NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in NATO

NATO has a long-standing commitment to an active policy in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. The Alliance continues to pursue its security objectives through these policies, while at the same time ensuring that its collective defence obligations are met and the full range of its missions fulfilled.

Allies participate actively in international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation treaties and agreements. NATO itself does not belong to any treaty as an entity but it continues to encourage its members, partners and other countries to implement their international obligations fully.

NATO’s policies in these fields cover consultation and practical cooperation in a wide range of areas. These include conventional arms control; nuclear policy issues; promoting mine action and combating the spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW), munitions and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS); preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and developing and harmonizing capabilities to defend against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats.

Arms control and disarmament are key elements of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Over the past two decades, Allies have significantly contributed to more stable international relations at lower levels of military forces and armaments, through effective and verifiable arms control agreements.

At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, Allied leaders took note of a report on raising NATO’s profile in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. As part of a broader response to security issues, they agreed that NATO should continue to contribute to international efforts in these fields and keep these issues under active review. Subsequently these commitments were reaffirmed in the Strasbourg/Kehl Declaration in 2009 and the Lisbon Declaration in 2010. 

  • Definitions

    While often used together, the terms arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation do not mean the same thing. In fact, experts usually consider them to reflect associated, but different areas in the same discipline or subject.

    Arms control

    Arms control is the broadest of the three terms and generally refers to mutually agreed-upon restraints or controls (usually between states) on the research, manufacture, or the levels of and/or locales of deployment of troops and weapons systems.


    Disarmament, often inaccurately used as a synonym for arms control, refers to the act of eliminating or abolishing weapons (particularly offensive arms) either unilaterally (in the hope that one’s example will be followed) or reciprocally.


    For the Alliance, “non-proliferation refers to all efforts to prevent proliferation from occurring, or should it occur, to reverse it by any other means than the use of military force.”¹ Non-proliferation usually applies to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), which the Alliance defines as a weapon that is "capable of a high order of destruction and of being used in such a manner as to destroy people, infrastructure or other resources on a large scale."

    WMD Proliferation

    Attempts made by state or non-state actors to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or devices and their means of delivery or related material, including precursors, without prejudice to the rights and obligations of the States Parties to the following agreements: the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (CWC) and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC).

    1. According to NATO’s Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Defending Against Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Threats.
  • The ways in which NATO effectively participates

    NATO contributes to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in many ways: through its policies, its activities and through its member countries.

    Conventional forces

    Allies have reduced their conventional forces significantly from Cold War levels. Allies remain committed to the regime of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.  As a response to Russia`s unilateral “suspension” of its Treaty obligations in 2007, NATO CFE Allies have ceased implementing certain Treaty obligations vis-à-vis Russia in November 2011, while still continuing to implement fully their obligations with respect to all other CFE states parties. Allies stated that these decisions are fully reversible should Russia return to full implementation. At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, Allies reiterated their commitment to conventional arms control and expressed their determination to preserve, strengthen and modernise the conventional arms control regime in Europe, based on key principles and commitments.

    Nuclear forces

    NATO is committed to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons – but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance. However, it will do so at the lowest possible level and with an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces. The nuclear weapons committed to NATO have been reduced by more than 95 percent since the height of the Cold War. NATO nuclear weapon states have also reduced their nuclear arsenals and ceased production of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons. All Allies are parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and view it as an essential foundation for international peace and security.

    Armed forces

    Through its cooperation framework with non-member countries, the Alliance supports defence and security sector reform, emphasizing civilian control of the military, accountability, and restructuring of military forces to lower, affordable and usable levels.

    Small arms and light weapons (SALW), and mine action

    Allies are working with non-member countries and other international organizations to support the full implementation of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in SALW in All its Aspects.

    NATO also supports mine action activities. All NATO member countries, with the exception of the United States, are party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, often referred to as the Ottawa Convention.

    NATO’s PfP Trust Fund Policy was initiated in 2000 to assist countries in fulfilling their Ottawa Convention obligations to dispose of stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines. The policy was later expanded to include efforts to implement the UN Programme of Action on SALW. More recently, the Trust Policy has also been expanded to include projects addressing the consequences of defence reform.

    NATO/PfP Trust Funds may be initiated by a NATO member or partner country to tackle specific, practical issues linked to these areas. They are funded by voluntary contributions from individual NATO allies, partners, contact countries and organizations.

    Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

    “With due respect to the primarily military mission of the Alliance, NATO will work actively to prevent the proliferation of WMD by State and non-State actors, to protect the Alliance from WMD threats should prevention fail, and be prepared for recovery efforts should the Alliance suffer a WMD attack or CBRN event, within its competencies and whenever it bring added value, through a comprehensive political, military and civilian appoach.”²

    NATO stepped up its activities in this area in 1999 with the launch of the WMD Initiative and the establishment of a WMD Centre at NATO Headquarters the following year. NATO Allies have also taken a comprehensive set of practical initiatives to defend their populations, territory and forces against potential WMD threats. As part of NATO outreach to Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) partners, Mediterranean Dialogue Countries, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Countries and other partner countries, the NATO Conference on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation is the only annual conference, sponsored by an international organization, dealing with all types and aspects of weapons of mass destruction.

    Of particular importance is NATO’s outreach to and cooperation with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), other regional organizations and multilateral initiatives that address WMD proliferation.

    1. NATO’s Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Defending Against Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Threats, Para 4.
  • The evolution of NATO’s contribution to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

    Active policies in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation have been an inseparable part of NATO’s contribution to security and stability since the Harmel Report of 1967.

    The Harmel Report

    This report formed the basis for NATO’s security policy. It outlined two objectives: maintaining a sufficient military capacity to act as an effective and credible deterrent against aggression and other forms of pressure while seeking to improve the East-West relations. The Alliance’s objectives in arms control have been tied to the achievement of both aims. It is therefore important that defence and arms control policies remain in harmony and are mutually reinforcing.

    The Comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament

    In May 1989, NATO adopted a Comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament, which allowed the Alliance to move forward in the sphere of arms control. It addressed the role of arms control in East-West relations, the principles of Alliance security and a number of guiding principles and objectives governing Allied policy in the nuclear, conventional and chemical fields of arms control.

    It clearly set out the interrelationships between arms control and defence policies and established the overall conceptual framework within which the Alliance sought progress in each area of its arms control agenda.

    The Alliance’s Strategic Concept

    NATO’s continued adherence to this policy was reaffirmed in the 2010 Strategic Concept (with regard to nuclear weapons):

    “It [This Strategic Concept] commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons – but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.”

    The Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 19-20 November 2010 continues, on a more general note:

    “NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces. Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation contribute to peace, security and stability, and should ensure undiminished security for all Alliance members. We will continue to play our part in reinforcing arms control and in promoting disarmament of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, as well as non-proliferation efforts”.

    Summit declarations

    Allied leaders have reiterated this commitment in declarations made at previous summit meetings held in Washington (1999), Istanbul (2004), Riga (2006), Bucharest (2008), and in Strasbourg-Kehl (2009).  At the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit NATO’s Heads of State and Government endorsed NATO’s Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Defending Against Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Threats.

    The subject of arms control is also embedded in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act and in the declaration made by Allied and Russian leaders at the 2002 Rome Summit, which set up the NATO-Russia Council.

  • NATO bodies dealing with these issues

    A number of NATO bodies oversee different aspects of Alliance activities in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Overall political guidance is provided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body. More detailed oversight of activities and policy in specific areas is provided by a number of bodies, including the High Level Task Force (HLTF) on Conventional Arms Control, the Nuclear Planning Group High Level Group (NPG/HLG), the Committee on Proliferation (CP) in politico-military as well as in defence format.

    Within NATO’s cooperative frameworks, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (in particular, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Small Arms and Light Weapons and Mine Action) and the NATO-Russia Council (in particular, the Arms Control, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation (ADN) format) have central roles.

Last updated: 08-May-2012 16:52