True security for NATO requires moving away from nuclear weapons

Joint statement from former senior NATO political and military figures for the alliance's 75th anniversary summit: 

True security for NATO requires moving away from nuclear weapons

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When NATO leaders gather in Washington DC on 9 July their agenda will be dominated by next steps in their support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. But, as former senior military officers and politicians in NATO states, we believe they also need to reflect long and hard on their approach to nuclear weapons.

The risk that nuclear weapons could be used in conflict is the highest it has been since the atomic bombings of 1945 that killed more than 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most scenario planning also indicates any use of nuclear weapons is likely to escalate rapidly to a general exchange that would end most life on Earth. Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of the war in Ukraine is one of the main reasons for this elevated risk, alongside the war in the Middle East involving nuclear-armed Israel and escalating nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. 

There is also the threat of further proliferation, including the spread of fissile materials, either to more states or terrorist organisations and other non-state actors.

Russia’s military action against Ukraine has renewed a debate about the importance of nuclear weapons for the alliance, particularly among its European members.

It is important to remember that nuclear weapons are not mentioned in the North Atlantic Treaty and the designation of NATO as a nuclear alliance is a relatively recent phenomenon dating only from 2010. But it is now deeply entrenched in the alliance’s strategic thinking, encapsulated in the mantra: “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”.

The problem with this is it effectively closes the door on thinking creatively about ways to get to the alliance’s stated objective of creating “a security environment for a world without nuclear weapons”. Something that is essential, not just for NATO, but for all of humanity. 

In light of the heightened threat of nuclear war, it would be a grave mistake for NATO’s leaders to conclude that nuclear weapons are more important than ever for Europe’s defence.

The alliance says it is committed to creating a peaceful, nuclear-weapon-free world, something that is in its interest, as well as that of the rest of the world. So, NATO members should be pushing much harder for further reciprocal bilateral reductions in US and Russian warhead stockpiles and working to revive multilateral nuclear disarmament talks at the United Nations.

But instead, they are cleaving ever closer to nuclear weapons and the flawed doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Deterrence is an unproven theory, which its adherents claim has prevented nuclear conflict, but has in reality brought us very close to it on more than one occasion.

Most notably it was the deterrence mindset that led the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to install nuclear missiles on Washington’s doorstep in Cuba as a counter to US missiles that were on Moscow’s doorstep in Turkey. This led to the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis during which it was – in US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s words – plain, dumb luck that prevented nuclear war.

The US has deployed nuclear weapons in European countries since the 1950s. The logic then was that these weapons offset a Soviet numerical advantage in conventional forces. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the entry into NATO of most former Warsaw Pact members, as well as the former Soviet Baltic republics and four successor states of the former non-aligned Yugoslavia, that strategic landscape has transformed. Now it is NATO that has the conventional advantage over Russia and does not need nuclear weapons in Europe.

Yet, in the past year NATO has doubled down on its commitment to nuclear weapons with the US introducing a new, more powerful, nuclear bomb (the B61-12) and a new nuclear capable stealth fighter bomber (the F35A) to the countries that currently host American weapons, Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Türkiye (although the latter is yet to receive the F35). There are also signs the US may be about to return these weapons to one of its bases in the UK.

Russia has used this as a justification to deploy nuclear weapons to its ally and neighbour Belarus, which borders NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. An own goal for NATO given the US weapons in Europe serve little practical military purpose.

NATO insists the American nuclear weapons deployed in Europe are permitted under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Russia’s in Belarus are not. But many countries in the treaty which do not have nuclear weapons see this as a double standard.

If NATO wants to strengthen its security in an increasingly uncertain world overshadowed by the threat of nuclear conflict, it needs to stop clinging to nuclear doctrine and change its approach.

A first step would be to end the deployment of American nuclear weapons in other NATO countries. It would not weaken the alliance one iota, but would send a signal that the alliance is serious about reducing nuclear risks and de-escalating nuclear tensions with Russia.

This should be followed by the US and Russia engaging in a transparent and reciprocal disarmament process, leading to both countries and NATO  dropping their opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This treaty, which complements the NPT, came into force in 2021 and already has nearly half of all countries as signatories or parties.

NATO’s nuclear-armed members, France, the UK and the US, have so far been hostile to the treaty and put pressure on other countries not to join it, and NATO’s secretariat has taken the same approach. However, some NATO members, including Belgium, Germany, Norway, and The Netherlands, have tentatively engaged with it by observing its meetings of states parties.

The TPNW is the only treaty that bans all nuclear weapons-related activity, and it offers a fair and verifiable pathway to a world without nuclear weapons. But the failure of most NATO members to engage with it suggests they are not taking the nuclear threat as seriously as they should.

NATO claims being a member of the TPNW is incompatible with being a member of the alliance, but this is a political argument not a legal one. There is nothing in the treaty that prevents a state party from being a member of a military alliance involving nuclear-armed states. It only precludes them from taking part in nuclear weapons-related activities.

There is also the precedent of many NATO members having joined the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions despite US opposition. In other words, NATO has a tradition of accommodating differences of opinion on what weapons are acceptable. 

For an alliance that says it wants to create a security environment for a nuclear-weapon-free world to double down on nuclear sharing shows confused strategic thinking.

In order to make good on its commitment to work towards “a safer world for all … without nuclear weapons”, NATO needs to go back to its roots in the Atlantic Treaty, wean itself off being a nuclear alliance dependent on outdated deterrence strategy.


  1. William ASTORE, former Lieutenant Colonel (USA)
  2. Lloyd AXWORTHY, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Canada)
  3. Jean Jacques BLAIS, former Minister of Defence (Canada)
  4. Patrick CORDINGLEY, former Major General (UK) 
  5. Bogdan DZAKOVIC, former Coast Guard Officer and Federal Air Marshal (USA)
  6. Robert FORSYTH, former Royal Navy Commander (UK)
  7. Tormod HEIER, former Lieutenant Colonel (Norway) 
  8. Thorbjørn JAGLAND, former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (Norway)
  9. Clement LANIEWSKI, former Lieutenant Colonel (USA)
  10. Yves LETERME, former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (Belgium)
  11. Rexhep MEIDANI, former President (Albania)
  12. Robert MOOD, former Lieutenant General (Norway)
  13. Elizabeth MURRAY, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council (USA)
  14. Coleen ROWLEY, former Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (USA)
  15. Danilo TÜRK, former President (Slovenia)
  16. Hikmet Sami TÜRK, former Minister of National Defence (Türkiye)