Skip to content
Commentary | 10 January 2011

Required NATO and EU Steps on non-Proliferation and Disarmament

Image of Hans Blix

Hans Blix |Former Foreign Minister and Director-General Emeritus of the IAEA

EU NATO Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Euro-Atlantic Security

The European Leadership Network (ELN), UNA-UK and other groups are engaged in discussions on how best to continue the drive for arms control and disarmament at the present juncture. Below are some thoughts that occur to me and that I gladly transmit to colleagues for consideration.


The first half of 2010 was a great period:

• In the US a new national security strategy and a new nuclear posture review were presented, both signaling important restraints in the nuclear sphere;
• The Washington summit saw commitments to more effective national measures for security against trafficking in nuclear material, equipment and know-how;
• The US-Russia START agreement was signed in Prague one year after President Obama’s disarmament speech in that city;
• The NPT review conference was concluded with relative satisfaction – the recommendation for a conference re a nuclear weapon free in the Middle East being an essential part of the outcome.


Since the middle of the year we seem to be in an intermission:

• There is no notable progress in the contacts with North Korea and Iran;
• The Conference on Disarmament is still in paralysis;
• In the US there may be hope for ratification of the new START, we are waiting to see, but ratification of the CTBT is still far off;
• In Washington arms control and disarmament issues are currently simply not in focus. The poisoned and polarized political atmosphere makes any progress hard.
• Before START is ratified the Obama administration can hardly move to any START follow up agenda.


Nevertheless, some things can still be done in the US and elsewhere. This is important to avoid losing more momentum.

• Détente makes it less difficult to pursue arms control and disarmament. It must be encouraged regionally and globally. The chill that followed the war in Georgia is largely overcome but EU-US-Russian relations need be developed with care and a constructive spirit – on all sides. The peace efforts in the Middle East are as central as they are difficult.

• While the new US Congress may be unhelpful to Obama’s disarmament program and the Senate may block treaties, the Executive branch controls the daily pursuit of US foreign policy. This opens opportunities. The Obama administration seems to strive to deepen international détente – especially with Russia. Positive results may make hawkish domestic resistance to disarmament more difficult. They also make it less difficult to reach new agreements.

• Within NATO, the approach to Russia has improved significantly since the Obama administration took over in Washington. The US decision to relocate missile shield sites was a wise and essential step. The idea of exploring direct cooperation with Russia on missile defense is welcome. The four US statesmen – Shultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn – declared that in their view “the end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete”. With continued détente this view may become general. If the missile shield, as claimed, is only intended to protect against ‘states of concern’ and terrorists, such cooperation ought to be possible – even including China.

• Within NATO, agreement should be reached about withdrawal to the US of the NATO controlled tactical nuclear weapons. This is urged by several European NATO members and has broad public support. It is generally agreed that these weapons no longer have any military value but are remnants of the Cold War. On the Russian side, regrettably the concern about Western superiority in conventional forces and lack of confidence in a NATO that was seeking further enlargement has caused suspicion and an increased reliance on nuclear weapons. Confidence needs to be restored. A unilateral decision of NATO to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons to the US, while not having any military significance, would be a gesture confirming that the Cold War is behind us. While prior talks (consultations) with Russia may be in order, demand for a quid pro quo would be unwise and almost certainly lead to bickering instead of good will and confidence. Let the Russians shape their own response. It may be recalled that the 1991 Presidential Initiative by Gorbachev and Bush the elder that resulted in the elimination of whole categories of non- strategic nuclear weapons was not in the form of an agreement but parallel unilateral declarations. On the US side a unilateral NATO action would have the advantage that no Senate approval would be required.

• The European Union must strive for consolidation of détente with Russia. Negotiations ought to start between the parties to the CFE to make that treaty operative again.

• The recent declaration by the German and Japanese foreign ministers that their countries will actively work to make the world free of nuclear weapons is an excellent step – and should be seen by the US and Russian governments as support for their declared ambitions. Big powers without nuclear weapons, like Germany and Japan, have better credentials than any other countries to pursue the issue. Perhaps they could be the core of a larger group of major states, including, for instance Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa that have unilaterally renounced nuclear weapons.

• The North Korea and Iran issues are very different but both pose painful hurdles to the disarmament efforts and need to be solved. The two states need to become convinced that nuclear weapons or near nuclear weapon status provide them no advantage, while agreed settlements would bring them great benefits. Direct or veiled threats of use of armed force (military maneuvers, talk about all options remaining on the table etc.) may simply lead to defiance. The opposite: offer of guarantees against outside attacks and against forced regime change may be more likely to show them that they do not need nuclear weapons. Carefully calibrated, internationally supported economic disincentives are a different matter. They do not provoke military reflexes. Status and pride may be important parts of the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. Condescending or condemning attitudes are humiliating and counterproductive. Making suspension of enrichment a precondition for talks was a grave mistake in the case of Iran. The participation of a broad spectrum of states in the process of persuasion is desirable and direct talks must constitute the core of the process.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.