NATO’s tragedy

The WMD Blog

Despite almost 70 years of condemning resolutions and statements, nuclear weapons are still not explicitly prohibited by international law. NATO is one of the main obstacles for a ban.

By Kjølv Egeland and Torbjørn Graff Hugo
5 September 2014

On September 4/5, the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende, and Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Søreide will attend the NATO summit in Wales. That would have been an excellent occasion for the Norwegian policy makers to discuss NATO’s geriatric and somewhat unconstructive nuclear-weapons policy with allied peers. But the summit in Wales will likely be about entirely different matters than the around 8000 nuclear weapons NATO’s nuclear-armed members have at their disposal. Nuclear weapons have become a delicate matter in NATO, which is solved by not discussing them much at all. If they are even mentioned, they are typically labelled as strategic ‘tools’, rather than actual weapons with terrifying humanitarian consequences.

Through their ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the alliance’s members are all legally obligated to negotiate ‘effective measures’ for a treaty on the general and complete disarmament of all nuclear weapons. NATO’s most recent strategic concept, adopted by consensus in ministerial session in 2010, ‘commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons’. But the alliance’s nuclear-armed members have been reluctant to follow up on this in practice, and according to the same strategic concept, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance for ‘as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world’. This apparent internal inconsistency makes the alliance’s non-nuclear-armed members reluctant both to criticize the nuclear-armed states for their failure to disarm, and to support an international process to ban nuclear weapons themselves. Their fear of supporting the process to ban nuclear weapons is apparently greater than their fear of nuclear weapons.

When an increasing number of states across the world demand an international legal instrument explicitly banning nuclear weapons (like the other two weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons), NATO members like Norway find themselves in a pickle. Like Antigone in Sophocles’ tragedy, NATO’s non-nuclear-weapon states are locked in a dilemma between conscience and authority. But unlike Antigone, Norway and NATO’s other nuclear-free members would do well to choose their conscience.

Nuclear deterrence depends upon the credibility of the use of nuclear weapons, but it is difficult to see how they could be used in practice. NATO moreover has more than enough other weapons. It has been thoroughly demonstrated how the effects of nuclear detonations, whether by accident or design, would impact globally and locally, long-term and short-term. The many (and until recently undisclosed) almost-accidents have also provided many with a massive wake-up call. If a terrorist organization like IS should get its hands on a nuclear weapon and use it against a NATO state, it will not do to say that we didn’t know what the consequences would be. Because we do know. We know that the consequences would be detrimental to human health, the environment, our economies, and our future.

The road to a world free of nuclear weapons is long, but it begins with a ban. It is time for NATOs non-nuclear-weapon states to raise the ban discussion within the alliance.


By Torbjørn Graff Hugo and Kjølv Egeland

This is a translation of a comment that appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen on 5 September 2014.

The views set out in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).