'Frustrated Friend' Ex-NATO Head Robertson Skeptical of Removing Nukes from Germany

The German government would like to see the withdrawal of all remaining American nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. But former NATO head George Robertson told SPIEGEL that it's not quite so easy. He says the demand 'is dangerous.'
The Büchel military base in southern Germany where many think that US tactical nuclear weapons are stored.

The Büchel military base in southern Germany where many think that US tactical nuclear weapons are stored.

Foto: dpa

When it became clear last year that Guido Westerwelle, a politician obsessed with domestic issues, would become Germany's next foreign minister, he quickly needed to flex his foreign policy muscles. And it didn't take him long to find an issue sure to be popular with German voters.

Not long after German general elections late last September, Westerwelle, head of the business-friendly Free Democrats -- junior coalition partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives -- reiterated his campaign demand that it was time to begin the process of removing the remaining atomic weapons based in Germany. He said the weapons were a "relic of the Cold War" and said they "no longer have a military purpose."

The demand quickly found its way into Merkel's coalition agreement. "We will advocate within the (NATO) Alliance and with our American allies the removal of the remaining nuclear weapons from Germany," the document reads.

But what sells well at home is not always well-received on the stage of geo-strategy and international security. In an interview with SPIEGEL this week, former NATO General Secretary George Robertson said that he considers the demand to be "simply dangerous."

Reduction of Russian Arsenal a Must

He said that the stationing of US short-range nuclear missiles in Germany is part of a strategic concept developed by NATO over decades. The demand from Berlin "does not deny the idea of extended nuclear protection. It just says that Germany does not want to share the risks of providing it."

He emphasized that any strategic shift must be discussed in detail with NATO member states further east. Negotiations with Russia on a reduction of its nuclear arsenal are also a must, he said.

NATO has some 200 short-range nuclear weapons stationed in Europe with an estimated 20 of those in Germany. Russia, however, possesses many times that amount -- Robertson mentioned 5,400 in his interview with SPIEGEL -- and there are many within NATO who favor using American nukes in Europe as a bargaining chip with Russia.

"Instead of making unilkeral demands for weapons to leave Germany, the priority should be to do something about this huge imbalance," Robertson said.

Robertson is not the first to voice concerns over Germany's proposal to withdraw nuclear weapons from German soil. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in November that "we have to be very careful about how we evaluate the different threats, the need for deterrence." She continued, saying, "NATO is the appropriate forum to consider all of the ramifications, because we have obligations to states further east. We have obligations to states in the Balkans and further south." Other NATO partners have also preached caution.

'Frustrated Friend'

Westerwelle seemed conscious of such concerns in his remarks at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. He said the German government is eager to create the conditions for the withdrawal of NATO nuclear warheads and said that he wanted to speak with Russia about "trust building measures" and a reduction of their weapons.

In his comments to SPIEGEL, it becomes clear that Robertson would welcome such an initiative. He said that Germany's relationship with Russia makes it a natural to head up any such negotiations. "I am a great friend of Germany," he said. "Although at the moment I am a frustrated friend."

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