The Continuing Relevance of NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy in an Uncertain World

Guy B. Roberts, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for WMD Policy at NATO
8 décembre 2008

Guy Roberts is the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for WMD Policy at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War as has the Alliance’s overall policy and force posture in response to the new security environment and, in that context, its stance towards some challenges on the road to nuclear disarmament. But NATO’s fundamental purpose, as set forth in our founding treaty, remains the same: “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of our peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” In doing so, we have agreed to unite for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. While our paths may be different, we all seek the same goal: a free, stable, prosperous, peaceful and secure world.

NATO continues to believe that the path to that world – one in which the risks of nuclear war remain low- requires a strong military posture that, for the Alliance, includes both conventional and nuclear forces. Let us be clear: As stated in the 1999 Strategic concept and every subsequent Defence Minister Communiqué on the subject, NATO continues to see the need for nuclear deterrence, for the continuing presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and the critical importance of consultation and burden sharing between Alliance members. Today, NATO employs and deploys a minimum nuclear deterrent force. The current and future role and utility of our conventional and nuclear deterrent posture is the same as it was in the past: “The fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war. In keeping this goal, the Alliance continues 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.” One cannot and should not ignore the fact that the presence of these weapons remains a pillar of the Alliance for political as well as military reasons.

This leads to one of many inconvenient truths which I would ask you to consider. We believe it is fundamental to our collective security that we meet the current and future threats and challenges of the future security environment from a position of strength. The Romans said it best: Sic vis pacem, para bellum. We entrust our security to our leaders, not to others. As former President Teddy Roosevelt said at the beginning of the last century: “We must always remember that it would be a fatal thing for great, free peoples to reduce themselves to impotence and leave the despots and barbarians armed.” In fact, consider the world in 1908. The Hague Peace conference had concluded, Andrew Carnegie had started building the Peace Palace in The Hague, many were writing that there would be no more wars. Who would have predicted what the next 40 years would bring? There is no case that I know of in history where a nation has been secure by pursuing a policy of vulnerability. The tragic arc of history has demonstrated that it is a sure path to destruction and enslavement.

Why Deterrence?

This leads to the question of why nuclear deterrence and more importantly, why nuclear deterrence for NATO? Nuclear weapons provide something that conventional forces cannot: incalculable risks. It is, of course, exceedingly difficult to prove a negative. So let me right up front make a statement of belief: «nuclear deterrence has prevented a catastrophic war for over 50 years and it will continue to be an effective insurance policy for the unstable and unpredictable world we live in.» Given that much of the worst violence in human history has occurred because of great power wars, we should not dispense with the very weaponry that has rendered such devastating conflicts almost obsolete.

When a potential aggressor thinks about the nuclear capability of NATO and chooses against an attack, nuclear weapons work. They thus serve as a political and psychological tool capable of maintaining the security of the allies. They are the only current weapon capable of destroying an entire society, raising the cost of aggression to an unacceptably high level. Such is not the case with conventional forces. While you may be outmatched conventionally, the risk of complete annihilation is very low. History is replete with cases of calculated aggression against larger, stronger conventionally armed adversaries, for example the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour.

Many statesmen have decried the grim character of deterrence.

Deterrence arises from a logical and a moral necessity – as Kenneth Walz pointed out in his 1954 classic, “Man, the State, and War.” Because men are not angels, because states can be malevolent, and because the international system of states is itself a jungle, without an all-powerful world government to enforce order, something like deterrence is required. Deterrence can be thought of as reason’s attempt to check the perpetual temptation of evil. As Edmund Burke warned: “There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men.” This includes assuming they will lie, cheat and betray. The search for perfect security is a fool’s errand in a world inherently beset by conflict. Deterrence thus seeks to build security on the firmer foothold of a realistic view of human nature. This is one that sees that the most reliable human motive is the preservation of things one holds most dear – particularly one’s own life. Our deterrence posture is such that we believe no regime, no matter how aggressive and risk-inclined, would be so foolish as to attack the Alliance, a move that would yield little advantage, and thereby incur an attack’s clear consequence – utter destruction.

Now, it is important to note that deterrence is fundamentally defensive and to be distinguished from its more brazen cousin, coercion, which is the use of threats of violence to accomplish positive ends.

Through the threat of overwhelming force it enforces peace, founding it on the firmer ground of respect and fear rather than the shiftier ground of ideology or aspiration. So if President Bush’s effort to diminish international conflict by improving the character of states, by making them democracies, does not work out, deterrence will still be available. Deterrence offers an insurance guarantee against the possible failure of idealists to reduce the likelihood of war by other means.

The Relevance of NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence

Recently, sceptics have begun to question ”what is the problem for which nuclear weapons is the answer?” There exists a wide spectrum of threats for which we need a wide spectrum of responses.

One could just as easily question what purpose an aircraft carrier or a Blackhawk helicopter serves. They do not necessarily deter every threat either, but they do serve a deterrent purpose. It is a matter of strategically building up a spectrum of responses to the spectrum of threats prevalent in the world today. Although nuclear weapons play a far smaller role in Alliance strategy than they did during the Cold War, NATO allies reaffirmed the importance of nuclear deterrence by stating that “to protect peace and to prevent war or any kind of coercion, the Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.” There are a number of reasons why the Alliance continues to believe this to be so.

Firstly, the Alliance must hedge against resurgent nuclear powers and against the potential for a strategic surprise. The Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. If NATO’s nuclear forces were to disappear, the Alliance would be vulnerable.

Reconstitution of NATO forces would take time, be costly, and be politically challenging as it could be perceived as escalatory. As confirmed by recent events, we must be prepared for all threats because the future is an uncertain and unpredictable place. States that do not adhere to international norms or fulfill their treaty obligations are unpredictable and potentially hostile. For example, in addition to testing a nuclear device, the North Koreans also threatened to sell nuclear weapon materials to non-state actors. The South African, Pakistan, Indian nuclear tests and Iraq’s nuclear weapons program just prior to the Gulf War are but a few examples.

Secondly, in the evolving and ever changing strategic landscape, NATO’s strategy remains one of war prevention. NATO’s nuclear forces contribute to peace and stability by underscoring the irrationality of attacking us and fulfilling an essential role by ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the Allies response to aggression. So rejecting the idea of no first use, for example, creates uncertainty for any country that might contemplate seeking political or military advantage through the threat or use of WMD. This deterrence -defensive- posture contributes to the Alliance’s efforts at preventing the proliferation of these weapons.

Thirdly, NATO’s nuclear posture contributes to our non-proliferation goals – NATO’s security guarantees are disincentives for further nuclear development. As mentioned earlier, the Strategic Concept refers to the essential political as well as military link nuclear weapons represent within the Alliance. Burden sharing and consultation form the basis of this nuclear pillar. One important rationale for the presence of nuclear weapons is that the nuclear weapon states would consult with the rest of the Alliance before any deployment or employment of such weapons. Further, a palpable demonstration of alliance solidarity will be the visible deployment of this capability demonstrating Alliance resolve with most Alliance members participating. This is consistent with the fundamental guiding principle of common commitment, mutual cooperation and collective security for all Alliance members.

NATO’s Reduced Force Posture

It must be stated that NATO has taken drastic steps to reduce its nuclear force levels. Treaties, like the NPT, START and SORT have all been helpful in making our security environment less tense. They, along with the end of the Cold War, have allowed for major reductions, including the removal of over 90% of the European based U.S. sub strategic forces, leaving only a few hundred gravity bombs as the only weapons system on the continent. Readiness levels have been lowered from minutes to months and the number of nuclear storage sites has dropped by 80%. These decisions are part of NATO’s commitment to “seek to enhance security and stability at the lowest possible level of forces consistent with the Alliance’s ability to provide for collective defence and to fulfill the full range of its missions.” But despite these extraordinary reductions and our continued commitment to positive arms control, there is no evidence that such efforts have had a positive impact on nonproliferation.

In fact, just the opposite has been the case. Russian cooperation on non-proliferation, for example, has never been tied to its calculations about the strategic balance between the U.S. and itself. Nor is there evidence that reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles on the part of Moscow and Washington have had a significant impact on the strategic desires of third countries like North Korea or Iran, to acquire weapons or of countries, such as Libya, Ukraine and South Africa, to reverse course and get out of the nuclear weapon business.

Despite NATO’s minimum force posture, there remain a number of arguments made against the Alliances nuclear deterrence policy.

The argument most often heard is that NATO policy is outdated.

We are forcing new and old member states to follow a nuclear weapons policy they, and their citizens, do not want. Some even point to public opinion polls to show such sentiment exists.

Between 1999 and 2004 NATO membership grew from 16 to 26, soon to be 28. Do not discount the importance these nations placed on nuclear deterrence, especially those new members who all too recently emerged from the oppression of the Soviet Union.

A nuclear umbrella was clearly an important factor in their desire to join the Alliance.

Another argument sometimes raised depicts a scenario similar to 1914. Imagine an assassination or some other event occurs triggering hostilities, which could escalate into a nuclear launch.

According to some, such a scenario is possible simply because nuclear weapons exist. Nevertheless, the idea of a “nuclear 1914” is not realistic. NATO maintains not only a nuclear advantage over states, but also a conventional advantage. This advantage is at a level that nuclear weapons need not be used except in extremely remote instances. But taking into account the diversity of risks with which we might be faced, we must maintain the forces necessary both to ensure credible deterrence and to provide a wide range of conventional response options. This mix hedges against both WMD threats and conventional threats and recognizes that the Alliance’s conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence remains the ultimate guarantee of the protection of our vital interests, including the preservation of peace and security.

Recent Russian statements indicate tensions between Russia and the United States are based on America’s nuclear commitments to NATO. Supposedly, by removing these weapons it will reduce the tension and provide Russia with an incentive to disarm its nuclear arsenal. It is an interesting proposition but dangerous and wrong since it would not significantly enhance the security of the Alliance.

I know of no historical or empirical evidence on which to support the idea that a unilateral move to disarm by one nation has resulted in a similar reciprocal response by an adversary. Russia’s military doctrine contemplates reliance on nuclear weapons as a logical response to the glaring inadequacy of her conventional forces premised on the idea that nuclear weapons have greater utility than simply to deter a large-scale nuclear attack. Maintenance of this “non-strategic” nuclear capability is not premised on the fact that NATO has nuclear weapons. Consequently, it is hard to logically postulate that the removal of NATO’s nuclear deterrent from Europe would serve as any incentive for Russia to eliminate its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. States make decisions on national security based on the perception of their vulnerability to threats.

Finally, some critics contend that any reliance on nuclear weapons undermines Article VI of the NPT; by NATO maintaining a nuclear capability, it supposedly hinders the non-proliferation movement.

NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements are fully consistent with the NPT. NATO member states, all party to the NPT, are in full agreement as to the legality of these arrangements. Nevertheless, we support the aspirational goals of Article VI as reflected by the massive amount of reductions in nuclear weapons and our strong support for a variety of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives, as stated in the Foreign Ministers’ communiqué of 3 December, 2008.


The Alliance was built on security guarantees, including nuclear assurances. If these are removed our security will be imperiled.

Despite NATO’s changing role internationally, for the foreseeable future nuclear weapons will have a place. As long as we continue to face a multiplicity of threats in a future unknown security environment, we will continue to need our nuclear deterrent.

The peace and stability which nuclear deterrence provides is immeasurable. In this uncertain and increasingly dangerous world where proliferation is a given fact, it is the best – albeit not perfect – answer to the question of how we continue to ensure the safety and security of our nations, our people, our freedoms. Disarmament yes, but not at the price of all we hold dear. Just as those who lived in 1908 could not predict the future, neither can we. But when an aggressor thinks about NATO’s nuclear capability and chooses not to attack, those weapons have worked. This will continue into the future, providing increased strength to our Euro-Atlantic Alliance, and to the millions of citizens living in all of our great nations. So, let us think hard about a world without nuclear weapons. This is one in which the knowledge to build one cannot be wished away, where great nations and a great Alliance would have accepted vulnerability instead of strength as the avenue to peace, and where 20 or 30 or 40 nations would have the wherewithal to quickly and clandestinely develop nuclear weapons in a perceived crisis. Such a world would be infinitely more dangerous and would actually greatly increase the likelihood that these most devastating of weapons would be used. So let me leave you with some additional personal observations for your consideration:

1. WMD proliferation is inevitable. As the recently released U.S.

WMD Commission report describes, we can slow and impede it, but it will happen. The reality is that technology, as it becomes cheaper and more abundant, will inevitably flow outwards, to smaller and weaker states and downwards, to sub-state actors.

Security is the good and security is best ensured by retaining a strong and credible nuclear force.

2. As the evidence demonstrates, there is no correlation between the Nuclear Weapon States’ disarmament record and non-proliferation.

Consequently, we should conceptually de-link our maintenance of a credible and modern nuclear force from the goal of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other WMD.

3. There are major, and in my mind insoluble, obstacles to nuclear disarmament in a world of sovereign nation-states. How can it be verified? How can a nation be sure its enemy has really, fully disarmed?

Related, if it could be verified, how can a nation be sure that its opponent will not re-arm? And in the insecure international environment, in which no one holds the monopoly on legitimate violence, there are no reliable means of recourse for injustice done among nations. The history of secretive programs and the failure to enforce compliance should give anyone pause.

In sum, given the profound dangers of possibly allowing another power to possess nuclear weapons while we do not, thereby opening ourselves to nuclear coercion, would be irresponsible and potentially catastrophic; certainly not a recipe for the peaceful, prosperous, free and secure world we all desire.

Unfortunately, the weapons we’ve invented cannot be uninvented.

We must live with them. It is an inevitable price human beings must pay to live in the age of technology. Living with destructive technologies is our lot, the modest punishment we must bear for progress. The bomb is with us to stay. It is, after all, the ultimate guardian of our safety.