We need to talk about the nuclear bomb

The WMD Blog

Op-Ed: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg must see the elephant in the room: the role of nuclear weapons in the future of our defense

By Kjølv Egeland and Lars-Christian U. Talseth
30 September 2014

Ever since the organization was founded in 1949, NATO has regularly been deemed to be on the verge of dissolution, in crisis, at a “crossroads”, and heading for the dustbin of history. But every time, NATO has managed to renew itself and find new tasks. One reason  for this is pragmatic. As modern relationships go, member states have managed to salvage the marriage by giving each other room for maneuver—space to be themselves. The considerable autonomy each country has to make their own choices, and the opportunity to criticize the Alliance’s common policies, has been the institution’s recipe for success.

The second reason is geopolitical. At the beginning of the year, experts were talking about what NATO should be doing after the operation in Afghanistan. The USA seemed more interested in Chinese coastguard vessels than in Russian cruisers. And Europe appeared to have enough to think about with all their internal problems. But with the brutal advancement of ISIS in the Middle East, and Russia’s entry into Ukraine, Stoltenberg will have more than enough to deal with when he takes over as NATO’s first Norwegian Secretary General on Wednesday.

But there is also another major challenge, which has not received as much attention in recent years, but which nonetheless may generate some serious headache for Stoltenberg: nuclear weapons.

Many people associate nuclear weapons with the Cold War, Dr Strangelove, or Ole Kopreitan’s “No-to-nuclear-weapons” trolley in Karl Johan’s gate [main street in Oslo, Norway]. It is a thing of the past and of fiction. But put together, NATO’s member countries still possess about 8,000 of the world’s 17,000 nuclear warheads. Many of them are a hundred times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Some are thousand times stronger.

To put it all in perspective: A medium sized nuclear bomb that hits Oslo could reduce everything within Ringroad 3 to rubble and ashes. In addition, deadly radiation will remain for decades, and there will be radioactive rain, food shortages and massive flows of refugees.

At the moment, a massive nuclear modernization is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Barack Obama, the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used is higher today than during the Cold War. But instead of disarming, Obama has decided to spend $ 84 billion over the next ten years to renew the country’s nuclear arsenal. The US Congress’s own budget office estimates that the price tag will be closer to $ 355 billion, the equivalent of two Norwegian national budgets.

In July, American authorities accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty of 1987, which prohibits land-based nuclear-capable medium-range missiles. With the conflict in Ukraine as a backdrop, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly reminded the world of Russia’s considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons, and of its willingness to use them. Putin has approved an extensive program of modernization of the Russian Armed Forces. The price tag for this is estimated at $ 770 billion, which is approximately the size of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. The Russian President has warned that the country’s nuclear capacity will be significantly improved.

“This is reality, not just words,” as Putin himself has expressed it.

All is not completely dark, however. More and more people worry about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, as well as of the costs of maintaining them. An increasing number of countries in the world are calling for an explicit international legal ban on nuclear weapons, along the lines of the existing prohibitions against chemical and biological weapons. Through the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and its Article 6, the international community has agreed to negotiate “effective measures” for total nuclear disarmament. In exchange for the promise by nuclear weapons states to get rid of all their nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapons states agreed to refrain from developing their own. Nuclear weapons states still have not kept their part of the bargain.

Many non-nuclear weapons states are beginning to lose patience with the modest disarmament that has taken place since the NPT was signed. These states envision the negotiation of an international treaty that aims to implement Article 6 of the NPT and to introduce an explicit prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons, with or without nuclear weapons states on board. If nothing else, this would send a signal to the latter that it is time to get going and take their disarmament obligations seriously.

It is unclear how NATO’s member states will relate to such an instrument. Since 1954, NATO’s military doctrine has been based on the use of nuclear weapons. The Alliance’s Strategic Concept from 2010 states that NATO will remain a nuclear alliance for as long as nuclear weapons exist. At the same time the role of nuclear weapons has been toned down, and the concept also mentions that NATO member states have an obligation to work towards the realization of a world without nuclear weapons world.

The fact that NATO sends such divergent political signals is the result of political struggle within the alliance. And as long as the multilateral disarmament machinery has been deadlocked, this has not been a major problem. But the pressure is building up. Under Stoltenberg it is quite possible that the Alliance members will have to decide how to related to an international treaty that explicitly prohibits nuclear weapons. At that point, it will be difficult to explain to the rest of the world that you want to have the cake and eat it too, or to avoid the question altogether, which has been NATO’s strategy until now. As he takes up the leadership of the organization, Stoltenberg must be prepared to engage in a serious debate over nuclear disarmament within NATO, as the Article 6 of the NPT commits all member states to do.

When it became clear that Stoltenberg had been chosen as the next Secretary General of NATO, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal claimed that he was a poor candidate for the job, because in 1995 he had taken part in a demonstration against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. This, said the journalist, was proof that Stoltenberg did not understand the importance of nuclear deterrence. But logic of deterrence is about to crumble. The possibility of nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of terrorists is a grim scenario, but that scenario in effect depends on the existence of such weapons in the first place. And it is hard to see how terrorists that operate across national boundaries and who are willing to blow themselves up will be deterred by the threat of a nuclear attack.

Colin Powell, former American Secretary of State and Defense, said in 2010 that “the more I had to do with nuclear weapons, the more I realized that these weapons are useless.” As a military tool, it is hard to see the utility of nuclear weapons, and it is unclear how they can be used to achieve military objectives. But the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war would be enormous, and this is by no means unclear.

But what about Putin? It may seem naive to advocate for a ban on nuclear weapons at these days, given the turmoil in Ukraine. “Russia understands only the language of power”, is a recurring refrain. But no one benefits from a new arms race between East and West.

In 1954, during the Cold War, the Scandinavian Prime Ministers Einar Gerhardsen and Hans Christian Hansen distanced their countries from the policy of NATO with regards to the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe. Gerhardsen and Hansen refused to station nuclear weapons on Norwegian and Danish soil, respectively. The former Danish Prime Minister and outgoing Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is by many regarded as a disappointment.

Now it is up to a former Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg.


By Kjølv Egeland and Lars-Christian U. Talseth

This is a translation of a comment that appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet on 30 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).