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New Opportunities to Question US Reliance upon Nuclear Weapons

Erika Simpson

There is a fear among many North Americans and Europeans that the United States Administration could resort to using nuclear weapons in a future conflict. While other nuclear weapons States – Russia, China, France, and Britain – officially retain nuclear weapons in their stockpiles, it is the American use of new theatre and battlefield nuclear weapons that seems more likely to occur. This perception stems from the Bush Administration’s seemingly greater willingness to resort to the use of its arsenal. This has been reflected clearly in the policy decisions of the Administration and its declaration that: “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past… To forestall or prevent such hostile acts the US will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.”1

This article argues that the ‘new’ U.S. doctrine with its emphasis on pre-emptive strikes is dangerous and has broad implications for NATO’s traditional Strategic Concept, which regards nuclear weapons as ‘essential.’2Behind-the-scenes, defense policy-makers in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels are beginning to discuss whether the Strategic Concept should somehow be revised by the U.S. and its NATO allies, perhaps in time for NATO’s sixtieth anniversary in 2009.3 The 2008 U.S. presidential election process and the two Preparatory Committee meetings leading up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 2010 also present significant opportunities to re-examine the United States’ reliance on nuclear weapons. In doing so, questions should also be raised about the other nuclear weapons States’ emphasis upon nuclear weapons. Imminent ‘change’ in the American political scene presents the international arms control and disarmament community with some unprecedented opportunities to effect change in U.S. and NATO nuclear doctrine over the next two years.

Dangerous Attitudes toward Pre-emptive Nuclear War

In early 2002, the Bush Administration declared in its National Security Strategy that the U.S. could no longer rely solely on a ‘reactive’ posture as it had in the past. The U.S. would, if necessary, act ‘pre-emptively’ to forestall or prevent hostile acts by rogue states and terrorists. Its increased or ‘new’ emphasis on pre-emptive doctrine was strongly criticized by many politicians and scholars. However, despite this criticism, the current government asserted essentially the same policy in its 2006 National Security Strategy:

“The U.S. has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”4

Arguably, the U.S. and Western Alliance’s concepts of nuclear deterrence and nuclear pre-emption must move away from the traditional notion of ‘defending’ against threats – such as strategic or tactical nuclear weapons – and away from the newer notion of ‘offensively’ using pre-emptive nuclear strikes. Instead, the emphasis must be placed on achieving ‘minimal’ nuclear deterrence and, eventually, nuclear abolition.5 If the U.S. continues on its present trajectory – threatening to respond to or pre-empt a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack, possibly with nuclear weaponry – it may incite an arms race where states and sub-state actors seek to deter, or pre-empt, using all sorts of newer weapons, including expensive options ranging from enhanced radiation weapons to satellites in space to nuclear-survivable communications systems. The costs for the world will continue to be enormous as countries compete to design weapons for use against possibly undeterrable terrorists, on rogue state battlefields, and in outer space. As a statement on nuclear weapons policy issued by the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation states: “It is the US insistence on retaining a nuclear weapons option that sets the tone for the world as a whole… In this post-September 11th climate, the U.S. has suddenly become for other governments a country to be deterred rather than, as in the Cold War, a country practicing deterrence to discourage aggression by others.”6

Reassessing NATO’s Reliance on Nuclear Deterrence

The United States’ allies need to ask themselves in the months leading up to NATO’s sixtieth anniversary in 2009 and the 2010 NPT Review Conference whether nuclear weapons actually offer protection. Does the possession of nuclear weapons deter potential aggressors from attacking? Curiously, the leaders of the non-nuclear weapon states in NATO continue to profess their reliance on traditional nuclear deterrence, while the U.S. moved five years ago toward a pre-emptive strategy that promises to strike first with nuclear weapons, even in the event of a limited chemical or biological attack. The situation is similar to the late 1950s and 1960s when all the NATO allies continued to rely upon one permutation of nuclear deterrence – mutual assured destruction or MAD – even as the U.S. developed another permutation called ‘flexible response.’7

To clarify, NATO’s ‘new’ Strategic Concept (asserted in 1991 and reissued in 1999) links the non-nuclear weapon states in NATO to the overall nuclear policies of the NATO nuclear weapon states by asserting that, “The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies.”8 The Strategic Concept directly implicates the NATO non-nuclear weapon states in NATO’s nuclear plans and force posture:

“A credible Alliance nuclear posture and the demonstration of Alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements. Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe.”9

Recent interviews at NATO headquarters indicate some sort of in-depth review of NATO’s nuclear doctrine may be forthcoming, perhaps in time for NATO’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations in 2009. Changes in the Strategic Concept may also be expected preceding or in the wake of changes in the U.S. Administration.10 We need to remember that efforts to change NATO’s deterrent policy can be initiated at the nation-state level.11 The thrust for NATO’s 1999 review essentially began because Canada’s parliament released a report calling for a re-examination of NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence and the Strategic Concept.12 Canada’s former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy committed his department to attempt to change NATO’s nuclear doctrine.13 Working together with Joschka Fisher, the German Foreign Minister, these critics of NATO policy attempted to persuade NATO diplomats that the Alliance needed to reconsider its reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes. In the final analysis, even American diplomats at NATO Headquarters were impressed with the Canadian/German initiative and the determination of the Canadian Foreign Minister and his diplomatic aides.14 In a similar fashion, working together with other like-minded ‘middle powers’ in NATO, such as Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, it might be possible to revise NATO’s nuclear doctrine.15

The 2005 NPT Review Conference

Prior to the 2005 NPT Review Conference, the Middle Powers Initiative and Pugwash Canada, the national affiliate of the Pugwash International Conferences on Science and World Affairs, held several roundtables for Canadian officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations. They recommended strengthening the ‘moderate middle’ of the debate so as to bring ‘moderate’ NATO states and New Agenda Coalition states together in support of a strategy to bridge the growing gap between ‘disarmament’ and ‘non-proliferation’ elements in the NPT review process.16 The Middle Powers Initiative under the leadership of its chair, Canadian Senator Douglas Roche, organized strategy sessions, roundtables, and conferences with support from a huge variety of organizations, ranging from the International Pugwash Conferences to the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. With a view to strengthening the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime, most of the energy and focus centred around preparations for the 2005 Review Conference. Was this a tactical error?

Unfortunately, the talks in the various NPT Preparatory Committee meetings failed heralding the actual collapse in acrimony of the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.17 The abysmal failure of diplomats from 188 nations to agree to anything at all – not a single document or proposal – meant that the NPT reached its greatest crisis point since its inception in 1968. In fact, the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime faced its greatest threat ever, augmented by the United States’ decision to pull-out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to renege from signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The blame for this sorry state of affairs was placed squarely by countries in the Non-Aligned Movement on the U.S. Administration, even as they begin thinking about possibly acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. The fact that nobody could agree on any proposals to reign in Iran and North Korea meant that these two countries could be perceived as having implicitly obtained the ‘go-ahead’ to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. The world’s citizens faced the frightening prospect of a world of nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ where possession of nuclear weapons was perceived as justifiable, even a normal state of affairs. Evidently diplomats had wasted precious time at this NPT Review Conference arguing about diplomatic wording instead of solving pressing nuclear problems; moreover, a disturbing precedent was set for any future arms control and disarmament conferences.18

The 2010 NPT Review Conference and the Middle Powers Initiative

The two upcoming Preparatory Committee meetings and the eighth Review Conference of the NPT in 2010 face incredibly daunting challenges. Arguably, the original nuclear weapons states (U.S., Russia, UK, France, and China) have not lived up to their obligations under Article VI of the NPT to move decisively toward the irreversible elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Such inaction has already invited charges of hypocrisy – particularly as some of these same countries seek to deny access to nuclear technologies by non-nuclear weapon states, like Iran, or, in the case of the U.S., threaten to carry out military pre-emption to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other countries.

It therefore seemed imperative that the Middle Powers Initiative undertake a series of international consultations (the so-called Article VI Fora) through which middle powers and non-nuclear weapon states could build support for a series of achievable measures. Also, with the support of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a high-level roundtable on The Imperative of Revitalizing Nuclear Disarmament was held on the occasion of Pugwash’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations in Bari, Italy, in October 2007.19

Just as middle powers like Canada and Germany previously took the lead to ask NATO to review its reliance on deterrence, it may be possible for middle powers to play a significant role in questioning the reasons for and implications of the United States’ emphasis on the doctrine of pre-emptive nuclear warfare, along with the problems emanating from the other great powers’ continued reliance on traditional nuclear deterrence.

Problems with Traditional Assumptions about Nuclear Deterrence

The United States’ allies need to ask themselves in the months leading up to NATO’s sixtieth anniversary and the 2010 NPT Review Conference whether nuclear weapons protect them by deterring potential aggressors from attacking. During the Cold War, strategists assumed that by threatening massive retaliation, nuclear weapons could credibly prevent an enemy from attacking. September 11th demonstrated that there are no guarantees that the threats of pre-emption or retaliation will succeed in preventing an attack – indeed, it may be difficult to retaliate against a sub-state opponent, like a terrorist group. Moreover, traditional arguments against classical deterrence still hold true. There are many ways that deterrence and/or pre-emption could fail, including misunderstanding, miscalculation, poor communication, irrational leadership, and accident.20

The problem is that although non-nuclear weapon states in NATO and the New Agenda Coalition are questioning the efficacy of relying upon deterrence – and strengthening the ‘moderate middle’ of the debate –, there is little likelihood that hard-line strategists at different ends of the spectrum will come to the same conclusion. This is partly because it is difficult to give up long-held assumptions. Will this generation of strategic decision-makers have to retire or die before they can relinquish their convictions about deterrence?

It is notable that in each of Christopher Columbus’ four voyages between 1492 and 1504, Columbus believed that “he had reached Asia, he was in Asia, and it was from Asia he returned. No one, nothing, to the day of his death, ever made him relinquish that cherished conviction.”21

Similarly, many senior defence decision-makers in the upper echelons of nuclear policy-making continue to surmise that traditional concepts underlying nuclear deterrence have succeeded simply because there was no large-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was not until after 9/11 that strong advocates of deterrence from the ‘New Right’, like President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, came to reluctantly recognize that deterrence could fail to work with sub-state actors and a more credible alternative was needed. However, instead of moving away from the traditional notion of defending against threats through deterrence, they embraced the new notion of ‘offensively’ or credibly threatening to use pre-emptive strikes, possibly nuclear weaponry. They chose to reissue the National Security Strategy of 2002 in essentially its same form in 2006, despite widespread international criticism.22

Alternatives to Pre-emptive Nuclear Strikes And ‘First Use’

Since all the NATO allies depend on a relationship of ‘extended deterrence’ with the U.S. (even if they profess to be nuclear-weapon free on their own soil), it is incumbent upon each of them to examine ‘new’ and older U.S. ideas about ‘first-use’ and pre-emptive warfare. This should be done with a view to generating a much-greater range of alternative strategies, from reassurance to coercion. Every region of the world, not just those under NATO auspices, needs to develop more ideas about alternatives to nuclear first use. We need to improve treaty verification; increase funding for inspection regimes; improve cutting-edge technologies; develop more-effective sanctions; and enhance control over fissile materials. History shows that first steps towards regional, then global security can be taken by individual leaders through regional organizations, like NATO, the Non Aligned Movement, the Middle Powers Initiative, and International Pugwash. It is imperative that each NATO ally reconsider its reliance on extended deterrence and pre-emptive nuclear strikes in light of the new types of threats and challenges the international community now faces.

Conversely, some significant obstacles to undertaking such reforms revolve around the continuing lack of consensus about NATO’s collective security guarantees.

NATO’s Collective Security Guarantees

The NATO allies responded swiftly to the September 11 terror attacks, invoking Article V – the collective defence provision – of the 1949 Washington Treaty the following day. Apparently all the NATO allies were in agreement about the necessity of a collective response to the attack on America.23 However, the atmosphere of consensus dissipated shortly before the U.S. attack on Iraq in March 2003. France, Germany, and Belgium imposed a veto on the commencement of military planning to defend Turkey, another member state, in the event of hostilities with Iraq. To date, the effects of the Franco-German rebuff have been considerable. For example, former members of the Warsaw Pact that have either joined or hoped to join the Alliance are asking whether France and Germany might be prepared to veto NATO countermeasures to help them in the event of a crisis? These countries are particularly dependent on NATO’s collective security guarantee because they are being asked to give up much of their all-round and outdated defensive capabilities in order to contribute specialist skills. All the allies need to engage in a discussion about when and how Article V provisions will protect them during a crisis. In the context of a debate about Article V in NATO’s charter and Article VI in the NPT, it will be important to engage in a no-holds-barred discussion about America’s new pre-emptive strategy and its implications for the other NATO allies, all of whom shelter under the American nuclear umbrella, even if they claim to be nuclear-weapon free zones.

American Unilateralism and Heavy-Handedness

Yet another fall-out of the war against Iraq relates to perceptions of American heavy-handedness. For example, at one point U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to pull NATO headquarters out of Brussels.24 The Bush Administration’s propensity to threaten its NATO allies with extreme measures was most telling in its decision to suspend military assistance to six nations seeking NATO membership because they failed to exempt American citizens from prosecution in the new International Criminal Court.25 The Bush Administration has taken a more aggressive approach than has ever been seen in NATO corridors. And, because of this, open, unfettered discussion about America’s new pre-emptive strategy and its implications for the other NATO allies is very unlikely, at least until a new U.S. President is elected later this year.

The Opportunities Presented by the U.S. Presidential Election

It is notable that the Democrat’s previous presidential candidate in 2004, John Kerry, appealed to American citizens to vote for him because “I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world and we are leading strong alliances.”26 Kerry seemed to tap a strong desire in the American public not to ‘go it alone’ in Iraq or other conflicted areas of the world. Although George Bush never promised to consult others more often if he won the 2004 presidential election, the process of bringing more allies into the U.S. coalition in Iraq required considerable give-and-take negotiating at UN and NATO headquarters. The next U.S. Administration – whether it is led by a Democrat like Barack Obama or a Republican like John McCain – will be forced to take a more multilateral approach, eschewing the aggressive approach that came to describe George Bush’s eight years in office. In consulting with its NATO allies, and other middle powers and non-nuclear weapon states, there should be an increased opportunity to press for substantive change in U.S. and NATO nuclear doctrine.

There needs to be more debate among American citizens and among the United States’ allies about whether the new pre-emptive doctrine is a greater threat to the world’s security than, for example, the threat from small-scale tyrants like Iraq’s belated Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. In any discussions about whether the U.S. itself now poses the most serious threat to world security, some facts need to be highlighted – after all, it is better to judge a nation by what it does, not what it says. The U.S. has yet to take its nuclear arsenal off the high alert status of the Cold War.27 As this article points out, it has not renounced first use and it continues to threaten to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, in any circumstance. It opposes ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and it unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty. In addition, it has already made plans to shorten the time needed to resume testing of new and more usable tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons.

The situation is similar to a boy’s gang where the leaders are hell-bent on a dangerous course. Do the other boys follow them blindly or do they call a meeting to argue about the club’s rules and principles?

Being a member of the NATO club does not entail unquestioning allegiance to the United States’ leaders and their policies. In the run-up to the election, America’s allies must question whether the United States’ comparatively enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons remains necessary. Questions need to be asked as to whether the U.S. threat to resort to pre-emptive nuclear war, rather than rely on minimal deterrence, increases or decreases international security. To conclude, the leaders of the NATO Alliance need to make some significant moves to transform their reliance on nuclear doctrine because, if not, the most important non-proliferation treaty in history will fail to receive in 2010 the support it requires for building a more secure world.


Erika Simpson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada and a Vice Chair of Pugwash Canada; simpson [at] uwo [dot] ca.

  1. 1. The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States, September, 2002, p. 2; www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.pdf.
  2. 2. Due to space constraints, this article does not overview the evolution of ‘new’ U.S. ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ strategy toward or away from nuclear ‘first use.’ Nor does it provide evidence of the Bush Administration’s seemingly greater willingness to resort to nuclear use. Such discussions and policy debates date back prior to 2002 when excerpts from the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review were leaked to the New York Times and Los Angeles Post and subsequently posted by the Global Security Institute; www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm.
  3. 3. Confidential interviews by the author with various NATO defense policy-makers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels and at a NATO-sponsored conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Vilnius, Lithuania, including Dr. Guy Roberts, Director of the Nuclear Policy Directorate, Defence Policy and Planning Division, NATO Headquarters, April 23, 2007, and Dr. Michael Ruhle, Head, Speechwriting & Senior Policy Adviser, Policy Planning Unit, Private Office of the Secretary General, NATO Headquarters, April 24, 2007.
  4. 4. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States, March 2006, p. 15; www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2006/nss2006.pdf.
  5. 5. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, A world free of nuclear weapons, Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.
  6. 6. Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century: A Path Forward, June 15, 2003; www.wagingpeace.org/articles/2003/06/15_21st-century.htm.
  7. 7. For more information, see Erika Simpson, NATO and the Bomb: Canadian Defenders Confront Critics, Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, Chapter 3.
  8. 8. NATO, Report on Options for Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs), Verification, Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament, NATO Press Release, 14 December 2000; www.nato.int/docu/pr/2000/p00-121e/rep-csbm.pdf. NATO, The Alliance’s Strategic Concept, 24 April 1999, para. 62, www.nato.int/docu/pr/1999/p99-065e.htm.
  9. 9. The Alliance’s Strategic Concept, op.cit., para. 63.
  10. 10. Confidential interviews by the author of Dr. Guy Roberts and Dr. Michael Ruhle, op.cit.
  11. 11. Erika Simpson, New Threats to the Alliance’s Security and Strategies to Reform NATO, The Transatlantic Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2005, pp. 47-51.
  12. 12. Government of Canada, Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century, Ottawa: Publications Service, December 1998. See also Erika Simpson, Canada’s NATO commitment: Current controversies, past debates, and future issues,Behind the Headlines, vol. 57, no. 2/3, Winter/Spring 2000, pp. 20-27.
  13. 13. Senator Douglas Roche and Ernie Regehr, NATO and Nuclear Weapons, Toronto, March 17, 2001.
  14. 14. Interview by the author with Canada’s Deputy Ambassador to NATO, Robert McCrae, February 2001, and off-record comments by senior members of the US Delegation to NATO, February 2001.
  15. 15. No author, Nonproliferation and Disarmament go hand in hand, International Herald Tribune, September 22, 2004.
  16. 16. Canadian Pugwash Group, Building Bridges: the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Canada’s Nuclear Weapons Policies; www.pugwashgroup.ca/communications.htm#reports.
  17. 17. Erika Simpson, Threats to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Embassy: Canada’s Foreign Policy Newsweekly, May 4, 2005, p. 7.
  18. 18. Erika Simpson, NPT Conference Collapses in Acrimony, Embassy Canada’s Foreign Policy Newsweekly, June 1, 2005.
  19. 19. The presentations and final reports from all these meetings are providing more launching points for further discussion in 2008. See the Middle Powers Initiative website at www.middlepowers.org for background information. See also Canadian Pugwash Group, Canadian Pugwash Group calls for NATO to denuclearize, www.pugwashgroup.ca.
  20. 20. See Erika Simpson, NATO and the Bomb, op.cit., for analyses by high-level decision-makers (e.g. U.S. Presidents, Canadian Prime Ministers, etc.,) of how deterrence could fail due to misunderstanding, miscalculation, poor communication, irrational leadership, and accident.
  21. 21. Quoted in David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 93. For more information on the powerful impact of belief systems on decision-making, see Erika Simpson, NATO and the Bomb, op.cit., Chapters 3 and 5.
  22. 22. For a more detailed analysis, see Erika Simpson, The new U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive warfare and its implications for nuclear deterrence and disarmament, Peace & Society, Spring 2007.
  23. 23. U.S. Department of Defense, Allied Contributions to the Common Defense, Report, Chapter I: Executive Summary, available at www.defenselink.mil/pubs/allied_contrib2002/.
  24. 24. Rumsfeld wanted Belgium to agree to repeal a law which gives its courts universal jurisdiction to try cases of genocide, war crimes and human rights violations. While Belgian parliamentarians did agree to change the law to cases in which either the victim or the accused were residents of Belgium, war crimes lawsuits were filed against U.S. President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, General Tommy Franks, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. For more information, see The Sunflower, July 2003, No. 74; New York Times, 14 June 2003; Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2003.
  25. 25. As the deadline passed for governments to sign exemption agreements or face the suspension of U.S. military aid, President Bush issued waivers for 22 countries but he did not include six future NATO allies: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
  26. 26. Washington Post, Transcript: First Presidential Debate, September 30,2004; www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/debatereferee/debate_0930.html.
  27. 27. Erika Simpson and Murray Thomson, U.S. vs Iran: The Roulette Wheel Is Spinning, Arab News, November 16, 2007.