The two faces of NATO

NATO must not clone US nuclear first-strike policy at Prague meeting

Feature story - 21 November, 2002
In public NATO speaks soothingly of disarmament and non-proliferation. But there is another face to NATO we don't often see, the warlike one of a well-armed nuclear force. In the firm grasp of the US, this shadowy face is being tilted toward a policy of nuclear first-strike. Will NATO leaders meeting now in Prague usher in darker and more dangerous days by adopting a new aggressive US stance?

Police remove Greenpeace 'Stop Star Wars' banner from Danish foreign ministry. Danish participation is strategic for US Star Wars plans.

Hawks in doves' clothing

They speak the peaceful words of the post-Cold War era. NATO member states say they are committed to the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. And NATO has reduced the types and numbers of its sub-strategic nuclear forces over Europe since 1991.

What they don't say is that the vast majority of those eliminated were out of date, unsafe and militarily useless. Others eliminated, such as Cruise and Pershing were deemed politically and publicly unacceptable by many European countries even during the Cold War.

Unfortunately NATO remains politically and symbolically committed to nuclear weapons, and Europe's turf still bristles with them. Seven European NATO members (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Italy, Turkey and the UK) currently have an estimated 150 US air-launched nuclear bombs based on their territories. The NATO nuclear weapons states (USA, France and the UK) posses a combined force of over ten thousand nuclear weapons.

Grim tango of risk takes new twist

But with the tensions of the Cold War over, surely we are moving away from the risk of actually using nuclear weapons, right? Wrong. The US Bush administration seems bent on reviving the spectre of nuclear war so vivid in the Reagan era -- but with a new twist.

This year marked a frightening new shift in why and how US nuclear forces could be used. Previously the US described nuclear weapons as purely "defensive weapon[s] of last resort". But in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), they have been named as 'offensive' weapons that could be used pre-emptively.

Mission impossible: hitting a bullet with a bullet

A major cornerstone of the NPR is "Star Wars", the son of the failed Reagan-era missile defence system. Likened by critics to "hitting a bullet with a bullet" the system is unlikely to be truly effective, but carries the massive price tag of an estimated $US 60 to 200 billion. The Star Wars program can only lead to a re-ignition of the arms race and a return to the "Cold War".


It's no wonder the new US strategy of the NPR caused a storm when it was leaked to the public in March this year. Whilst US State Department officials have attempted to dismiss it by saying it is not formally adopted policy, the US Department of Defense report to the US president and congress describes the NPR as a "blueprint".

This new warlike stance is a direct strike on peace and disarmament. It defies the policy agreed in 1995 by all five of the world's nuclear weapons states. At that time, the policy was that only nuclear weapons states or those in alliance with a nuclear state risked nuclear attack from a nuclear weapons state. Under the new US policy, any state could be attacked with nuclear weapons.

Will NATO clone US policy? Again?

Worse, extracts from the NPR reveal that the US is seeking to change NATO policy. NATO has a long history of marching obediently in the military footsteps of the US. With President Bush's nuclear doctrine shifting to an emphasis on first-use of nuclear weapons - even in a conventional conflict or before a military conflict has begun - NATO doctrine will be under pressure to do likewise. The question is: will NATO governments publicly endorse the new US nuclear policy? Or will there merely be a tacit acceptance of it?

In fact, they should do neither. "In the post-Cold War era it is time for NATO to seriously review its addiction to nuclear weapons," said Greenpeace campaigner William Peden, "not to attempt to find new justifications for their continued possession."

The US is also using the Prague summit to tell NATO it should have its own version of Star Wars. They want NATO to begin feasibility studies and to start developing a NATO-wide system. But the immense drawbacks of the scientific and political fantasy that is Star Wars remain. Bafflingly, those who voiced opposition in the past appear to be warming to this idea.

NATO must go public

These changes to NATO policy would be decisions of huge significance. They must therefore be publicly debated in all NATO countries, and that includes debate in all parliaments.

Ultimately, NATO leaders must reject the frightening new US stance set down in its NPR because it is no basis for NATO policy. NATO leaders must clearly pledge not to support a pre-emptive or first-use of nuclear weapons.