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NATO Goes Anti-Nuclear?

There is extraordinary momentum behind calls to abolish nuclear weapons, with other NATO members challenging the U.S. to keep up.
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NATO nuclear test observers

In May 1957, NATO observers watch a nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site.

Photo courtesy of the United States Department of Energy.

President Obama's call for a nuclear-weapons-free world in Prague last April unleashed a great outpouring of support from international allies and grassroots activists demanding a process to actually eliminate nuclear weapons. One recent and unexpected initiative has come from America's NATO allies. Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway have called on NATO to review its nuclear policy and remove all U.S. nuclear weapons currently on European soil under NATO's  "nuclear sharing" policy. Despite U.S. insistence on strict adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapons states, several hundred U.S. nuclear bombs are housed in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.

Citing Obama's announcement in Prague of "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," the NATO allies have broken ranks with the United States. All five governments are experiencing domestic pressure to end the hypocrisy of the NPT, where nuclear "haves" disregard their disarmament requirements with impunity while using coercion, sanctions, threats of war, and even actual war (as in Iraq) to prevent the nuclear "have-nots" from acquiring nuclear bombs. Together with calls from major former political and military leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons, as well as UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon's proposal for a five-point program "to rid the world of nuclear bombs," these NATO members have seized the political moment. They have decided to do their part to maintain the integrity of the NPT in advance of the five-year review conference this May at the UN in New York.

The NATO five put NATO's nuclear policy on the agenda for an April strategy meeting in Estonia. They have neither been dissuaded by Obama's cautionary note that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world "will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime," nor discouraged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mistaken qualification of Obama's remarks when she said that "we might not achieve the ambition of a world without nuclear weapons in our lifetime or successive lifetimes" (emphasis added).

Progress Elsewhere

Japan has also called for more rapid progress on nuclear disarmament. The new Democratic Party government, which ended 60 years of one-party rule, wrote Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to disavow the pro-nuclear advocacy of former Japanese officials. U.S. militarists often cited such advocacy as a rationale for maintaining the U.S. nuclear "umbrella" over Japan. Supporting Obama's call for a nuclear-weapons-free world, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada urged the United States to declare that nuclear weapons would be used only for the "sole purpose" of deterring a nuclear attack. The declaration would end current U.S. policy, first expanded by the Clinton administration and maintained throughout the Bush presidency, to preemptively use nuclear weapons against the threat or use of chemical, biological, or conventional forces. Additionally, over 200 Japanese parliamentarians wrote to reassure Obama that, contrary to assertions by U.S. military hawks, Japan would not seek the possession of nuclear weapons were the United States to declare a "sole use" limitation on its nuclear arsenal.

These promising anti-nuclear positions come at an important political moment. Obama has been expected shortly to deliver to Congress a new nuclear posture review setting forth U.S. policy for the use of nuclear weapons. Originally scheduled for a January release, the review has been delayed several times. News of conflicting views among the drafters and of Obama's dissatisfaction with the most recent version, which promotes the status quo on outdated Cold War nuclear policies, has been prominently reported in the mainstream press.

Pentagon Pushback

Gates has defended existing nuclear policy and expressed dissatisfaction with our NATO allies. At a meeting to discuss NATO's 21st Century Strategic Concept—and on the heels of the Dutch government's collapse over the decision to extend its troop deployment in Afghanistan—Gates stated that:

The demilitarization of Europe—where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it—has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.

At the same meeting, U.S. National Security Advisor General James Jones said, "NATO must be prepared to address, deny, and deter the full spectrum of threats, whether emanating from within Europe at NATO's boundaries, or far beyond NATO's borders."

Clinton, furthermore, urged the exponential growth of missile defense throughout the world and warned that:

[N]uclear proliferation and the development of more sophisticated missiles in countries such as North Korea and Iran are reviving the specter of an interstate nuclear attack. So how do we in NATO do out part of ensure that such weapons never are unleashed on the world?

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, commenting on the new NATO strategic concept, raised Russia's deep concerns that NATO's assertion of a right to use military force globally violated the UN Charter. Russia views U.S. plans to ring Europe with missiles in Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania, with a missile command center in the Czech Republic, as a threat. The Obama-Medvedev negotiations on the first round of nuclear arms cuts on START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) have been delayed repeatedly by disagreements on U.S. plans for missile proliferation.

George Shultz with Ronald Reagan"No Nuclear Weapons"
Sarah van Gelder interviews former Secretary of State George Shultz, who advocates abolition of nuclear weapons.

Momentum Builds

Nevertheless, there is extraordinary momentum behind calls to abolish nuclear weapons. Thousands of international visitors are expected to join U.S. citizens to assemble, march, and rally in New York during the NPT Review Conference in May. Mayors for Peace is working to enroll 5,000 mayors in its Vision 2020 Campaign to complete negotiations on a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2020. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Abolition 2000 Network are committed to work for a nuclear weapons convention regardless of the NPT outcome. Norway, host of the successful Oslo process to ban cluster bombs, noted that the Oslo and Ottawa processes banning landmines could be replicated to move forward on a nuclear disarmament based on "powerful alliances between civil society and governments." There has been an unprecedented media focus on U.S. nuclear policy and debate about whether Obama can make good on his pledge and earn his Nobel Peace Prize.

Nearly 25 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed the forces of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. These forces kindled people's aspirations for freedom, resulting in the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet empire. Despite the formidable array of powerful interests lawlessly brandishing their missiles and refurbishing their nuclear arsenals, Obama and Medvedev's call for a nuclear-weapons-free world may similarly have unleashed forces that will transform the 20th-century paradigm of perpetual war and terror.


Alice SlaterAlice Slater is New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and serves on the Coordinating Committee of Abolition 2000. She is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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