Accessibility links

Breaking News

Czech Republic: McNamara Says NATO Should Adopt No-First-Use Nuclear Policy

By Daniel Butora

Former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara and other former diplomats visited Prague this week in an attempt to drum up support for a change in NATO's military doctrine -- a change the United States does not support. As RFE/RL correspondent Daniel Butora reports, McNamara wants the alliance to pledge it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Prague, 24 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As NATO member states prepare for an upcoming ministerial session in December, pressure is building for a change in the alliance's nuclear weapons policy. The Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS), a Washington-based non-profit organization, is urging NATO members to support a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons. As part of that effort, former Pentagon chief Robert McNamara and two other former American diplomats came to Prague this week to urge that the Czech Republic, one of three new NATO members, take their side in this discussion.

McNamara was U.S. defense secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and is now the director of LAWS. He says NATO's nuclear strategy, which does not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons, runs contrary to the interests of NATO nations.

"First use, to us, is inconceivable. It's unnecessary militarily; it would be suicidal against a nuclear-equipped state, such as Russia; it would be, as I suggest, military unnecessary, morally repugnant, and politically indefensible against the non-nuclear state."

Opponents of first use say that, since the end of the Cold War, the principal threats to NATO have changed. No longer is the threat a potential attack from a hostile superpower, but rather from rogue states, violent subnational groups or terrorist organizations. Key among NATO's instruments against these threats, first-use opponents say, is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Under that treaty, non-nuclear weapon states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapon states promise to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons.

In 1995, three NATO nuclear weapons states, the United States, United Kingdom and France, made a pledge never to use nuclear weapons against parties to the NPT, unless one of those parties allied itself with a nuclear weapons state and attacked. McNamara says that this pledge, known as the Negative Assurance Clauses, is potentially inconsistent with NATO's first-use option.

"Under the Negative Assurance Clauses, NATO has stated it would never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. But we still maintain this first-use option. It's very dangerous. It's going to lead to an erosion of NPT, there is a risk of unintended use of nuclear weapons in the meantime. It stands in the way of major reductions both the U.S. and Russia should engage in to further shrink their nuclear forces."

Thomas Graham is a former diplomat and current president of LAWS. He sees the NPT as the principle defense against nuclear proliferation.

"If NATO could see its way clear to deciding that it is now time for it to declare that it will not introduce nuclear weapons in the future conflicts, that it will adopt a no-first use policy, this would be significant step forward in the cause of further reductions of nuclear weapons and that it would reduce the political value of nuclear weapons. And it would be a significant step forward in strengthening the viability of the NPT."

Graham says another danger of maintaining the first-use option is that it reinforces the high political value of nuclear weapons, and that certain non-nuclear weapons states may decide to acquire nuclear weapons and so get into "first-class" category.

Negative sentiment against first use is also shared among some NATO governments -- Canada, Germany and Norway among them. Most recently, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has proposed changing the doctrine.

But Fischer's proposal has been unequivocally rejected by both the United States and United Kingdom. Washington and London argue that the right to first use of nuclear weapons gives NATO the flexibility to respond to a variety of threats to the alliance.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan has said the Czech Republic will not take a stand on the issue before it is discussed at the NATO meeting in December.

Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat who is now with RFE/RL, says NATO's military doctrine has changed little since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

"NATO's opposition to a policy of no first use is a legacy of the Cold War, when the alliance believed that only by retaining the right to use such weapons first could it counter the numerical superiority of conventional Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe. Critics of the NATO position argue that, with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, NATO military doctrine has not yet caught up to the new security realities on the continent."

Jensen says that, ironically, the pressure on NATO to change its no-first-use policy comes at a time when Russia is doing the opposite. He says Russian defense officials are trying to compensate for a decline in general military preparedness by calling for greater reliance on the Russian nuclear deterrent.