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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
NATO Struggles to Define New Nuclear Doctrine

Oliver Meier

NATO is likely to defer major decisions on its future nuclear weapons policy until after the alliance’s Nov. 19-20 Lisbon summit, according to answers given by the German government to the Bundestag July 20. Diplomatic sources from several countries made similar comments during interviews in recent weeks.

At the summit, the alliance is scheduled to adopt its new Strategic Concept, defining NATO’s role in the coming decade. At their last summit, in April 2009, NATO member states tasked the secretary-general with developing the new concept.

The future role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s deterrence posture, particularly the continued presence of about 150 to 200 tactical U.S. nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, has emerged as a contentious issue in the deliberations on the new concept. (See ACT, May 2010.)

Diplomats told Arms Control Today that expectations in Brussels are low that the new Strategic Concept will contain major revisions of NATO’s current nuclear policy. In response to questions posed by opposition Social Democrats on progress toward withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany, the German government acknowledged that the new Strategic Concept is likely to contain only “guidelines for the future nuclear policy of the alliance, which will then be implemented by the appropriate NATO bodies” after the Lisbon summit.

The level of detail of those guidelines and the mandate and purpose of a possible follow-on process are apparently still controversial issues, according to the diplomats.

The current coalition government, which is led by the Christian Democrats, promised after the September 2009 elections “as part of the development of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, to work within the Alliance and with our U.S. allies to ensure that the nuclear weapons remaining in Germany are withdrawn.” (See ACT, December 2009.) In a March 24 joint resolution, governing and opposition parties in the Bundestag urged the government “to work vigorously” toward implementation of that goal.

In an Aug. 24 interview, Uta Zapf, a Social Democrat who chairs the disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation subcommittee in the Bundestag, said she is disappointed by the government’s current position. The government answers indicate that “not much appears to be left” of Germany’s ambition to work toward withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory, Zapf complained. “The government is too passive, merely reacting to what is being proposed by others,” she said.

A report delivered by a group of former officials and other experts to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen May 17 had recommended re-establishing the special consultative group on arms control “for the purpose of facilitating its own internal dialogue about the whole range of issues related to nuclear doctrine, new arms control initiatives, and proliferation.” (See ACT, June 2010.) Asked whether it supports this proposal, the government stated that Germany supports the creation of a “high-level” body to enable NATO to play a stronger role in disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, but that the exact mandate of such a body will have to be decided “at the appropriate time” by the alliance.

There is apparently still some uncertainty as to when and how Rasmussen intends to finalize the concept. Some observers say they expect Rasmussen to release his draft Sept. 28, when the new Strategic Concept is on the agenda of a NATO Council meeting. Rasmussen then could invite member states to comment on his draft. But some NATO member states would like to see an earlier release because they want to have adequate time to prepare for the Oct. 14 meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers, when member states are expected to outline their official responses to the draft.

Although NATO has previously highlighted the importance of transparency on discussions of a new Strategic Concept, some diplomats in Brussels predict that the final stages of the drafting process will take place behind closed doors, among NATO diplomats only. By contrast, Zapf argued that discussions on the new Strategic Concept should be transparent and that “parliaments must be involved in the process at all stages, particularly as the final draft is being discussed.”