New report: NATO, Norway and nuclear weapons

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted in 2017 and will enter into force in January 2021. The Treaty provides a first-ever unconditional global ban on the use of nuclear arms. Several Norwegian political parties, organisations, and individuals – including six former prime ministers, defence ministers, and foreign ministers – have voiced their support for the agreement. The government, for its part, has argued that ratification of the TPNW would contradict NATO and undermine Norway’s security and defence capability. Labour, Norway’s largest opposition party, has expressed support for Norwegian signature in the long term, but simultaneously suggested that adherence at present could reduce Norway’s access to influence and protection.

This report analyses nuclear policymaking in NATO, Norway’s role in allied cooperation, and the potential consequences of Norwegian adherence to the TPNW. The report is based on a mix of open sources, documents released from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on freedom of information requests, and six in-depth interviews with individuals with long experience from leadership positions in the Norwegian civil service and/or the Norwegian armed forces.

Nuclear weapons entered NATO strategy in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the United States suggested deploying American nuclear weapons in European countries as a means of offsetting the Soviet Union’s breakthroughs in long-range missile technology and assumed conventional superiority. Norwegian policymakers rejected the offer in favour of a continuation of the “no-foreign-bases policy” adopted in 1949.

Numerous experts and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have since the 1950s suggested that NATO’s “nuclear umbrella” lacks credibility. While politicians further south in Europe sought to bypass this credibility problem by accepting the deployment of thousands of highly “usable” US tactical nuclear weapons, Norwegian policymakers opted for a policy of détente. This policy was maintained for much of the Cold War period. Norwegian strategists and politicians believed close operational links to the United States’ nuclear war planning would make Norway a more likely target for Soviet nuclear weapons while at the same time fuelling a security dilemma in the High North.

NATO’s nuclear policy has since the 1970s been marked by two countervailing trends. On the one hand, the military role of nuclear weapons in the alliance’s practical defence planning has been substantially reduced. On the other, the political role of nuclear weapons as symbols of allied power and unity has been increased. This latter trend culminated in 2010, when allied leaders for the first time adopted a strategic concept defining NATO as a “nuclear alliance”. At the same time, the 2010 Strategic Concept also called on NATO members to help create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.

Norwegian governments and political parties have at several points in time sought to foster disarmament, arms control, and changes to NATO posture through participation in formal and informal groupings within and outside of the alliance (Scandilux, NATO-5, various groupings seeking a reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, etc.). This diplomatic activity, which has largely been limited to calling on the nuclear-armed states to change their ways, has had little effect.

The likely consequences of Norwegian adherence to the TPNW are contested. Norwegian authorities have suggested that ratification would conflict with allied cooperation in NATO, but it is not clear exactly how or why. Ratification would not obviously trigger significant legal consequences or changes to existing military practice. The TPNW will admittedly prohibit Norway from explicitly calling on the United States or other nuclear-armed states to use nuclear weapons on Norway’s behalf. Yet this possibility is largely of theoretical interest. The sources interviewed in the context of this study agreed that the United States, Britain, and France would almost certainly refrain from using their nuclear weapons unless their own and most vital national security interests were threatened. The nuclear part of the NATO security guarantee is in this view not credible and therefore of little value as a deterrent.

The main obstacle to Norwegian signature of the TPNW is political. The major powers – both within NATO and outside – do not want their nuclear weapons to be delegitimised in international affairs. In addition, the current security environment, perceived by many as particularly difficult, have led policymakers to value NATO unity even more highly than they did one or two decades ago. Norwegian adherence to the TPNW is likely to trigger political reprisals from allies, but it is disputed how serious these will be. Their extent will likely depend on timing, and on whether the most influential members of NATO are keen to make an issue out of the TPNW. The major powers in NATO do not have an interest in loosing Norway or other strategically located partners as allies. 

NATO’s most important forum for nuclear policymaking is the consensus-oriented North Atlantic Council. Consultations on nuclear policy also take place in the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) and its subsidiary organs, the NPG Staff Group and High Level Group (HLG). There is little if any evidence that Norway has ever enjoyed meaningful influence on the nuclear-armed states’ policies within these forums. Norway’s influence on the NATO nuclear powers’ policies is already exceedingly low, and will thus not be significantly reduced by adherence to the TPNW or an exit from the NPG and its subsidiary organs. 

A potential negative consequence of adherence to the TPNW and attendant exit from the NPG and its subsidiary organs is that Norwegian authorities lose access to expertise and insight on nuclear threats. After all, some of the nuclear expertise within the Norwegian state apparatus is currently linked to Norway’s participation in the NPG and its subsidiary organs. To ameliorate this, any decision to adhere to the TPNW and exit the NPG should be accompanied by a conscious decision to retain Norwegian expertise on issues of nuclear policy, strategy, and security. The experts interviewed for this study identified three central nuclear threats to Norway in the current security environment: (1) Norway as the site of “limited” nuclear war; (2) use of nuclear weapons as a result of accidents or misunderstandings; (3) attacks and escalation around the Russian North Fleet at the Kola peninsula. Adherence to the TPNW would likely have relatively insignificant impact on these threats in the short term.

Read the full report (in Norwegian) here.

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