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The role of deterrence in future NATO strategy

Prior to the recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance continues to need a credible nuclear deterrent for ‘as long as there are rogue regimes or terrorist groupings that may pose a nuclear threat to us’. The most recent report from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly also noted that both deterrence and the concept of extended deterrence still play a fundamental role in ensuring stability and preventing conflict in the Euro-Atlantic region. It went on to say that, although much of the deterrent effect is embodied in conventional capabilities, nuclear weapons feature as part of extended deterrence.

In Tallinn the issue of nuclear weapons was discussed at ministerial level at the request of 5 NATO members—Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway—roughly one-fifth of the total membership. Summarizing the discussion, Rasmussen reported agreement that the nuclear issue is an important aspect of the new Strategic Concept being elaborated by NATO, and that the alliance is firmly committed to maintaining the security of its members, but at the lowest possible level of nuclear forces. Similarly, the NATO parliamentarians noted that the members of the alliance should ‘continue to evaluate the disposition of those weapons and the overall number with a focus on reducing the potential dangers posed by nuclear weapons’.

While NATO representatives underline that nuclear deterrence remains necessary, there is also a mood within NATO to evaluate the role that nuclear weapons can and should play in greater detail. There is a need for NATO to see how it can support the wider processes of nuclear risk reduction that have been initiated and designed by its leading member, the United States. However, in contrast to the relatively straightforward approach dictated by the circumstances of the cold war, NATO will now have to forge a common view on how deterrence works, against a much more uncertain backdrop.

Two of NATO’s nuclear weapon states—the United Kingdom and France—appear to favour an approach based on what Michael Quinlan, a prominent former official in the UK, dubbed ‘deterrence to whom it may concern’. A nuclear deterrent force would be maintained but without detailed planning for how it might be used in any specific contingency. It would be a significant break with the past if the USA were also to adopt this view.

The USA has assumed that there is a need for three connected elements in its nuclear strategy: the existence of nuclear forces in being; a set of plans to employ those forces against specific, identified targets; and evidence that the deterrent signals being sent to the identified targets have been detected and interpreted correctly. These elements have played a critical role in US force planning, largely dictating the numbers and types of nuclear weapons in the arsenal.

The idea behind the tailored approach to deterrence favoured by the USA is clear—it is a conditional response, imposing a cost on the party to be deterred for taking (or not taking) particular actions. However, making this the basis for a NATO approach pre-supposes agreement on who is to be deterred from doing what as well as a confidence that the addressee will both understand the signals that are being sent and take them on board. However, NATO is trying once more to move relations with Russia (the traditional target for deterrence signalling) onto a different basis. The views of many NATO members are unknown and untested on the question of what deterrence might accomplish in any context other than Russia.

In the first instance, NATO will have to reach a collective view on whether deterrence has a role to play in managing potential threats emerging from the slow but continuous incremental development of ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East and the Gulf. If so, this would call for a different level and quality of collective engagement on strategic matters with the countries around the periphery of the enlarged alliance. Alternatively, this might not be seen as a matter that engages NATO collectively, although following that path could put at risk the solidarity which has been seen as the main strength of NATO.

In recent documents and statements the USA has pointed to the need for consultations on how to ensure the credibility of the US extended deterrent, but also emphasized that the objective is to provide assurance while reducing the role of nuclear weapons. Therefore it is not surprising that the need to maintain US nuclear weapons in forward deployment in NATO is increasingly questioned as support is growing for sustaining a conventional US presence and progressively developing theatre ballistic missile defences.

If the view that NATO and Russia must work together on a range of issues, including the development of missile defences, takes root then the need for either party to maintain nuclear weapons in forward deployment will become questionable. The elimination of such weapons would be a logical area to explore in the next phase of nuclear arms control.

NATO should resist efforts to reorientate or reinvigorate deterrence and apply it to the very different security challenges now facing the alliance. This would reduce the otherwise significant risk of revealing internal disagreements over who might be the appropriate targets. NATO would find it hard to reach a common view on what signal it is seeking to convey through what could be interpreted as an aggressive posture vis-à-vis countries and regions not traditionally seen as a military security threat to the alliance. Instead, NATO should explore the Franco–British approach to deterrence, which could also facilitate future reductions in nuclear forces by weakening the connection between levels of nuclear forces and targeting strategies. To ensure their collective security the allies might be better served by sustaining a prudent level of investment in defence, combined with détente and diplomacy—including a new emphasis on strengthening partnerships as well as a focus on confidence-building measures and arms control.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.