NATO Summits Fail to Resolve Key Disarmament Issues, but Create New Opportunities

Miles Pomper
Nikolai Sokov
November 24, 2010

NATO Summits Fail to Resolve Key Disarmament Issues: NATO Summit Lisbon 2010

NATO Summit Lisbon 2010,
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Last week cast a shadow on President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world. After the apparent failure to woo Arizona Senator Jon Kyl—the second-ranking Republican in the Senate and an arms control hawk—to not block a vote on New START in the lame duck session despite White House promises of increased funding for the nuclear weapons complex, the future of the agenda Obama had charted in his April 2009 speech in Prague is in doubt. Now administration officials face the task of somehow convincing nine or more Republican senators to break ranks with their party leadership or finding some additional means to appease Kyl. Still, two consecutive summits in Lisbon – first of NATO and then of the NATO-Russia Council – provided a modest relief from the administation’s earlier setbacks.

The uncertainty over New START threatened to undermine perhaps Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment–the “reset” of relations with Russia. The failure of New START would make it almost pointless to seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—a global treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons. Other initiatives, such as a ban on production of weapons-grade fissile materials, are also stalling, not to mention that Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs continue to advance.

A strong endorsement of Obama’s efforts to have New START pass the Senate before the end of this year by both NATO allies (including those that were part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War) and the European Union might help the White House in its efforts to ratify the treaty. European support could put additional pressure on Republicans in the Senate by casting the treaty as important to US national security issues, removing it from the realms of domestic politics; this distinction could prove central in the administration’s campaign following the failure of earlier negotiations with Senate Republicans. Furthermore, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev expressed hope that the treaty will in the end be ratified by the United States. This announcement, as well as a variety of deals concluded between NATO and Russia, suggest that the recent setback has not yet affected Moscow’s estimate of whether it is worth the effort to negotiate with Obama and the West in general. Apparently the Russians have not yet written off the “reset” policy and decided to give it another chance.

Progress in Disarmament

Where the broader nuclear disarmament agenda is concerned, Lisbon did not lead to major breakthroughs, which were possible and which many had hoped for. Nonetheless, there are modest opportunities for progress on several fronts in the coming years. It remains to be seen whether and how soon these opportunities could become reality.

Missile Defense

Perhaps the most significant news was the decision to engage in cooperation on missile defense – an issue that has been at the center of controversy between the United States and Russia for more than a decade. The two sides agreed to jointly conduct a study over the next six months looking at the possibility for cooperation on missile defenses. This endeavor would take the two sides beyond previous military exercises and other attempts at cooperation that addressed defenses which protect troops on the battlefield. The new study would look also at efforts to cooperate on defending civilian populations within their territories. It came as NATO was patching together a system for offering such territorial defense within the alliance.

As things stand now, the plans are quite modest. There is no more talk about a joint or integrated missile defense – NATO defense and Russian missile defense systems will remain separate and will only exchange data (presumably in real time). Even this seems a significant achievement, however – NATO needs data from Russian radars and previous Russian offers to provide such data could not be acted upon because of disagreements about the shape of the future US missile defense system.

Among these plans, the decision to conduct a joint study on missile threats appears most important. On the surface, this might seem to be a straightforward acceptance by NATO of a long-standing Russian proposal. Moscow has hoped for a long time to use such a study to limit the capabilities of the future system to commonly identified threats and thus block elements of missile defense that could jeopardize Russia’s strategic deterrence capability. This was one of key Russian objections to the George W. Bush missile defense plans which Moscow claimed were intended to address threats that did not exist (Iranian strategic missiles) while turning a blind eye to Teheran’s ability to reach Europe. The Obama administration’s September 2009 decision to revise short-term plans to focus on threats to Southern Europe was seen in Moscow as a positive sign primarily because it sought to address immediate threats to Europe instead of only theoretical threats to the United States.

Moscow’s ability, however, to control, whether fully or even partially, NATO’s threat assessment remains questionable. On the other hand, if Russia signs on to a joint identification of potential threat (Iranian missiles are likely to feature on the future list) this could put Moscow more firmly into the Western camp with regard to the Iranian nuclear and missile program.

Obviously, success of the joint program is not preordained. Many things could still go wrong in the nascent cooperative effort. Medvedev warned that if the parties do not find common ground, an arms race could begin as soon as by the middle of the decade. Yet, the new program represents the furthest that the United States, NATO, and Russia have been able to go on this topic.

NATO’s Nuclear Strategy

The NATO strategic concept—a once-a-decade document unveiled at the NATO summit in Lisbon—offered more of a mixed bag for those, such as the Germany, who had once hoped that it would lead to the withdrawal of the remaining 150-200 US non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, down from thousands during the Cold War. While the concept offered rhetorical support for Obama’s vision and called the prospect of using the weapons “very remote,” it nevertheless pledged that the alliance would remain a nuclear one. Nonetheless, a close reading of the concept and the summit communiqué offer evidence of an important shift in alliance attitudes towards the non-strategic weapons.

Noting the past sharp cuts in nuclear weapons in Europe and the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy the leaders pledged to “seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future.” How to do that is likely to be a major subject of a “defense and deterrence” review the leaders called for which would look particularly at the role of missile defense and nuclear weapons in the alliance. In a further positive step, the leaders called in their communiqué for this review to be conducted by the North Atlantic Council, which brings together NATO ambassadors rather than the NATO nuclear bureaucracy which favors the status quo. Left unclear, however, is the exact timeframe for the review. Furthermore, the concept notes that the supreme guarantee of the security of the allies is “provided by the strategic nuclear forces” of the alliance (held by the United States and the United Kingdom), and does not mention non-strategic nuclear weapons in this regard.

Meanwhile, language in the previous strategic concept (in 1999) that explicitly stated the need for basing nuclear weapons in Europe has been removed. Instead the new concept calls for ensuring “the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.” And the language appears to leave open the possibility of allowing countries like Germany to seek the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from its territory as long as they consult with other members.

According to the communiqué:

National decisions regarding arms control and disarmament may have an impact on the security of all Alliance members. We are committed to maintain, and develop as necessary, appropriate consultations among Allies on these issues.

To be sure, because of French resistance, the strategic concept fell short of some expectations by not changing NATO’s declaratory policy to match the recent changes the national policies of the United States and the UK regarding the potential use of forces that are pledged to defend NATO allies. In the US Nuclear Posture Review released earlier this year, the U.S. moved to limit the cases in which nuclear weapons would be used, saying they would not be used to deter chemical weapons attacks or against countries that were not armed with nuclear weapons as long as they were in good standing with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The concept also unfortunately links NATO’s nuclear reductions to Russia’s force of several thousand non-strategic nuclear weapons:

In any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members. Any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.

While the aims of this linkage are certainly worthy, the two sides have far different motivations for retaining these forces and they are not sized to counter each other. In particular, US military leaders have made clear that the US weapons in Europe offer no military advantage and serve only as a symbolic means of reassuring certain nervous countries, particularly the Baltic states, of US and alliance commitment to their security. Should other means be found to provide this reassurance, the alliance would have no further need for these nuclear weapons, with or without Russian action. For Russian leaders, in contrast, the status quo is reasonably comfortable: while they certainly seek withdrawal of the remaining US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from Europe, of greater value is the chance to retain the existing non-strategic nuclear force. All they need to do is maintain the traditional condition, namely, that they would not put their non-strategic nuclear weapons on the table until the United States withdraws its TNW from Europe.

Moreover, Russia is unlikely to act if the Obama administration is unable to advance the New START treaty on Capitol Hill. While treaty ratification is a lesser priority for Russia than other bilateral issues, such as congressional approval of a pending nuclear cooperation agreement or Russian access to the World Trade Organization, there is little expectation that Russia will agree to further steps on non-strategic nuclear weapons or other issues if it decides the Obama administration cannot deliver on its promises regarding New START. Under such circumstances, the new push for US-Russian missile defense cooperation would likely be stillborn, yet another victim of the US domestic political standoff.

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