KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, JULY 2 -- President Bush said today the United States has gotten "broad general agreement" from its European allies on a package of proposals the administration plans to make to them formally later this week, including a proposal to make nuclear arms "weapons of last resort."
Senior officials here and in Washington described the proposed declaration on the use of nuclear weapons -- one of a dozen American proposals being presented to U.S. allies for their comments -- as a "bridge" to a new European defense doctrine for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "A declaration that nuclear weapons will be used only as a last resort is not incompatible with flexible response," an official said, calling the language "a modification and clarification meant to reassure" the Soviets.
Flexible response, the doctrine to which NATO has adhered for more than three decades, holds that if the Soviets appeared to be winning a conventional war in Europe, NATO could and would respond with the first use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Western military planners have always been vague about the point at which they would resort to nuclear preemption, but never expected to use such weapons at the outset of any conflict. The U.S. initiative is considered a departure in that it makes this approach clearer by ruling out any early first use of nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III said last week, however, that it was unlikely that NATO, at the London summit on Thursday and Friday, would relinquish its threat to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in a conflict if it deemed them necessary. "I don't think we ought to make Europe safe for a conventional war," Baker said.
Bush, who met here today with a dozen of his top aides in preparation for the summit, sidestepped questions on whether the last-resort use of weapons was a reversal of the flexible-response and first-use doctrine. "We'll wait and see what comes out of the NATO meeting," he said, "But I'm encouraged because I think we've got a good position here."
The president said, "I don't want to understate where we're going or overstate it. But some will look at it as this major change in direction and others won't."
The administration circulated its proposals through European capitals over the weekend. "We've gotten broad general agreement on a lot of the issues, but there is still some work to be done," Bush said.
Bush said the agenda for the four-hour meeting -- which included Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- covered the defense doctrine, a Bush proposal to reduce the NATO forces close to the NATO-Warsaw Pact frontiers, and a Bush call for the eventual withdrawal of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear-tipped artillery shells in Western Europe.
Officials said Bush and his aides also discussed the package of political proposals, including ways to strengthen the political functions of NATO and to help reshape the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to give that institution a stronger role.
"We're trying to get our act totally together" in advance of the summit, Bush said. "I think our side is generally agreed on the big questions," he added, with Baker assigned to "iron out some of the differences before we get there."
Baker leaves Tuesday for Brussels for a session of 24 foreign ministers, who have been meeting on the issue of aid and other support for the new democracies in Poland and Hungary.
Bush said he expects from the summit "a hopefully unanimous document that is unanimously agreed to that will set the course for the future. As conditions have changed, NATO will change." Some, Bush said, will call his proposals "dramatic policy changes and others won't." The president suggested that the package of proposals he will have this week will not be as dramatic as his performance last year, when he unveiled a major, detailed conventional arms reduction package.
Bush is to meet with another group of advisers Tuesday to discuss the economic summit that will bring him and the leaders of six other industrialized democracies to Houston July 9-11. He will leave here Wednesday for the NATO summit.