The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance established by the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the organization constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party.

The mutual enemy at the time of establishment was the Soviet Union and its allies, which, in 1955, established a similar military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Today, NATO has 26 Member States, having being extended further to the East after the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. NATO has also, to an increasing degree, assumed a role as a global security force. NATO has led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus expanding its activities far outside the North Atlantic Area.

The Members of NATO agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon, NATO stated that the attack was not only an attack against the US but against all NATO states. Since then, NATO has contributed to the so-called war on terrorism pursued by the US for more than a decade.

P24031-09a.jpgOn 28 February 1994, NATO took its first military action, shooting down four Bosnian Serb aircraft that were violating a UN-mandated no-fly zone over central Bosnia and Herzegovina. A NATO bombing campaign began in August 1995, against the Army of Republika Srpska, after the Srebrenica massacre. On 24 March 1999, NATO saw its first broad-scale military engagement in the Kosovo War, where it waged an 11-week bombing campaign, which NATO called Operation Allied Force, against what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The damage on Serbian infrastructure was extensive. A formal declaration of war never took place. Yugoslavia protested against the offensive and claimed it was a war of aggression and a violation of the UN Charter. A NATO led peace force under UN mandate has operated in Kosovo since the end of the war in 1999. In 2003, NATO began its first ever mission outside Europe, establishing the ISAF force in Afghanistan.

NATO cooperates with a many countries all over the world, extending its reach as far as New Zealand. As the UN does not have its own military resources and finds it difficult to obtain military support from member states for UN Peacekeeping missions, the UN has tended to cooperate with NATO.

NATO nuclear policy

Nuclear weapons have been an important part of NATO‘s common defence policy since the founding of the organisation. According to the NATO defence doctrine from 1949, part of NATO‘s defence policy includes to “insure the ability to carry out strategic bombing including the prompt delivery of the atomic bomb”. According to the doctrine, the US holds the main responsibility for making sure this directive is carried out.

NATO claims that US nuclear weapons in Europe and the alliance’s nuclear sharing program contribute to peace and stability in the region. Nuclear weapons, according to this rationale, deter attacks against NATO Member States in a way conventional forces cannot. “By promoting European stability, helping to discourage threats relating to the use of weapons of mass destruction, and contributing to deterrence against such use, NATO’s nuclear posture serves the interests not only of the Allies, but also of its Partner countries and of Europe as a whole”, says the NATO Handbook on nuclear policy.

Many states and civil society organisations view the NATO nuclear policy differently. Instead of creating peace and stability, nuclear weapons in Europe increase international tensions. The report of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (2006) points to the problem that NATO nuclear weapons in Europe are an obstacle to negotiating further reductions of Russian nuclear arsenals, as Russia explicitly cites US nuclear weapons so close to its own territory as a threat.

Discussions and decisions on the NATO nuclear policy are done in the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). The NPG provides a forum in which member countries of the Alliance can participate in the collective development of nuclear policy and in decisions on NATO‘s nuclear posture, irrespective of whether or not they themselves maintain nuclear weapons. Decisions are taken by consensus within the NPG, as is the case for all NATO committees.

After the Cold War, NATO presented a new direction in its defence policy to respond to new security threats, decreasing its reliance on nuclear weapons to match the new security situation. As NATO puts it: “NATO‘s nuclear forces continue to play an essential role in war prevention, but their role is now more fundamentally political, and they are no longer directed towards a specific threat”.

In 1999 NATO reiterated its strategic policy on Nuclear Sharing adopted by member states, making it clear that US nuclear weapons will remain deployed in Europe for an indefinite period.

In January 2008, a radical manifesto for a new NATO — Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World — was published by five prominent senior military commanders and strategists: John Shalikashvili, Klaus Naumann, Lord Inge, Henk van den Breemen, and Jacques Lanxade. The authors insisted that the western world must be ready to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive attack to prevent the imminent threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. “Regrettably, nuclear weapons – and with them the option of first use – are indispensable, since there is simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world”, says the manifesto.

Among suggested changes is for NATO to make decisions by majority vote and not consensus; where not all states are part of all decisions made and where military interventions can be established without a UN Security Council mandate.

This proposal has not received great support in NATO. Instead of changing the modes of decisionmaking in NATO into a majority rule, the dominant countries tend to rely on an “alliance of the willing” to take part in operations, using some of the NATO resources.

The NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010

At this meeting in 2010, new strategic documents were adopted. NATO is now seen as a global organisation with global responsibilities. Russia is called a cooperating partner. Missile defense has become an important project. NATO claims that this defense is directed against nuclear-armed missiles from new nuclear weapon states, which at this time means Iran. Russian leaders see the missile defense as a means of keeping first-strike capacity for the USA and NATO.

Nuclear weapons belonging to the USA are still stationed in Europe. These weapons have no military purpose; rather, they serve a symbolic function as an assurance that the “transatlantic link” is still valid. The new members of NATO in Eastern Europe are particularly keen to keep these symbolic nuclear weapons, although none are stationed on their territory.

At the NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012, only few changes of limited importance were made in the nuclear doctrines. NATO will work to find ways to decrease the strategic importance of nuclear weapons, but as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world NATO will keep them. Thus NATO countries seem to be set to be the last to abolish nuclear weapons. NATO now accepts Negative Security Assurances, meaning that NATO will not attack countries that do not have these weapons and are in compliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty. Thus NATO can use nuclear weapons against countries such as Iran, North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan. “First use,” using nuclear weapons in an attack against a nuclear-weapon state that has not used its nuclear arsenal, is permitted. These doctrines are in obvious disrespect of international law, as interpreted by the International Court in The Hague,

NATO nuclear weapons in Europe 

NATO‘s nuclear policy is based on the concept of Nuclear Sharing – that is, placing nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear weapon states. Only three of the five nuclear-weapon states that are Parties to the NPT are also NATO Member States: the US, the UK and France. Yet, there are NATO nuclear weapons deployed in several non-nuclear-weapon states that are signatories to the NPT: Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey.

The first US nuclear weapons in Europe were deployed in the UK in 1954. In March 1957, NATO’s Commander-in-Chief confirmed the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Germany as well. The nuclear sharing idea is based on placing US nuclear weapons and launching systems in the territories of European NATO allies. In time of peace, the nuclear weapons would be under US control. In the event of war, however, the US President could issue an order to use nuclear weapons and could give the hosting state control over the weapons.

Approximately 250 US nuclear weapons are currently deployed in Europe; this is only a fraction of the force the United States deployed in Europe during the Cold War (a peak of 7,300 weapons in 1971). The number dropped to 4,000 by the end of the Cold War in 1990; plunged to 700 in 1992; and levelled off at approximately 480 weapons (all bombs) in 1994. This ended the dramatic period of nuclear disarmament initiatives, which has since been replaced by a period of relative stability with slow and gradual reductions. The number of US nuclear weapons in Europe today is estimated to be 200 or slightly less. Of these, around 20 are in Germany, 20 in Belgium, 20 in the Netherlands, 50 in Italy, and 90 in Turkey.

Although NATO nuclear weapons in Europe have been remarkably reduced, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) reiterated as late as July 2007 that NATO places great importance in the continued deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe. The alleged ability of nuclear weapons to keep the peace and prevent war is still referenced. The NPG does not identify a particular enemy from whom the nuclear weapons protect Europe, but asserts that “we continue to place great value on the nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO, which provide an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance”.

The governments of NATO countries have a direct role in shaping NATO policy and can insist that these weapons be removed from their territory. The US has taken their weapons home several times before: Canada, Greece, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland are all now free of US nuclear bombs. Lately, the demands on withdrawing the US nuclear weapons from Europe have increased. On 15 July 2005, the House of Representatives in Belgium adopted a resolution calling for a withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Belgium and the rest of Europe. In May the same year, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer and Minister of Defense Peter Struck raised the same issue. Their statement that it was high time US nuclear weapons disappear from Europe was met positively. But the two initiators soon toned down their earlier statement. The issue of NATO nuclear weapons is politically sensitive.

NATO nuclear weapons and the NPT

There are ample reasons to question the status of Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey as non-nuclear weapon states. They are certainly not Nuclear-Weapon-Free States, Above all, there is reason to question whether the NATO Nuclear Sharing really is in line with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

When NPT negotiations began in the 1960s, the NATO nuclear sharing policy was threatened. Was it really legal? The NPT that entered into force 1970 established internationally binding legal norms for arms control and disarmament. All NATO Member States are also signatories to the NPT, and official NATO documents refer to the responsibility of Member States under the NPT.

NATO‘s nuclear cooperation has been criticised for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or at least being against the spirit of the treaty. Article I of the NPT lays down that the five nuclear-weapon states that are Parties to the Treaty (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China) are not allowed to transfer nuclear weapons to “any recipient whatsoever”. According to Article II of the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states are not allowed to produce or in any other way acquire nuclear weapons. Many States Parties to the NPT consider the NATO nuclear cooperation a violation of the provisions of the NPT. The US and NATO contest this statement, claiming that the nuclear weapons are under US control in peacetime and the NPT ceases to be valid when war breaks out.

This position of the USA is clearly a mistake. The 1985 Review Conference of the NPT made a unanimous but almost unnoticed decision that the Treaty should be implemented “under any circumstances”, i.e. also in wartime. This decision was reiterated in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Thus, there is no doubt the NATO policy of transferring control of US nuclear weapons to European non-nuclear weapon states in the event of war is an act in violation of the NPT.

A moment’s reflection makes this clear: If during the war against Iraq that country had obtained nuclear weapons from a nuclear-weapon state that would certainly have been regarded as a breach against Article I of the NPT.


Last update: December 30, 2015