Andy GrottoPreemptive Nukes in NATO?

Five retired military strategists from key NATO countries — including Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Pres. Clinton and former NATO commander — have authored a manifesto on NATO’s future saying among other things that:

The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The goal of the manifesto, according to its authors, is to revive the troubled trans-atlantic alliance.

Huh?! How could a renewed emphasis on the preemptive use of nuclear weapons possibly promote NATO unity?! The authors apparently missed the Schultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn op-eds in the WSJ endorsing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and less reliance on them in the meantime.

NATO sure could use a jolt of energy and some fresh thinking, particularly as European publics sour on the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the United States remains bogged down in Iraq (see my colleagues Larry Korb and Caroline Wadham’s stellar report on Afghanistan). But the manifesto’s Cold War-like emphasis on nuclear weapons is what will grab the headlines and could prejudice the rest of the report, which has plenty of food for thought. And that’s a real shame.

The other four strategists are General Klaus Naumann, Germany’s former top soldier and ex-chairman of Nato’s military committee; General Henk van den Breemen, former Dutch chief of staff; Admiral Jacques Lanxade, former French chief of staff; and Lord Inge, a British field marshal and ex-chief of the general staff and the defense staff. According to the Guardian, the manifesto has been presented to the Pentagon in Washington and to NATO’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, over the past 10 days.

Update: CSIS has the full manifesto, entitled “Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership,” available here. (Thanks Eli!)


  1. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Grotto,

    You do not understand the severity of the situation. European countries regard the war in Afghanistan as a futile endeavour and will not contribute additional combat forces under any circumstances. Furthermore, their populations lack the will and understanding to support any significant NATO effort in the country. As a result of this, ISAF will collapse in 2009 unless a new strategic plan is formulated and implemented.

    In addition to the above, the non-proliferation regime is confronted with systemic failure, as Iran faces no substantive impediment in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. When the omens are so unpropituous, it is inevitable that nuclear warfare is contemplated.

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Look at the demographics of the Middle East and that of most European NATO countries.

    Then take a look at fertility rates of European NATO countries with / and without Muslims.

    Consider the ramifications of a sharp cooling trend in Europe and on agriculture caused by a change in the thermohaline conveyor.

    These are not pleasant facts, but it makes some of this posturing understandable.

  3. Leslie (History)

    According to the NIE, Iran stopped pursuing nuclear weapons a couple years ago. It has no nuclear weapons program and an agreement allowing ongoing UN weapons inspections could confirm that.

    Fear of what may be, is why the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was agreed to in the first place. The idea that you could preemptively nuke another country, such as Afghanistan or Iran, neither of which have nukes and haven’t attacked anyone would be illegal and a war crime.

  4. Harry Lime (History)

    “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction”.

    Surely something of a logical falsehood here – the threat of first use of a WMD as a means of preventing the use of WMDs?

    Is this not worse than mad or MAD? At least under that approach the argument to preventing the first shot was to promise to shoot second, not to actually shoot first!

  5. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Leslie,

    The NIE is a piece of paper, like any other intelligence assessment not based on incontrovertible information. The history of US intelligence assessments provides ample evidence of this, as you well know.

    As to your reference to the laws of war, it betrays a lack of erudition. The use of nuclear weapons is not prohibited by any law, regulation or treaty. Regarding the justification of a nuclear attack, the combination of Iran’s support for terrorism, the anti-Semitic statements of its leaders and its pursuit of nuclear weapons would provide ample grounds for a future declaration of the existence of a clear and imminent danger to world security. A nuclear response would then be justified, even though undesirable.

  6. Carl (History)

    “The idea that you could preemptively nuke another country, such as Afghanistan or Iran, neither of which have nukes and haven’t attacked anyone would be illegal and a war crime.”

    I think even that is an understatement. It could, debatably, be the worst crime committed in the history of the world and would forever vanquish the moral and ethical legitimacy of the offending government.

  7. FSB

    Pre-emptively attacking a muslim country with nuclear weapons will justifiably bring the wrath of the muslim populace on us.

  8. Leslie (History)

    Karl Schenzig,
    Read the UN Charter, specifically articles 39 and 51, which lay out the principles of a “just war” and define the parameters for preemptive war. The US and most NATO countries are signatories to the UN Charter. Therefore any violation of the UN Charter by the US and/or NATO would be an unauthorized and illegal act under international law.

    Specifically, the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike against a nation that a) doesn’t have nuclear weapons and b) didn’t pose an imminent threat and didn’t attack would be a gross abuse of the principles of a just war, and illegal under the UN Charter.

  9. Jian Feng (History)

    The former generals are doing what they must to emulate the late General Sheridan and General LeMay. That’s why the nukes should be in the hands of George, who is at least compassinate enough to be sane. It is great that the former generals can only exercise their freedom of speech when they are “former” generals. Anyone who still wants to live on this sole space ship of ours should let his/her voice to inundate that of the warmongers. This suppose to be a democracy, which in principle should be more peaceful, if we can assume that the electorate as a whole loves peace, right?

  10. Jim (History)

    The world is an ugly place, especially where western countries have meddled and prevented the advancement of peoples and cultures in the third world. Using nuclear weapons first is a perverted, inhuman way to increase by orders of magnitude the hate and hopelessness of billions of people. These generals should immediately be prosecuted as war criminals, along with their neocon pals.

  11. Muskrat (History)

    Failure to close the deal in Afghanistan: years added to war’s term.

    Pointless invasion of Iraq: All-time al-Qaede recruiting tool; thousands of Americans dead.

    Threatening to pre-emptively nuke the next imaginary WMD stockpile: Priceless.

    For ordinary geopolitical blundering you can use any old 21st century forces to defeat pickups loaded with mujahideen. For truly FUBAR-ing the world scene, use nukes on the word of CURVEBALL II.

  12. Daniel Feakes (History)

    Hi Andy,

    The “manifesto” is surprisingly specific about the number of WMD-possessing countries. On p. 46 it states categorically, with no references or other corroboration, that “At present, 25 countries possess WMD. Of these, 17 possess active offensive chemical weapons capabilities and 12 possess offensive biological weapons. Around 70 countries possess missiles with a range of over 1,500 km, and around 12 nations export such weapons.”

    Just sticking with the area that I know best, I don’t know how they’ve arrived at these unreferenced numbers. There are five declared chemical weapons possessor states under the CWC – India, Libya, Russia, South Korea and the US. The stockpiles in these countries are under international verification and are all at various stages of destruction. There are a further 12 countries that have not yet joined the CWC, but of those only four probably possess some kind of CW capability – Egypt, Israel, North Korea and Syria. So, five plus four makes nine, so which are the other eight countries the “manifesto” alleges have “active offensive chemical weapons capabilities”? Are they among the eight other CWC non-members (Guinea-Bissau, Bahamas et al) or is the “manifesto” saying that there are CWC states with “active offensive” capabilities that the OPCW has missed?

    Finally, I would imagine that the “manifesto” was carefully worded, so why talk about “active offensive chemical weapons capabilities” but simply “offensive biological weapons”? And anyway, what does the latter mean? Wouldn’t any biological weapon be offensive? What is a defensive biological weapon? And again, which are the 12 countries claimed to possess “offensive biological weapons”?

    It’s easy to paint a dire picture of the future when you simply pluck numbers out of the air with no evidence to back them up.

  13. MarkoB (History)

    So far as I can see this all has nothing to do with actual threats. The emphasis on “unity” tells us what is happening here. The US has been moving toward a greater emphasis on intra-war deterrence and escalation control for regional contingencies in nuclear war planning. A previous JCS Joint Doctrine Document spoke pretty robustly of first use in this context.

    This is an attempt to get NATO Nuclear Planning, which is probably still Clintonian, to reflect US nuclear strategy. Atlanticists value highly the “trans-atlantic link” and any dis-connect between US nuclear strategy and NATO nuclear strategy, for them, is the greatest of sins.

    This is all about the trans-atlantic link and NATO. This has nothing to do with “threats” etc.

  14. FOARP (History)

    @Laotaoren and everyone else bringing up the lame spectre of muslim revolt in Europe – please get a grip! Europe does not and stands no likelihood in the near future of containing a significant (10%+) population of muslims. The whole Mark Stein spiel about Europe transforming into Eurabia as our geriatric populations pop their clogs is a total fantasy made up by closet racists. I live in the most muslim part of London (Whitechapel) and even here the population is not over 50% muslim, let alone in the rest of the country. Yes,there is a small cadre of terrorist sympathisers in the muslim population, this is true of all countries in which muslims live in significant numbers, but we do not face an insurgency. Someone mentioned that nuclear weapons being used against muslim countries might cause an uprising, I would say that if two invasions and support for Israel has not acheived this then use of nuclear weapons is perhaps not as likely to cause this as he assumes.

    Please, stop the constant “Europe is weak and about to be taken over by radical muslims” talk, it is absolute rubbish and only serves to convince Europeans that people in the US have no understanding of the world beyond their borders.

    On a more serious note, some people seem to be imagining that by ‘pre-emptive nuclear strike’ what is meant is a strike against a populated area, or even a total annihilation of the nation concerned. I think (or, at least, sincerely hope) that what they mean is pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against weapons production facilities. I this is true they may be working under the assumption that what may be difficult to destroy by conventional means may more easily be destroyed via unconventional means. This is a dubious proposition to say the least.

  15. spacemanafrica

    Daniel, your 17 are:
    Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi, NK, SK, India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Bosnia, France, Bulgaria, South Africa, US, Russia. Give or take former Czech. No source for this list either, you’ll just have to live with it.

    By “active offensive chemical weapons capabilities” what is meant is anything that may be activated in a combat role.

    Offensive is also being used to distinguish what are essentially weapons development or warehousing programs from defensive medical programs designed to combat CBN use. The descriptors “offensive” and “defensive” apply to the nature of the program, not the threat itself.

  16. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Leslie,

    Firstly, the UN Charter and the laws of war are two different things. Secondly, the UN Charter deliberately delegates decisions to the Security Council. Hence, only the security council can legally determine whether a breach of the UN Charter has occurred. This means that unless the council passes a resolution, de jure no breach of the Charter has occurred. Alternative mechanisms such as “uniting for peace” resolutions and concepts such as customary international law are not connected to any enforcement structure and therefore are not binding.

  17. b (History)

    While the former generals might have written the report, the Telegraph reprots that it was dictated by “senior serving military officials who are unable to speak publicly about their concerns with Nato’s military strategy.”

    Put this together with the “rumors” in NYT and WaPo about Petraeus becomming NATO chief and you know where this whole “report” was born.

    Links here:

  18. Mark Gubrud

    Karl, I take it you’re not a lawyer, eh? What an astonishing legal theory you have constructed. Obviously, if you are correct, the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain are not bound by any word of the UN Charter at all!

  19. Daniel Feakes (History)

    @Spacemanafrica: I’ll take your comments in the humourous vein in which (I hope) they were intended. Particularly your comment “No source for this list either, you’ll just have to live with it.”

    I do think that these uncorroborated lists can be very dangerous, particularly when they lump nuclear, chemical and biological together as “WMD” or when they confuse “capabilities” and “weapons”.

    Let’s deal with known facts. There are five remaining declared possessors of chemical weapons under the CWC (a sixth, Albania, completed destruction of its stockpile last July) – India, Libya, Russia, South Korea and the US. An additional 7 states have declared former CW programmes – Bosnia, China, France, Iran, Japan, Serbia and the UK. Declared CW facilities in all these states have been closed down and, along with the weapons, are under international monitoring by the OPCW. So, spacemanafrica, some of your 17 did indeed have CW programmes, but these are historical and have been deactivated. By no means can they be described as “active”. All this information and much more can be found on the OPCW’s website.

    I am fully aware of the distinction between offensive and defensive programmes but what I am not clear about with respect to the CSIS manifesto is what they mean by “capability”. Almost every industrialised country could be described as having a CW “capability” but this is very different to having stockpiled munitions and military doctrine for use.

    The term “offensive biological weapon” still strikes me as very strange. Of course, countries have defensive BW programmes (i.e. prophylactics, protection etc). But I don’t understand why the manifesto talks about “offensive” biological weapons, why is the qualification needed? By definition a biological weapon is offensive. Or is there perhaps an implication that BW held by some countries are “offensive” whereas BW held by others might be “defensive”?

    And don’t even get me started on the “Eurabia” rubbish. I think FOARP said it well.

  20. Alex W. (History)

    “Is this not worse than mad or MAD? At least under that approach the argument to preventing the first shot was to promise to shoot second, not to actually shoot first!”

    Definitely worse than MAD. This is threatening to shoot first in order to deter first shooting. MAD at least seemed feasible, if horrible and problematic.

    I’m a bit baffled at how it would be decided upon when it would be a good idea to first strike anyway. Striking second, sure, everybody would pretty much agree when to do that—the timing would be dictated by the first strike. But striking first, before the first? When is it a good time to do that? Would you ever be able to get three conscionable professionals to agree on such a thing, that today is better than tomorrow?

  21. David Clark (History)

    Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t this sort of low-grade discussion the reason why so many blogs have disabled or severely restricted their comment sections?

    We come to ACW, presumably, to read expert opinion from actual professionals. This sort of miscellaneous commentary from internet-folk dilutes the value of the forum and should be reconsidered.


  22. Andy (History)

    I don’t agree with this policy idea, but I don’t think it’s such a huge change from the cold war either. After all, we explicitly threatened to use nukes first to essentially “make up for” our comparative conventional weakness in Europe. The idea was to deter a Soviet conventional attack by suggesting the US/NATO would employ nukes in response.

    I really see this policy in a similar vein – the idea being to deter development and especially use of unconventional weapons through the threat of nuclear response.

    So, ISTM there are two questions:

    1. Is such an implied threat likely to be seen as credible, a necessary factor to achieve a deterrent effect? Personally, I don’t think so.

    2. In what situations would such a policy actually be carried out? I can think of very few situations where a nuclear strike would achieve results that a conventional strike could not. In rare situations where a nuclear response might be the only preventative option, an explicit threat to respond with nukes might have a deterrent effect.

    So while I don’t agree with this policy, I don’t quite understand all the hullabaloo as evidenced by some commenters discussing the policy in legal terms as if it already happened or was imminent. Even if this policy is ultimately adopted, it is unlikely, at best, to ever be used.

  23. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Gubrud,

    It is a fact, not a theory, that a breach of the UN Charter can only be verified by the Security Council. So as long as the permanent members are willing to use their veto power, they are immune from censure, since they can interpret the Charter as loosely as they desire.

    Dear Alex W,

    The generals are not proposing to threaten a first strike, but to employ one if all other forms of persuasion fail. The idea is to cause an overwhelming psychological shock, which would then permit other proliferators to be deterred through conventional methods.

  24. mark F (History)

    “offensive weapons”: those weapons held by countries we do not like.

    All weapons which we have, and which countries we currently like possess, are “defensive”

  25. hass (History)

    “The idea is to cause an overwhelming psychological shock”

    In other words, to commit terrorism, and to dress it up as “pre-emptive” in the absence of any actual imminent threat.

    Imagine if the Iranians had espoused your theory – would you stand for it then? Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  26. Shay Bgeorrah (History)

    The “Moon over Alabama” blog suggests that the report was more or less ghost written by two neconservative “thinkers” Benjamin Bilski and Douglas Murray.

    Their primary expertise, it is fair to say, would not be in arms control or deterrence.


  27. Kyle Atwell (History)

    Thank you for this post, Andy.

    “But the manifesto’s Cold War-like emphasis on nuclear weapons is what will grab the headlines and could prejudice the rest of the report, which has plenty of food for thought.”

    I was also struck by the level of attention given to this issue, and had the same sentiment that it was too Cold-War’esque.

    While the reader commentary has suggested that nuclear weapons would be used against a Muslim state or terrorist group, I doubt that was the intention of the report’s authors… instead, I suspect they want to maintain a nuclear deterrent for larger potential enemies of NATO who themselves have large nuclear arsenals, namely China and Russia.

    I was surprised the Guardian focused on the nuclear weapons aspect of the report when there were so many other critical issues discussed. As a little shameless self promotion, I addressed some of the non-nuclear issues here:

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