Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 03:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 03:28 | SYDNEY

NATO nuke threat leaves world aquiver


Rory Medcalf


24 January 2008 09:24

The authors of a major new report on global strategy have tainted their many good ideas by mixing them with a rotten one: the notion that the threat of first-use of nuclear weapons deserves a future. Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World is meant to be a wake-up call to a complacent Europe about the challenges humanity faces and how a revitalised NATO might deal with them in new partnership with others. Its authors are five eminent former military commanders, and generally (so to speak) they make wise points about the error of thinking that most security problems have solely military solutions.

But in one line, widely picked up in the global media, they shoot themselves and their agenda in the collective foot.  Tucked away on page 94 of this 150-page report is this awkwardly-phrased and no doubt carefully-calculated sentence:

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, in order to avoid truly existential dangers.

Very well, it is embedded in lots of high-sounding and intellectually substantial context about proportionality, principles, legality, the logic of escalation and the fissures in the Westphalian Order (where once upon a time states used to make honourable war or peace exclusively with each other, and that sans nukes). But a satisfying explanation of how a NATO threat to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively might dissuade terrorist use of such arms, while somehow not encouraging other states to seek such capability for their own defence, is lacking.

The document otherwise contains lots of sound analysis and advice, for instance: that there is a growing mismatch between global dangers and the international and national political will (as well as capabilities) to respond to them; that NATO’s credibility is on the line in Afghanistan and that NATO members must stop regarding their role there as some sort of ‘fringe activity’ which they can afford to be half-hearted in committing forces; and that European nations need to pay much more attention to the strategic implications of the rise of Asia.

The Euro- and NATO-centric nature of much of the report, and its emphasis on democratic values, might grate with some readers, especially in Asia (not to mention a  pragmatic Australia). But that is only if they bother to read it. The fact that the report’s advocacy of nuclear-first-use has stolen the headlines means that an important document on how to cope with the future of the world may have alienated many of its potential readers from the outset.