By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 5:43 PM
TALLINN, ESTONIA -- NATO's top official said Thursday that the alliance should take steps to support President Obama's ambitious nuclear-disarmament agenda, but he made clear that there are limits -- specifically, that U.S. atomic weapons should not be removed from Europe.
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke as NATO foreign ministers discussed for the first time in more than a decade whether to get rid of the last remnants of the U.S. nuclear force that blanketed Western Europe during the Cold War.
Some European politicians see withdrawal of the roughly 200 remaining short-range nuclear arms as a relatively easy way to support Obama's campaign to achieve "a world without nuclear weapons." The European Parliament recently branded the American bombs a "strategic anachronism," with little military value, and Germany has led an effort to remove them. Obama has called for putting the weapons on the table in the next round of arms-reduction talks with Russia.
But some European officials -- particularly in former Warsaw Pact countries -- worry that eliminating the weapons could send the wrong signal to Russia or other potential antagonists. U.S. officials acknowledged Thursday that Rasmussen's feelings are widely shared in the alliance.
"There is now new wind in the sails when it comes to reducing nuclear weapons and nuclear risks, and I want to commend President Obama for this, because he is leading the way," Rasmussen told a news conference, indicating that NATO could back some cuts in the short-range weapons. He said, however, that NATO's "core business" was assuring the alliance's members that they are protected.
"I do believe the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent," he said.
Some prominent nuclear thinkers who inspired Obama's agenda -- such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former senator Sam Nunn -- have called for the elimination of the short-range deployed weapons. The Obama administration has moved cautiously, however, saying that NATO should decide.
During a dinner with her NATO colleagues, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear that the United States is in no rush to remove the bombs. She echoed the traditional rationale for keeping them in Europe, saying it is "fundamental" for NATO to share nuclear responsibilities, according to excerpts of her remarks distributed by her office.
She also emphasized that any future reductions should be linked to cuts in Russia's short-range nuclear weapons, as well as agreements on verifying their number and moving them away from the borders of NATO members. Russia has about 2,000 deployed short-range nuclear weapons, compared with 500 for the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Advocates of withdrawing the weapons say they are vulnerable to theft by terrorists because of their relatively small size and the security gaps at European military bases. In addition, they argue that the weapons' Cold War mission is over and that the U.S. military can provide security more effectively through its long-range ballistic missiles and weapons on submarines, which can respond quickly.
But a senior U.S. official acknowledged that there is a "widely shared feeling" among allies that "they are more comfortable knowing the nuclear weapons are in Europe" and not deployed offshore. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.
Those opposed to removing the weapons say the alliance will be strained if former Warsaw Pact countries feel unprotected. And officials and analysts fear that, without the security of the U.S. bombs, Turkey could seek its own nuclear weapon to offset the program in neighboring Iran.
The Turkish government says it will not try to develop a bomb.
The arsenal of American short-range, or "tactical," nuclear weapons in Europe has shrunk from about 2,500 two decades ago. The remaining bombs are stored in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, analysts say. Although the weapons are American, they would be dropped by allies in wartime.
Germany's government ignited a debate in Europe last fall by urging withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from the country. Six other European nations followed up by calling for reductions, but said they had to be in tandem with Russian cuts.
German officials appear to have retreated from their initial enthusiasm for unilateral withdrawal, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying Thursday that "of course, we would not go it alone."
A decision by NATO on what to do about the weapons is not expected before the fall, when the alliance issues a new "strategic concept" on its role and missions over the next decade.