Thursday, April 22, 2010

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday reaffirmed America’s defense commitment to Europe as she joined NATO representatives to discuss the future of U.S. nuclear weapons on the Continent.

Mrs. Clinton was expected to spell out at a private 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 President Obama and other NATO government leaders gather in Lisbon to endorse a rewriting of the alliance’s basic defense doctrine.

At a news conference with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, Mrs. Clinton said no one should doubt U.S. defense links to its allies.

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“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.”

Mrs. 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 move U.S.-based short-range nuclear weapons to Europe quickly 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.

Mrs. Clinton also was likely to underline the U.S. view that improved and broadened missile defenses in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia can play a bigger role in deterrence and thereby allow the United States to meet its defense commitments with fewer nuclear weapons.

The administration also has determined that it will not remove unilaterally 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 Mr. 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 “nonstrategic,” 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 discussed the alliance’s nuclear policy formally.

Mr. 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 nonstrategic U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

The Russians, who have far more such weapons than does the United States 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 United States has had nuclear arms in Europe since the 1950s. It will not say officially 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 M. Gates, made public one month before Mr. 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 United States is putting off an early decision, partly out of concern for the views of newer NATO members — mainly those such as 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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