A dangerous nuclear proposal

Five former military chiefs of staff from major Western countries have just released a document arguing that the West must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to halt the imminent spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Image Credit:Illustration by Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
Gulf News

Five former military chiefs of staff from major Western countries have just released a document arguing that the West must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to halt the imminent spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

General John Shalikashvili (former US chief of staff under Clinton and Nato's ex-supreme commander in Europe), Klaus Naumann (Germany's former top military commander and ex-chairman of Nato's military committee), Lord Inge (former Britain's top officer), van den Bremmen (former Dutch chief of staff) and Jacques Lanxade (former French chief of staff) call for a new pact between Europe and Nato to cope with new strategic challenges.

They call for the "end of European obstruction of and rivalry with Nato," and "the use of force without Security Council authorisation when immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings".

They also think that "the first use of nuclear weapons must remain in quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction".

What can be said about this 150 pages document?

For sure it is not Nato's official position, but only a paper that can be used in strategic debates. However, the former positions of the authors and the fact that they come from five different and important countries give to this paper prestige and intellectual authority.

Also, one could assume that former military chiefs of staff are not free riders. Their document is probably a way to test ideas for Nato's current leaders: since the latter cannot afford to be so blunt publicly, they let their former colleagues do it for them.

One can be quite sure that this kind of method has been used by Nato in the past. It should be a source of major concern for everybody because the ideas supported in the document could lead to a major failure.

First of all, the traditional demand for a "united Western world" is presented as a new necessity to face new strategic challenges.

The problem is that this demand is as old as Nato itself and is in no way a new option. In more direct language, it means "all united under American leadership and no more expression of alternative or dissident opinions among Nato members".

This type of unity (more precisely its vertical integration) is far from being that natural when one takes a look at American policies in the past years.

Fortunately, some different voices have emerged when the Iraq war was decided.

This suggestion and the one calling for the bypassing of the UN Security Council draw a perspective of a Western world perceived as (and possibly being) aggressive in the rest of the world, especially in the Muslim world.

Therefore, we could easily enter in a vicious circle. Because of such a new external threat, Western countries would have to develop their military tools. This could be interpreted as yet another proof of Western ambitions to dominate other countries and it would fuel hostility.

The proposal of a new nuclear strategy is even more dangerous. During the Cold War, the West relied on nuclear deterrence for its security. The idea was to deter a Soviet attack by threatening to use nuclear weapons in retaliation.

In nuclear times, as Winston Churchill once said, "safety is the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation". What he meant is the core of nuclear strategy: peace is guaranteed by the threat of an all out destruction.

The very reason why a nuclear war between two countries was impossible is that such a life would have destroyed any form of life.

And it is true that, despite the ideological antagonism between the Eastern and Western blocs and their military build-up, there was never a direct military confrontation between Washington and Moscow.


For the tenants of nuclear deterrence, atomic weapons are mostly political. Threatening to use them is only a way to avoid a war. Other people have always wanted to give nuclear arms a military dimension.

According to them, the goal of such weapons is not to avoid a war but to win one. When one reads the joint declaration of these former chiefs of staff, the only conclusion that comes to mind is that the authors try, again, to turn nuclear arms into military assets that should or must be used.

If one reads their paper accurately, the authors suggest using nuclear weapons to avoid proliferation, not war. It means that atomic weapons could be used to destroy nuclear targets, in Iran for example.

The taboo over the use of nuclear weapons would be broken. In no way would this be reassuring, even from a Western perspective. Are Doctor Strangeloves back? One could fear it.

Dr Pascal Boniface is the founder and director of IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques). He has published or edited more than 40 books dealing with international relations, nuclear deterrence and disarmament, European security and French international policy.