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 this policy, while at the same time ensuring that its collective defence obligations are met and the full range of its missions fulfilled.
- NATO actively contributes to effective and verifiable arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation efforts through its policies, activities and its member countries. NATO itself is not party to any treaty, but it supports and facilitates dialogue among members, partners and other countries to implement their international obligations.
- NATO Allies are parties to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Ottawa Convention on mine action, and other treaties and agreements that promote arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
- NATO cooperates with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), other regional organisations and multilateral initiatives to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
- Nuclear weapons committed to NATO’s defence have been reduced by more than 90 per cent since the height of the Cold War.
- NATO will remain a nuclear alliance as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, but will do so at the lowest possible level consistent with our deterrence and defence obligations, with an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.
- NATO Allies also assist partner countries in the destruction of surplus stocks of mines, arms and munitions. In addition, former military personnel receive retraining assistance through defence reform Trust Fund projects.
While often used together, the terms arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation do not mean the same thing. Experts consider them to reflect associated, but different areas in the same discipline or subject.
Arms control is the broadest of the three terms and generally refers to mutually agreed upon restraints or controls (usually between states) on the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, deployment and use of troops, small arms, conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Arms control includes agreements that increase the transparency of military capabilities and activities, with the intention of reducing the risk of misinterpretation or miscalculation.
Disarmament refers to the act of eliminating or abolishing weapons (particularly offensive arms) either unilaterally or reciprocally. It may refer either to reducing the number of arms, or to eliminating entire categories of weapons.
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 force1. Non-proliferation applies to both weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons) and conventional capabilities such as missiles and small arms.
Weapons of mass destruction proliferation
WMD proliferation refers to 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 or Non-Proliferation Treaty (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).
- 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.
“We need to pursue nuclear arms control and disarmament as a matter of urgency. There are three steps that would set us on the right path towards nuclear disarmament: continue to invest in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), preserve the bilateral arms control regime between the United States and Russia, and engage China in the dialogue on nuclear arms control”. These are the necessary steps on the path towards nuclear disarmament, as outlined by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in November 2020. NATO contributes in many ways to these efforts through its policies, its activities and through its member countries.
NATO’s policies support consultation and practical cooperation in a wide range of areas including conventional arms control; nuclear policy issues; promoting mine action and combatting the spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW); preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and developing and harmonising capabilities to defend against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats. NATO also participates in relevant conferences organised by other international organisations, including the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, the European Union, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and others.
Allies have reduced their conventional forces significantly from Cold War levels. NATO Allies that are Parties to the 1990 CFE Treaty remain committed to the regime of the Treaty. The Treaty is a “cornerstone of European security” and imposes legal and verifiable limits on the force structure of its 30 States Parties. Since its entry into force in 1992, States Parties have verifiably destroyed 100,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment such as tanks and attack helicopters, and conducted over 6,000 on-site inspections. As a response to Russia`s unilateral “suspension” of its Treaty obligations in 2007, NATO CFE Allies 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 their summits since 2014, Allies have reaffirmed their long-standing commitment to conventional arms control as a key element of Euro-Atlantic security and emphasised the importance of full implementation and compliance to rebuild trust and confidence. They underscored that Russia’s unilateral military activity in and around Ukraine has undermined peace, security and stability across the region. Moreover, Russia’s long-standing non- implementation of the CFE Treaty has eroded the positive contribution of this arms control instrument to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, as has its selective implementation of two arms control agreements: the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty. Regarding the Vienna Document, in October 2019, NATO Allies submitted the most comprehensive modernisation proposals of this agreement since 1994. These proposals are under discussion at the OSCE. With regard to the Open Skies Treaty, its effectiveness relies on the good will of its members to contribute to the process of transparency. In response to Russia selectively implementing and repeatedly violating this legally binding arms control treaty, the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty in November 2020. In June 2021, Russia announced its decision to withdraw from the Treaty. However, Allies are urging Russia to use the time before its withdrawal takes effect to reconsider its decision and return to full compliance with the Open Skies Treaty.
NATO remains committed to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. However, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance, but at the lowest level consistent with its defence obligations, and with an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.
The nuclear weapons committed to NATO have been reduced by more than 90 per cent since the height of the Cold War, and the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s defence doctrine has been dramatically reduced. NATO nuclear weapon states have also reduced their nuclear arsenals and ceased production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons. Allies remain committed to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future on the basis of reciprocity, recognising that progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment.
All NATO Allies are States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968 (it entered into force in 1970). The NPT is the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, and to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament. It provides a legal framework for the nuclear weapon states to give security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states that are Parties to the Treaty. It also provides a balanced, step-by-step framework for nuclear disarmament and is forged on three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation (Art. I, II), nuclear disarmament (Art. VI) and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science and technology (Art. IV).
The NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty, including both nuclear weapons possessor states and non-possessor states, to the goal of nuclear disarmament. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary on 5 March 2020, NATO Allies issued a statement in which they confirmed their strong commitment to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects and stated there was no credible alternative to this Treaty.
NATO does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or Ban Treaty), which is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, is inconsistent with the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy, and will not enhance any country’s security. Unlike the NPT, the Ban Treaty lacks a verification mechanism and risks undermining the NPT, which has been at the heart of global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts for more than 50 years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Safeguards regime that supports it2.
The Ban will not create the global security conditions necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons. Indeed, it risks building unrealistic expectations; and it will not strengthen the practical path to the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons.
NATO Allies were also strongly in favour of preserving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite years of US and Allied engagement, Russia continued to develop and deploy the SSC-8/9M729 missile system, which violated the Treaty. In December 2018, NATO Foreign Ministers supported the finding of the United States that Russia was in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty and called on Russia to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance. Russia, nevertheless, continued to deny its Treaty violation. As a consequence, on 1 February 2019, the United States suspended its obligations under the INF Treaty. The American withdrawal from the Treaty took effect on 2 August 2019, six months after this announcement. During this six month period, Russia continued to deny its Treaty violation and did not honour its obligations through the verifiable destruction of its SSC-8/9M729 system. As such, Allies agree that Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty.
NATO has agreed a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures to ensure that the Alliance’s deterrence and defence remains credible and effective in the face of the significant risks posed by Russia’s missile system. Allies remain firmly committed to the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
On 3 February 2021, the United States and Russia agreed on a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The North Atlantic Council, through the statement released on this occasion, expressed its full support to such an extension of the Treaty, while also reaffirming its major contribution to international stability. NATO Allies also underlined that they see the Treaty’s extension as the beginning, not the end, of an effort to address nuclear threats and new and emerging challenges to strategic stability.
Through its cooperation framework with non-member countries, the Alliance supports defence and security sector reform, emphasising 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 (MA)
Allies work with partners and other international organisations 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 across the globe. 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, which seeks to end the use of anti-personnel landmines worldwide.
NATO established the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Trust Fund Policy in 2000 to assist partner countries with the safe destruction of stocks of anti-personnel landmines. The policy was later expanded to include the destruction of surplus munitions, unexploded ordnance and SALW, and assisting partner countries in managing the consequences of defence reform, training and building integrity.
NATO/Partnership 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 and organisations.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government emphasised the need to do more to achieve lasting calm and an end to violence in the Middle East and North Africa, which face continuing crises and instability with direct implications for the security of NATO. They also made a plea for enhanced practical cooperation, including through further support in the areas of counter-terrorism, small arms and light weapons, countering improvised explosive devices, and military border security.
Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
NATO stepped up its activities in the WMD 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 work to prevent the proliferation of WMD by state and non-state actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. They also address the WMD threat by developing and harmonising defence capabilities and, when necessary, by employing these capabilities, consistent with political decisions in support of non-proliferation objectives. Both political and defence elements are essential to NATO’s security, as is the preparedness for recovery efforts, should it suffer a WMD attack or CBRN event.
The Alliance strengthens international security through our engagement with our partner countries and other international organisations. NATO's partnership programmes provide effective frameworks for dialogue, consultation and coordination, contributing to NATO's arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Of particular importance is the outreach to and cooperation with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and other organisations and multilateral initiatives that address WMD proliferation.
Since 2004, NATO has organised the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. This unique event provides a venue for senior national officials to informally discuss WMD threats and regularly includes more than 150 attendees from around 50 countries.
Since its entry into force in 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention has become one of the pillars of the global non-proliferation regime. The Convention prohibits the development, transfer and use of chemical weapons. States Parties to the Convention include all NATO member countries. They commit not to develop, produce or acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, nor to transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone. States Parties also undertake not to engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons, nor to commit to assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in prohibited activity.
The first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since NATO’s foundation occurred on 4 March 2018 in Salisbury, the United Kingdom. The military grade nerve agent was of a type developed by Russia. Allies agreed that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements, and they called on Russia to disclose the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In September 2020, Allies condemned the attack on Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny with the use of a nerve agent from the banned Novichok group. They made clear that any use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, is a breach of international law and contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of all chemical weapons.
Allies also strongly condemned the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and called for those responsible to be held to account. Despite sustained diplomatic efforts, the Syrian regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians contributed to appalling human suffering since the start of the conflict in 2011. The use of such weapons was in flagrant violation of international standards and non-proliferation norms, multiple UN Security Council Resolutions, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified in 2013. NATO considers any use of chemical weapons by state or non-state actors to be a threat to international peace and security.
- North Atlantic Council Statement on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 20 September 2017.
Active policies in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation have been an inseparable part of NATO’s contribution to security and stability since 1957 when Allies put forward the first NATO Disarmament Proposal in London and subsequently established regular meetings of disarmament experts at NATO Headquarters. These policies were most clearly articulated in the Harmel Report of 1967.
This report forms 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, and, on that basis, seeking to improve East-West relations through dialogue. The Alliance’s objectives in arms control are tied to the achievement of both aims. Deterrence and defence help to prevent war against hostile adversaries; arms control and dialogue help to prevent war when the sides find a common interest in avoiding conflict. It is therefore important that deterrence and defence policies, and arms control policies remain mutually reinforcing with the common goal of preventing war.
Comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament
In May 1989, NATO adopted the 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.”
“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.”
Deterrence and Defence Posture Review
The NATO Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR), agreed at the Chicago Summit in 2012, addresses issues of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. It underscores: “The Alliance is resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in a way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all”. It also repeats that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.
The Special Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee (ADNC) was established on the basis of the DDPR agreement.
Allied leaders have reiterated their commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation since the first NATO Summit in 1957. For instance, in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, they took note of a report on raising NATO’s profile in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, and at the 2009 Strasbourg/Kehl Summit, they endorsed NATO’s Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Defending against Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Threats. In the 2016 Warsaw Summit Declaration, the Alliance reaffirmed its commitment to conventional arms control and emphasised the importance of a full compliance with and implementation of arms control agreements to rebuild trust and confidence. Allied leaders also stated that Russia's unilateral military activity in and around Ukraine has undermined peace, security and stability across the region; they also stressed that Russia’s selective implementation of agreements such as the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and its long-standing non-implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty have eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments. At Warsaw, NATO also continued to call on Russia to preserve the viability of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and condemned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for its multiple ballistic missile tests and its nuclear tests, calling on the DPRK to immediately cease and abandon all its existing nuclear and ballistic missile activities in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner and re-engage in international talks.
At the Brussels Summit in July 2018, Allies expressed their position that the INF Treaty has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security. They also underlined the importance of effective multilateralism and international cooperation, including through the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in addressing WMD threats. In that spirit, NATO welcomed the decision by the June 2018 OPCW Conference of States Parties, in particular to ask the independent experts of the OPCW Technical Secretariat to put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Allies demanded that all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks worldwide be held accountable and called upon all countries to join the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. Then at the meeting of NATO leaders in London in 2019, Allies reiterated their full commitment to the preservation and strengthening of effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, taking into account the prevailing security environment. Allies also expressed their strong commitment to the full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
At the 2021 Brussels Summit in June, Allies welcomed talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, and fully supported their agreement to extend the New START Treaty for five years. However, Allies regretted that the conditions for achieving disarmament had not been realised since the 2018 Brussels Summit. Following the termination of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Allies stated they would continue to respond in a measured and responsible way to the significant risks posed by the Russian 9M729 missile and other short- and intermediate-range missiles. They reiterated their support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as the essential bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons, and their opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They also condemned the repeated use of chemical weapons and welcomed the decision by the April 2021 Conference of the State Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the CWC. Furthermore, Allies reasserted their commitment to conventional arms control and called on Russia to return to the full implementation of and compliance with the letter and spirit of all its international obligations and commitments.
A number of NATO committees and bodies oversee different aspects of Alliance activities in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Within the International Staff, the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre (ACDC) oversees the committees that address arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. As with all policy, overall political guidance is provided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body. Overall military guidance is provided by the Military Committee. 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 Special Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee (ADNC); the Nuclear Planning Group High Level Group (NPG/HLG); the Verification Coordinating Committee (VCC); and the Committee on Proliferation (CP) in Politico-Military format (for global non-proliferation issues) and Defence format (for CBRN defence issues). The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Political Committee also both meet on small arms and light weapons and mine action topics in ad hoc formats, coordinating Allied and partner work on mitigating this important global threat.