U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is ruling out an early removal of the last remaining U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.
She told a NATO meeting that any reduction in the U.S. force — which is estimated to total about 200 bombs designed for launching from attack jets — should be part of a negotiated deal with the Russians, who have far more so-called tactical nuclear weapons in the region.
No such negotiation is in the offing, and the Russians have expressed little interest in it.
Clinton did not say the U.S. nuclear weapons should never be pulled out of Europe, and she said their future should be decided by NATO as a group — not by the United States alone.
But she said that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.
The comments come as the Obama administration is pressing Moscow to negotiate reductions in U.S. and Russian short-range nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.
"I do believe that the presence of the American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met over dinner with 27 other NATO country representatives to discuss nuclear weapons policy and the future of missile defense.
Fogh Rasmussen also credited President Barack Obama with putting "new wind in the sails" of the disarmament movement by calling for a nuclear-free world last April in Prague.
Clinton was expected to spell out at the dinner the Obama administration's view of how NATO should pursue the nuclear policy debate, which formally begins in this Baltic seaside capital and is due to climax in November when Obama and other NATO government leaders gather in Lisbon, Portugal, to endorse a rewriting of the alliance's basic defense doctrine.
At a news conference with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, Clinton said no one should doubt U.S. defense links to its allies.
"Let me be clear," she said. "Our commitment to Estonia and our other allies is a bedrock principle of the United States and we will never waver from it."
Clinton and her aides declined to preview her remarks on nuclear policy, but they pointed to the latest statement of U.S. views on the subject: a Nuclear Posture Review published earlier this month that said nuclear weapons remain a vital part of NATO strategy for deterring attack. That statement also said the presence of U.S. nuclear arms in Europe contributes to alliance cohesion and confidence.
The nuclear element of the U.S. defense commitment to Europe takes several forms: the potential use of U.S.-based long-range nuclear missiles; the capability to quickly move U.S.-based short-range nuclear weapons to Europe in a time of crisis, and the storage of an estimated 200 nuclear bombs, designed to be dropped by short-range attack jets, in five European countries. Some Europeans have called for the forward-based bombs to be removed.
Clinton also was likely to underline the U.S. view that improved and broadened missile defenses in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and in Asia, can play a bigger role in deterrence and thereby allow the U.S. to meet its defense commitments with fewer nuclear weapons.
The administration also has determined that it will not unilaterally remove the estimated 200 nuclear bombs it has stored in Europe.
Some officials in Germany and other U.S. allies in Europe are advocating a withdrawal of those bombs, citing Obama's call last year for a nuclear-free world and the U.S. administration's stated preference for reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons for defense.
In its nuclear policy review this spring, the Obama administration said it hopes to engage Russia in a comprehensive negotiation covering all nuclear weapons on each side — not just those long-range weapons covered by the newly completed START treaty, but also those strategic weapons held in reserve by both countries as well as the "non-strategic," or shorter-range, weapons in Europe and Russia.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocate of nuclear disarmament, said Thursday that he believes the Tallinn meeting marks the first time NATO foreign ministers have formally discussed the alliance's nuclear policy.
Kimball said NATO should assess the option of withdrawing the 200 bombs "on their own merit — from a security and nonproliferation standpoint — and change the dynamics with Russia by agreeing to remove the warheads from Europe" and then press Moscow to negotiate a consolidation and eventual and verifiable elimination of non-strategic U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.
The Russians, who have far more such weapons than the U.S. has in Europe, have shown little interest in such a negotiation.
The U.S. government as a matter of policy will not confirm the location of U.S. nuclear weapons, but it is well known that the sites in Europe are in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The U.S. has had nuclear arms in Europe since the 1950s. It will not officially say how many remain, but private experts think it is about 200, down sharply from the 1980s.
The traditional U.S. view of the nuclear bombs in Europe is that they are a pillar of NATO unity and that they link U.S. and NATO security. Even so, they are not targeted at any specific country and the aircraft used to launch them are not as ready for combat as in years past.
An in-depth study of the issue by an expert panel assembled by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, made public one month before Obama took office, said that since 1995 the aircraft's ability to go into combat with the bombs "is now measured in months rather than minutes."
That study also revealed internal NATO divisions, saying that some senior U.S. officials at NATO's military command headquarters in Mons, Belgium, do not support having U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. It quoted one unnamed U.S. general as saying that the weapons are not needed because the American role of deterring a nuclear attack on its allies can be performed with weapons outside Europe.
But the U.S. is putting off an early decision, partly out of concern for the views of newer NATO members — mainly those like Estonia that are former Soviet republics, as well as Poland and other central Europe countries that once were members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.
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