Germany's new coalition government is calling for U.S. nuclear missiles to be removed from Europe. A London research organization says Germany's announcement has reopened the global debate about whether nuclear weapons help or hinder global security.
U.S. President Barack Obama put forth his vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech last April in Prague.
"The United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake, as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee that defense to our allies, including the Czech republic," Mr. Obama said.
The U.S. administration will make its nuclear policy clear with a paper known as the Nuclear Posture Review expected to be reported to the U.S. Congress this month. In the meantime, the German government has called for the removal of U.S. tactical weapons on its soil and from Europe altogether.
Former NATO Secretary General George Robertson says that is a bad idea.
"I think that they have not yet fully realized how symbolically important the American nuclear umbrella is, and how dangerous it might be and how risky it might be if one component of America's nuclear guarantee was to be removed without considering all of the consequences," Robertson said.
He says one of the consequences could be nuclear escalation, if nations do not feel safe.
"Far from making Europe safer, and far from producing a less nuclear dependent Europe, [the policy] may well end up bringing more nuclear weapons into the European continent, and frustrating some of the attempts that are being made to get multi-lateral nuclear disarmament," Robertson said.
Europe's main security structure is the NATO alliance, comprising 28 countries - including most of Europe, the United States and Turkey, among others. Article Five of its charter guarantees collective security. Former Pentagon official Franklin Miller says that is why its newest members joined.
"I think the Eastern European nations joined the Alliance in large part because they received a guarantee from NATO of their territorial integrity, and what that means is there will be no war in Europe. Not just no nuclear war in Europe, but no conventional war, no conventional aggression. NATO has been the most successful defense alliance in history, largely in part because it has had a nuclear element to its Article Five guarantee," Miller said.
Miller and Robertson co-wrote a report on Germany's call to remove nuclear weapons, along with Security Analyst Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution.
"The Russians have 5,400 tactical nuclear weapons. It is in NATO's interests and I would argue it is in Russia's interests to bring these under control of a treaty that is verifiable and that builds security in Europe," Schake said.
The report's title is "Germany opens Pandora's Box," but Robertson says the renewed debate is positive.
"It actually opens the door to a new opportunity to reduce the total number of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe by having a negotiation with Russia to reduce them on both sides. That itself would be a grand bargain, and therefore we could move from the high risk that the present policy seems to suggest, to one that would reassure Russia, reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Europe and maintain Alliance solidarity," Robertson said.
Miller says it is not clear how many of Russia's weapons are functional.
"The real issue is how to increase transparency in Europe on tactical nuclear weapons holdings and reduce the overly large number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, which is why we propose a new arms-control agreement," Miller said.
Analysts say the debate over nuclear weapons in Europe could ultimately affect the international community's dealings with Iran, because NATO-member Turkey borders that and other Middle Eastern nations. Schake says that has dominated Turkey's foreign policy.
"They already have some of the most difficult problems of any NATO ally, not least Iran on the nuclear threshold will cause the Turks to think very seriously about their own security and whether current arrangements are adequate for it. We NATO allies need to help the Turks feel secure and make choices that are good for all of us," Schake said.
Germany's stance may have sparked this debate, but any resolution will depend on the Obama administration's position on nuclear weapons and their future as a potential deterrent.