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Combating WMD proliferation

Eric R. Terzuolo considers NATO’s role in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Rapid reaction: NATO is unique among international institutions in its capability for military intervention in high-risk situations (© ISAF)

Dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) seems to get harder every day. The difficulties France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have encountered in negotiating with Iran on the future of its nuclear programme are instructive. More generally, the May 2005 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) could not agree on how to deal more effectively with countries that withdraw from the treaty or are suspected of violating crucial provisions. Efforts in the United Nations to hinder terrorist access to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons have yet to yield the desired results. And, as the international organisational context for dealing with proliferation becomes more complex – for example, by the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) – questions of how to promote synergy and avoid duplication remain unanswered.

An important problem facing NATO is how to define its place in international efforts to combat proliferation. Along with the partially related terrorist menace, the threat posed by WMD proliferation tops the international community's list of post-Cold War security challenges. If it is to remain credible as a security institution, NATO must play a part, and be seen to play a part, in addressing such challenges. Indeed, as early as the January 1994 Brussels Summit, the Allies decided to focus seriously on WMD proliferation and its impact on security. Other NATO initiatives on WMD have followed, and proliferation concerns have come to figure in virtually all aspects of the Alliance's activity, including outreach to non-NATO countries.

Internal Alliance politics have made it difficult to pose an important question: Where precisely is NATO's greatest “added value” when it comes to addressing WMD proliferation threats? The Alliance Policy Framework on Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, that was approved by Allied foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul in June 1994 and remains the foundational document of NATO WMD policy, highlighted both the political/diplomatic and the defence dimensions of dealing with proliferation threats. This was no surprise, given the Alliance's dual nature, plus some concern in other Allied capitals that Washington was perhaps planning to transfer efforts against proliferation from diplomatic to military hands.

A look at subsequent Alliance policy documents, such as the major review of arms control, non-proliferation and confidence and security-building measures completed in December 2000, indicates that the balance between the political/diplomatic and defence dimensions of dealing with proliferation has often been an objective in and of itself. That said, Allies have gradually come to the view that it is in the realm of military capabilities that NATO can provide a unique and, for the moment, irreplaceable component of the international institutional architecture for dealing with proliferation threats.

Comparing committees

It is instructive to compare the work of the two main Alliance bodies specifically focused on WMD issues: the Senior Defence Group on Proliferation (DGP) and the Senior Politico-Military Group on Proliferation (SGP), the former focusing on military capabilities, the latter dealing with political and diplomatic dimensions. The DGP has generated a number of concrete, action-oriented initiatives, with relatively high public visibility. Most notably, between 1994 and 1996, it produced the Alliance's first comprehensive assessment of WMD proliferation risks, ultimately identifying the shortfalls in the WMD-relevant capabilities of NATO's member countries and establishing plans to help address those shortfalls. The DGP later took stock of the weaknesses of the 1999 Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI), developing a new approach to building Allied WMD defences, looking to multinational capabilities, based on national pledges of manageable contributions. The November 2002 NATO Summit in Prague endorsed five DGP-inspired multinational initiatives, including creation of an event-response team and a deployable analytical laboratory. The NATO Multinational CBRN Defence Battalion, which contributed to security for the August 2004 Olympics in Athens, was also an outgrowth of Prague Summit initiatives.

For the outside observer, it is more difficult to identify a comparable set of milestones in the Alliance's political/diplomatic work on WMD proliferation threats. This is because the SGP’s classified deliberations have not translated readily into publicly visible initiatives, in contrast to those of its defence counterpart. An early categorisation of the SGP's work as “essentially analytical” retains considerable validity, although it has improved its methods of work by establishing “rolling assessments” of key proliferation-related threats, by developing recommendations for the North Atlantic Council and by preparing common positions for the Secretary General's use in his meetings, positions NATO member countries also can cite in their bilateral diplomacy. The SGP has also increased its focus on outreach to Partner countries and on setting priorities for NATO's WMD-related efforts, and it has completed studies on WMD-related issues such as missile defence and potential Alliance support for the PSI, the US-led initiative to combat the proliferation of WMD, their delivery systems and related materials. The SGP has launched public seminars on proliferation challenges, involving experts from Asia and the Middle East, as well as from non-governmental organisations.

The DGP's mission always has been more clearly defined than the SGP's – in the sense that developing Alliance capabilities or seeking to focus the national efforts of NATO countries on improving defences against WMD go to the heart of NATO’s task of improving defence preparedness to operate in a CBRN environment. Significantly, how to deal with proliferation-related threats has been an important consideration in NATO's ongoing transformation process, which aims to give the Alliance the high-tech “hardware” and improved decision-making “software” for rapid action in the face of new security challenges.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has demonstrated that it is unique among established organisations, certainly in the Euro-Atlantic region, in its realistic capability for military intervention in high-risk situations, and in the skills and experience necessary for peacekeeping in conditions of considerable residual risk. This is not something to be dismissed lightly, even though experience demonstrates that organisations, as opposed to supposedly more agile “coalitions of the willing”, may not be the mechanisms of choice for all interventions. Maintaining NATO's unique capabilities for intervention and peacekeeping, however, requires continued and enhanced efforts to ensure that WMD threats will not be able to deter the Alliance from acting.

NATO’s role

Exactly how NATO as NATO can contribute to political and diplomatic efforts against WMD proliferation is a more difficult question. A declaratory approach, via expressions of Alliance support for non-proliferation treaties or export control regimes can only go so far. NATO is not a signatory to any non-proliferation agreement. Though sometimes present as an observer, the Alliance is not in a position to affect the outcome of deliberations such as the NPT Review Conference. Nor is the Alliance the most appropriate mechanism for policy coordination in such settings, where the “Western” groups include many non-NATO countries. Despite collective Alliance support for cooperative threat reduction efforts in Russia and other former Soviet republics, NATO has not played any coordinating role, as the member countries have preferred to keep their assistance in bilateral channels. However, defining NATO's potential role in the international institutional architecture for addressing WMD proliferation has become even more difficult, due to the increasing role of bodies or programmes, such as the PSI or the G8, involving some but not all Alliance members, and partially overlapping with NATO activities or fields of interest.

An agreed strategic vision of how or whether to use force to pre-empt WMD threats is lacking

The politics of addressing WMD proliferation in NATO's multiple outreach programmes has also been complex. The caution of the Allies in addressing WMD matters with Euro-Atlantic Partners has only changed slowly to more substantive exchanges of views. The political-analytical consultations within the NATO-Russia Council and with Ukraine have become quite substantive. The Alliance has worked with Russia on nuclear weapon confidence and security building measures and collaborated on theatre missile defence. “Educational” remains the adjective of choice in describing WMD-related discussions with Partners, although steps have been taken to develop some CBRN defence doctrine with all Partners. Civil-emergency preparedness and disaster relief, along with scientific cooperation, have served as politically less sensitive sectors for developing NATO collaboration with Partners on WMD matters, and for building habits of cooperation.

Matters are even more delicate in the Mediterranean Dialogue, where one participating country, Israel, is a de facto nuclear weapon state, and the Arab states would welcome enhanced Western pressure on Israel to give up its nuclear forces. How the Mediterranean countries can contribute to the Alliance's work on WMD threats remains a difficult and largely unresolved agenda item. Initial steps have been taken, including through contributions by NATO officials to international meetings organised by non-governmental organisations in the Gulf Region exploring non-proliferation themes. The SGP envisages further consultations with Mediterranean Dialogue nations.

Collaboration with the European Union against WMD threats has also been problematic and slow to take off. The EU strategy against WMD proliferation, negotiated and approved in the course of 2003, should have facilitated cooperation with NATO. But, in the proliferation sector as in others, EU-NATO relations often revolve less around the concrete issues to be addressed than around modalities for interaction, and a continuing spirit of rivalry can lead to duplication rather than complementarity of effort. That said, mechanisms for consultation and coordination, regarding both political aspects of dealing with proliferation and the development of requisite military capabilities, are now in place.

Use of force

In other words, the political/diplomatic and outreach activities of NATO with respect to combating proliferation have their limits and challenges. But, even if one agrees that NATO's military capabilities represent the key, distinctive contribution the Alliance can make to dealing with future WMD threats, there is still a problem. An agreed strategic vision of how or whether to use force to pre-empt WMD threats is lacking. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is right to underline that even the best military capabilities are not useful in the absence of the political will and consensus to use them. Differences among the Allies in their views on whether, when and how to use force in responding to WMD and terrorist threats had surfaced well before the 2003 military intervention in Iraq. The unusually public and divisive debate within NATO in early 2003, however, sharpened the differences, notably over what can constitute legitimacy for military action against a perceived threat.

The Alliance's many important concrete actions since the Iraq campaign have not expunged this problem, and do not obviate the need for a new reflection on basic principles for common action in a complex and changing international situation. Nor should residual acrimony from 2003 make the Allies perpetually shy of vigorous discussion within NATO. The Alliance has a unique body of experience in applying force in post-Cold War conditions. This can serve as a basis for internal debate, and also obliges NATO to participate in the broader international discussion on such matters that is taking shape.

The rise of “new threats” generally, and the Iraq intervention specifically, have raised serious questions about the current meaning and utility of basic concepts, such as prevention, pre-emption, and deterrence. Finding answers will not be simple. Lamenting the passing of the Westphalian system, the system governing international relations since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and based on state sovereignty, a death long foretold, will not help us. The same is true for narrow legalism that fails to recognise that international law is dynamic, a product of continuous human action. Actions and policies that seem to break established paradigms, such as what is often stereotyped as US unilateralism, can come as a shock. But a simple, unexamined attachment to continuity is not a viable alternative.

The initiative currently under way in NATO to improve the quality of political dialogue is of vital importance. It must not focus too exclusively on regional issues, and needs to look seriously at what the Secretary General recently termed “the cross-cutting issues, the horizontal issues, like terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”. Indeed, the basic principles for action to help address such threats should be a central element of NATO political dialogue.

For this to work, there is heavy lifting to be done by the heads of state and government and ministers. Bodies like the SGP and DGP, or the North Atlantic Council in Permanent Session, can do part of the work, but they need sustained engagement at the senior political levels. Clearly, success in making NATO more strategically effective depends on the political will of individual member states to share information and analysis, but even more importantly to create and sustain an atmosphere where Allies talk to each other, not at each other. The first half of 2005 saw some positive signs in this respect, but also some worrying ones, such as in the debate over the European Constitutional Treaty and what it could mean for transatlantic relations. One must hope for a spirit of constructive dialogue and cooperation. We have important questions to answer regarding the Alliance's scope and relevance in addressing some of the key security challenges of our time.

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