young is a Senior Analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).