Germany and US split over role for Nato

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SERIOUS RIFTS in the transatlantic defence alliance opened up yesterday as Germany called for a revision of the Nato nuclear weapons doctrine and Washington's proposals for a new global role for Nato ran into a wall of European opposition.

Joshka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, used a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels to challenge Nato to put aside Cold War taboos and renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. The call has already been rejected by the United States and yesterday it was sharply dismissed by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, representing one of Nato's three nuclear powers. He said he saw "no need for a change in the nuclear posture of Nato".

A defiant Mr Fischer, making his debut at Nato, not only repeated the proposal but reacted to Washington's disapproval by defending the right of any member of the alliance to call for debate. Reminding Washington that it does not have a monopoly on ideas and that the Cold War is over, he said: "Reflection has never been something which was banned at Nato. That has been one of the alliance's strengths and should remain so."

Senior Nato officials were polite but dismissive of the idea. One said that the nuclear deterrent combined with conventional weapons had preserved the peace in Europe "for the longest period since the Holy Roman Empire". There would have to be convincing military reasons for undermining its deterrent value, he stressed.

Germany and France, meanwhile, poured cold water on American proposals to radically broaden Nato's scope, while Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, dismissed their suspicions as "hogwash".

She denied that by tabling US proposals for a new "strategic concept" for Nato that went beyond the traditional role of collective territorial defence, Washington was trying to turn the alliance into a global policeman. At the same time Ms Albright sketched out a vision for the future development of Nato that was sharply at odds with that held in European capitals.

In it Nato would remain committed to the collective defence of the territory of its 16 - soon to be 19 - members, but it would also take on new tasks and make itself capable of meeting what she called "a wide range of threats to common interests". To some European ears this smacked of Washington trying to enlist its allies to further its global security ambitions, but Ms Albright said that because the world had changed Nato must also turn its attention to such threats as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The US wants the new Nato blueprint to include such capabilities as an intelligence clearing house on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and co-ordinated steps to protect the allies from attacks by such weapons.

The US would also like to see Nato sweep away any obstacles to operating anywhere in the world if its interests are under threat, even without the authority of the UN Security Council. Kosovo and Bosnia are being cited as examples of the new forms of threat. But the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, joined Germany in insisting that Nato's threat of military action in Kosovo, which was activated without a UN Security Council resolution, was an exception to the rule, not a precedent for the future.

The French reaction yesterday reflects the concern in Europe that the US is railroading its allies into military solutions such as the controversial cruise missile attack on a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan, carried out in response to US embassy bombings in two African cities last August.

Reminding the Americans that collective defence would have to remain the foundation of Nato, Mr Vedrine said the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was just "one risk among many" and Nato was just "one actor among many". He also insisted that specific UN endorsement would have to remain the basis for any Nato activities.

Mr Cook appeared to line up behind the Americans, advising against artificial geographical limits to Nato's activities. It was increasingly clear, he said, that Nato would be drawn into security and crisis management in conflicts in areas that went beyond the strict territorial borders of the alliance.

Yesterday's meeting foreshadows difficulties in reaching agreement on a new blueprint to take Nato into the 21st century, likely to arise when the alliance's heads of government meet in Washington next April.