By Shane Ward
Eleven years after its last Strategic Concept, NATO faces its most critical self-assessment since the Cold War.
“Our security environment is more complex and contested than ever before,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated earlier this year. “We are adapting to a more competitive world.”
The new Strategic Concept, which establishes NATO’s “enduring purpose and nature,” was announced at the 2021 Brussels Summit and aims to provide a framework for addressing the most pressing Euro-Atlantic security tasks. The timing for its release is uncertain, but it will come out prior to the next NATO summit in 2022. To be successful, it must rethink its nuclear dimension in a way that embraces arms control without alienating allies who rely on extended deterrence.
That will mean navigating a complex array of security issues that have redefined NATO’s principal agendas. Russia remains the core challenge, but optimism about an “ongoing dialogue” has dampened from the previous review as Moscow has continued territorial aggressions in eastern Europe and pursued worrying new types of nuclear weapons.
In spite of Stoltenberg’s insistence that “NATO does not see China as an adversary,” Beijing’s rise since the previous Strategic Concept has also entirely reshaped the way the Alliance must assess it. While it does not constitute a direct military threat to the Euro-Atlantic, China’s economic competition, authoritarian crackdowns, and expansion into the cyber and space domains demand attention. The discovery of new nuclear missile silo fields in Gansu Province and eastern Xinjiang in recent months exacerbate that need further still.
On arms control, the picture is uncertain. Russian violations led to the demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, leaving the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the only remaining limit on strategic forces. NATO’s support of Washington’s INF withdrawal proved that the Alliance remains united, and that Moscow’s actions have consequences, however. For the first time, NATO should also consider other threat streams and their implications on global nuclear proliferation and risk, especially climate change and its repercussions on Arctic security.
What does the existing Strategic Concept say?
In its nuclear dimension, NATO has long backed a “dual-track” approach to arms control, coupling the forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe to ensure deterrence with an overarching goal of avoiding an arms race. Recent Strategic Reviews have stressed the need for “the minimum level (of nuclear deployment) required” with little elaboration on the parameters of that level. Beyond ambitions to engage Russia in dialogue about the elimination of sub-strategic nuclear weapons, the current review also does little to affirm concrete steps to achieve NATO’s disarmament ambitions, while upholding the continued need for U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. Subsequent communiques reaffirmed the strategic need for deterrence as relations with Russia deteriorated over events in Crimea.
NATO’s nuclear policy since the Cold War has been generally consistent. The challenge for the organization is not only the rapidly evolving security environment, but also in keeping alliance unity. In particular, Washington’s forward-deployed nonstrategic weapons are both a key deterrent for member states and a cohesive element of the Alliance.
Room for change
NATO’s upcoming Strategic Concept must address both the need for arms control and nuclear non-proliferation more aggressively than before, and in ways that do not compromise alliance security.
First, it must address the growing risk of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. Until now, NATO’s approach has been to respond accordingly to changes in Russian posture, but Moscow has continued to modernize its already bloated stockpile of these weapons and has announced development of purported new technologies that could serve as means of delivery. New deployment of NATO nuclear weapons would add nothing to deterrence and risk exacerbating perceptions of an arms race. The continued forward-deployment of lower yield warheads in Europe may no longer provide an “effective deterrent,” and only serves to lower the threshold to nuclear conflict. For those warheads committed to NATO, a better arms control agenda can help alleviate the burden they bear on alliance security that might allow them to be phased out.
Rather than try to back Russia down on these weapons, the Alliance should seek to utilize its leverages to encourage Moscow to put its own nonstrategic stockpile on the arms control agenda. The 2010 Strategic Concept already “dramatically curtailed the types and numbers of sub-strategic nuclear forces in Europe,” so there is precedent for reduction on both sides. Bringing Russia to the table on these weapons won’t be easy though. NATO should remain the advocate for a safer Europe through reductions of weapons everyone can agree should never be used and place the onus on Russia to justify their continued existence. As Russian non-strategic weapons threaten only Europe, the EU can work with NATO to bring some of its considerable economic leverage to bear. A commitment to climate issues in the new review can also signal intent to escape Moscow’s stranglehold on energy, which has previously constrained firm European economic action.
The Alliance also cannot afford to neglect non-proliferation, an essential starting block on the path to disarmament. NATO members should reinforce their commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which has seen its integrity undermined in recent years by modernization and North Korea. The implementation of previous points will help, but members should also keep pressure on non-signatories as well as Iran to honor the treaty.
Perhaps the greatest departure from the previous Strategic Concept will be the review’s approach to China. Beijing may not be a military adversary in the Euro-Atlantic, but its nuclear modernization poses risks on both sides of the ocean. Missile defense concessions may help, but a uniform China strategy is necessary, and that has been lacking in the Alliance. NATO must seek to involve China in its arms control dialogues, leveraging its European partners’ economic and diplomatic ties to seek at a minimum transparency as to China’s intentions for its strategic forces. This may require that the United Kingdom and France open up to similar transparency, but the potential benefit of bringing China into arms control talks would be great for the Alliance, and especially Washington.
A New Raison D’être
If NATO is truly a nuclear alliance, then its nuclear policies must evolve with the changing security environment. The long-standing dual-track approach is no longer viable, but changes can be made without weakening alliance security, and doing so may instead be beneficial to the security of its members. Reductions in nonstrategic weapons need not cede Russia any advantages, while like-for-like transparency with China only strengthens the overall non-proliferation regime. By embracing arms control, the Alliance can also seize the moral high ground, shifting pressure onto Moscow and Beijing to follow through. It can also serve to highlight key differences between what should be limited modernizations in NATO arsenals and deployments of new and potentially destabilizing weapons on the part of the Alliance’s competitors.
The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has ended one of the Alliance’s principal missions this century. If NATO wants to be considered as far more than just a military alliance, it needs a new raison d’être that is not still rooted in bilateral Cold War politics and nuclear brinksmanship. A fresh nuclear dimension, characterized by firm commitments to arms control agreements and non-proliferation as well as the elimination of dangerous low-yield weapons, instead of vague allusions, can be just that.