Security & Defense

Incompatible Needs: Denuclearization vs. Nuclear Deterrence

This article analyses how short term security priorities are forcing NATO to revise its nuclear strategy despite the West’s support for  denuclearization, arms reduction and non-proliferation.

This article was originally published by Atlantic Treaty Association here

On May 27th, 2016, United States (US) President Barack Obama used his visit to Hiroshima, Japan, to refocus the world’s attention on denuclearization, a project which has been Obama’s concentration since he took office, and which awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Obama speaking at a wreath-ceremony with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

President Obama spoke after a wreath-laying ceremony with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday 27 May, 2016. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The speech was deemed hypocritical as the US is currently heavily investing into the modernization of its nuclear arsenal, instead of reducing it, as the denuclearization guidelines would suggest. Washington has also supported the deployment of more nuclear weapons to NATO’s eastern front in response to Russia’s threatening attitude. Of course, some efforts have been made towards nuclear arsenal reduction, notably through the signing of the New START Treaty signed by the United States and Russia, but overall, Obama’s project has been stalling since it was first announced.

The discrepancy between discourse and action is not only visible in the US; NATO seems to be following the same route as nuclear deterrence has regained importance over the past few years. North Korea’s nuclear tests, Iran’s controversial recent ballistic missile tests, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea are pushing NATO to redesign its nuclear strategy and increase its deterrence capacity.

At the upcoming NATO Warsaw Summit, the Allies will have to define how to use nuclear weapons in order to reassure the member states whilst not provoking a security dilemma elsewhere. Because of the different security priorities of the Allies, the Euro-Atlantic Alliance is split into two groups, some wishing to see the nuclear component more present in the confrontation with Russia, others rejecting the idea. In both cases, the effectiveness of the chosen response will be challenged by Moscow’s increased assertiveness and other global threats.

A New Nuclear Age

When trying to define NATO’s best possible approach to today’s nuclear threats, it is crucial to analyse the current nuclear paradigm, which has been referred to by scholars as the Third Nuclear Age.

The First Nuclear Age refers to that of the Cold War which rested on the NATO-Warsaw Pact bipolar confrontation; the second corresponds to the post-Cold War era when the threats were no longer states but rather unchecked non-state actors; the Third Nuclear Age is a system where the nuclear threat is used by irrational actors (be it state or non-state actors) to assert political power on the international scene when they do not otherwise have the resources to do so. It is generally accepted that the Third Nuclear Age started in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. By doing so, Russia unsettled the European security order by putting an end to its partnership with NATO and using its nuclear arsenal to assert itself as an influential world power again, thus making up for its conventional power inferiority.

The Third Nuclear Age opposes a political or economic ‘midget’, i.e. an actor which is insignificant on the international scene such as North Korea, a rising power like China, a declining power like Russia, or a non-state actor, to an established power through the use of nuclear weapons and whereby the former tries to impose its will on the latter. This confrontation is also used by political leaders as a means to boost their popularity; Kim-Jong Il proudly announced on May 7th “that his nuclear-weapons and missile programmes had brought the country ‘dignity and national power’”.

Timeline of North Korea's nuclear ambitions

North Korea’s nuclear path (The

The current nuclear age is also tainted with ideological antagonism between legal models: on one hand, the Western principles of rule of law, international rules and regulations, arm reduction and denuclearization are sought after; on the other hand, counterparts use hybrid methods as means of power. The latter model seems to rest on irrationality, which raises the issue of containment if a crisis were to erupt; indeed, the traditional nuclear concepts of first strike, escalation and even deterrence are not respected by all, thus creating further uncertainty and increasing the chances of security dilemma and as a consequence of a nuclear response.

The challenge is therefore to deter irrational actors who depend on their nuclear weapons to make their voices heard and make themselves look more important than they really are.

Deterring Russia: Reviewing NATO’s Strategy

In face of Russia’s renewed threatening attitude, the Alliance must modernize its nuclear strategy, a publicly recognized need, though NATO officials assert that no drastic turn will be made. In any case, NATO must ensure that “there is no doubt in the Russians’ mind that this idea of using nuclear weapons to “de-escalate a crisis” isn’t going to work.”

In Warsaw, NATO will thus work on refreshing its nuclear stance, which has not changed since NATO’s “Deterrence and Defense Posture Review” developed at the 2012 Chicago Summit. The Alliance is indeed in dire need to review this document as most principles it is based on, namely NATO-Russia good relations and cooperation, are no longer reflecting today’s reality.

What will be closely monitored by the general public is whether the Allies will modify the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia, which asserted that NATO had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, nor any need to change any aspect of [its] nuclear posture or nuclear policy”. If NATO did so – Poland, Latvia, the United Kingdom and the United States support the idea of an increased nuclear deployment towards the East – it would add a nuclear component to the Alliance’s sovereignty reinforcement measures already in place which will most certainly not be well received by Moscow.

A report from the Center for Non-proliferation Studies (CNS) studied the Allies’ take on reinforcing the nuclear presence closer to the frontline. The results lean towards a nuclear status quo where the atomic capabilities would remain in Western Europe as the frontline states see hosting nuclear weapons on their soil as “heightening their risk of being involved in a nuclear conflict with little positive payoff.”

It appears that border states believe that much can be done to deter Russia by implementing small changes in the Alliance’s conventional (and not nuclear) strategy. In addition, investing more resources into nuclear deterrence is regarded as a non-credible military and political choice which would take away crucial resources from conventional forces. What NATO can do is encourage the three nuclear Allies to cooperate to offer the rest of the Alliance a credible nuclear stance which will not demand further nuclear efforts.

Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

When revising its nuclear strategy, the Alliance must keep the big picture in mind in order to send a coherent message to the world. NATO has never taken part in the denuclearization movement, only in the arm reduction and anti-proliferation ones, as illustrated by the annual NATO Conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation. The Alliance believes, however, that nuclear weapons must be controlled and used for deterrence and not for intimidation. NATO must therefore continue to count on its nuclear capability while not increasing it, and expand its conventional capabilities to match that of Russia while not making Moscow feel insecure to the point where it will require to flex its nuclear muscles.

Placing nuclear weapons in NATO’s most eastern Allies, like Poland was suggesting, can be regarded as nuclear proliferation, as supported by denuclearization advocates. One can argue that nuclear weapons posted in NATO’s nuclear sharing program beneficiaries, that is Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, do not make those nations nuclear because the missiles belong to the US and are controlled by Washington; but this is subject to criticism as the host countries are seen as violating the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as a result of which NATO has been accused of double-standards by contributing to the proliferation of the nuclear technology. In that regards, expanding the scope of NATO’s nuclear sharing program, and especially to include Poland and the Baltic states, would send the wrong message regarding disarmament and non-proliferation, a goal the West has been supporting since the end of the Cold War.

Prevailing Short Term Security Goals

Obama stated on 30 March 2016 that, “as the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them. Still, no one nation can realize this vision alone. It must be the work of the world.” So far, the US has not led the way to this goal other than in discourse.

Needless to say that unilaterally diminishing the number of nuclear warheads is no easy task, especially when confronted with irrational actors such as North Korea, Russia and China who do not see eye to eye with the West on denuclearization. China sees this project as counterintuitive; after all, why destroy what one has spent so much money to build?

Regional crises have multiplied in recent years, notably because of the nuclear threat: China is currently expanding its arsenal without announcing to what extent and what for, which has repercussions for India, Pakistan and Asia-Pacific at large and for relations with the West and Russia; Israel’s undercover nuclear program impacts Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional actors; Russia’s nuclear exercises and tests, notably close to Sweden, and direct declarations that they would not hesitate to use the nuclear bomb if provoked are all signs of renewed tension; and North Korea’s tests and unruliness threaten South Korea and Japan, both NATO Partners Around the Globe.

The lack of transparency and accountability that some nuclear actors display to international organisations is worrisome as their disrespect of international laws increase uncertainty and cause a potential security dilemma, like Iran’s nuclear plans did before the 2003 sanctions. Russia renounced to participating in the annual Russian-American summits on nuclear safety, and withdrew from “the bilateral cooperation program designed to increase nuclear safety under the so-called Nunn-Lugar Act” which increases the risk of Russia’s “radioactive substances, nuclear weapon elements and nuclear expertise from falling into the wrong hands.” Some countries are no longer willing to play by the West’s rules, thus making denuclearization extremely unlikely.

Killing the Bird in the Nest

Today, denuclearization is not a priority for countries, preferring disarmament and non-proliferation as they are more realistic goals in threatening times. Disarmament is working to a certain extent, notably thanks to the New START Treaty. Non-proliferation has proven effective in the case of Iran: the sanctions aimed to kill Teheran’s nuclear ambitions in the nest before it was too late. This strategy has, however, proved unsuccessful in North Korea due in part to China’s support to the country, limited impact of the Six Party Talks, and Pyongyang’s disregard for international sanctions.

The risk of nuclear confrontation today is real. The increasing number of nuclear actors and their declared willingness to use their nuclear technology makes it necessary for the West to reassert its defensive strategy. Deterrence seems the best route to take in an effort to avoid provoking the irrational actors as well as support the denuclearization project.

While the West is officially trying to limit its armament, the rest of the world does not seem to be willing to follow suit. Denuclearization is an ambitious goal that most ultimately supports for the security of the world. Unfortunately, one cannot win a game where the others do not play by the rules, so for now, short-term security priorities will have to prevail.




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