Five transatlantic experts told The Local that huge opportunities and dangers hinged on the issue: the weapons could be used as leverage to persuade Russia to reduce its own – still very large – stockpile, while their removal could upset the strategic balance that stretches from the North Atlantic to the Middle East.
Talk of the removal of weapons left over from the Cold War period intensified this week after US media reported President Barack Obama planned to reduce his country’s nuclear arsenal, including withdrawing weapons still on European soil.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has long pushed for their removal, welcomed the news. But some analysts said Westerwelle was chasing domestic political points rather than offering a long term strategy.
“I don’t see any strategic plan (on the German side),” said Oliver Thränert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). “And at the end of the day, if this happens, it’s because the US wants to do it, not because of Westerwelle’s influence.”
Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC, concurred, saying: “I think it’s Westerwelle trying to get a profile in foreign policy. He’s saying, ‘Here, I have an issue.’”
Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations said Westerwelle’s goal in bringing up the debate was partly to put disarmament firmly on the agenda at the planned NATO foreign ministers meeting in the Estonian city of Tallinn in April.
But it could backfire and in fact strengthen some NATO allies’ conviction – notably Eastern Europeans still worried about a revival of Russian power – of the need for US nuclear weapons in Europe.
“It’s a little bit overoptimistic … I wouldn’t call it unwise or dangerous, but a bit risky,” he said. “I’m not convinced this will work the way the Germans have in mind. It might lead to a discussion in NATO that would confirm the need for US nuclear involvement in Europe.”
The analysts agreed Russia was pivotal to the issue. It would be senseless to remove the US weapons from Europe without using them as a bargaining chip to push Moscow to reduce its own stockpile.
No military value
“There is no military value to these weapons. NATO itself said that 10 years ago – there’s no secret there,” said Daniel Hamilton, director of the Centre for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “The question is, do you take them out or negotiate with the Russians to draw down their own weapons?
“I think the (NATO) alliance will come around to … a negotiating position with Russia. After all, (the Russians) still have thousands of these weapons.”
Many NATO allies, notably those in the east, were still “very concerned” about a revival of Russian power, according to Hamilton. “In recent years, there have been many doubts about Germany’s credibility, with some of these Eastern neighbours doubting its commitment,” he said.
The SWP's Oliver Thränert said that the weapons still played an important symbolic role in transatlantic security cohesion. “Newer NATO members still value them because the bind the US to the old continent,” he said.
If the weapons were removed from Germany and from the other countries where the US is believed to have nuclear stockpiles – Italy, Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands – then countries currently enjoying the security of the nuclear umbrella could be encouraged to go nuclear to protect themselves, Thränert said.
This was particularly the case with Turkey. If Iran continued to develop its nuclear programme and Turkey no longer felt protected by the US arsenal, it could build its own weapons, fuelling a Middle East arms race. Europe could then be drawn into the military escalation.
Missile defence the answer?
“In that case, we’d certainly need a damage limitation option such as a missile defence shield,” Thränert said.
However, the Transatlantic Academy’s Szabo said the move could actually give the West more leverage in its arguments against a nuclear Iran.
“If the US is seen as reducing its arsenal, it makes the arguments against Iran’s nuclear programme stronger. It’s another step,'' he said.
Thränert and others said that a Europe-based missile defence system proposed by Obama last September could provide an alternative to the present nuclear stockpile acting as a deterrent.
However, reception to the idea has been fairly muted among European NATO allies, said Professor Joachim Krause, director of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel.
“There is a strong strain to the public debate (in Germany) that missile defence is bad,'' he said. ''What we need is a broader debate if we are going to reduce reliance on nuclear deterrence. This is critical. Most people don’t understand that if you get rid of nuclear deterrence, you need to think about how to replace it.''