Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in NATO

  • Last updated: 28 Nov. 2019 12:01

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 fully.
  • NATO Allies are parties to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Ottawa Convention on mine action, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention and other related treaties and agreements.
  • In the field of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), NATO cooperates with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), other regional organisations and multilateral initiatives to address proliferation issues.
  • Nuclear weapons committed to NATO 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 and 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.
  • 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 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, 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. 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 force.”1  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

    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).

    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.
  • 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.

    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 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.

    Conventional forces

    Allies have reduced their conventional forces significantly from Cold War levels. NATO Allies that are Parties to the CFE Treaty remain committed to the regime of the Treaty.  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 the 2012 Chicago Summit, 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.

    At their three 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, and its selective implementation of the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty have eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments. Allies called on Russia to fully adhere to its 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 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 crafting 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.

    Allies also emphasise their strong commitment to full implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The NPT has been the cornerstone of global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts for nearly 50 years, and has an essential role in the maintenance of international peace, security and stability. The Alliance reaffirms its resolve to seek a safer world for all and to take further practical steps and effective measures to create the conditions for further nuclear disarmament negotiations and the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons in full accordance with all provisions of the NPT, including Article VI, in an ever more effective and verifiable way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all. Allies reiterate their commitment to progress towards the goals and objectives of the NPT in its three mutually reinforcing pillars: nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

    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.

    Armed forces

    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 are working with non-member countries 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.

    NATO’s Partnership for Peace (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 Fund Policy has also been expanded to include projects addressing 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)

    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 can 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 engage in preventing the proliferation of WMD by state and non-state actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. They also do this 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 well as the preparedness for recovery efforts, should it suffer a WMD attack or CBRN event.

    The Alliance engages actively to enhance international security through partnership with relevant countries and other international organisations. NATO's partnership programmes are therefore designed to provide effective frameworks for dialogue, consultation and coordination. They contribute actively 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 organises the annual non-proliferation conference. This unique event provides a venue for senior national officials to informally discuss WMD threats. The last WMD Conference was held in Brussels, Belgium in October 2019. 

    Chemical weapons

    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 agree that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements, and they have called on Russia to disclose the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

    Allies 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.

    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.
  • 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.

    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 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.

    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,