NATO foreign ministers met in Estonia last month, and the opportunity they missed was for a serious rethink of the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe.

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a somewhat guarded joint letter from the foreign affairs ministers of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Norway calling, on the surface, for little more than a NATO discussion on nuclear disarmament. The letter welcomed President Barack Obama's disarmament initiatives and then suggested that the NATO ministers explore what the alliance might do in Europe "to move closer to [the] overall political objective" of "reducing the role of nuclear weapons and seek[ing] peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons."

But the February letter's context—growing European support for the withdrawal of US non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe—was more interesting than its content. Germany's new foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, had by then explicitly supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil. "We want to send a signal and fulfil our commitments under the NPT 100 per cent," is how a German government spokesperson put it.

Beyond that, reports had Turkey accepting the idea that US extended deterrence does not necessarily require forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. Italy had indicated openness on the question. And even Poland, generally regarded as fiercely committed to a European-based deterrent, was reported to be less adamant, with elements of Poland's security establishment suggesting nuclear capabilities are not the only or even most significant indications of alliance solidarity. Then, of course, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway all publicly and explicitly oriented themselves toward the German view.

But then came the meeting. The Obama administration's formal approach was, as expected, to defer the question of tactical US nuclear weapons in Europe to the fall summit that is intended to approve a new NATO Strategic Concept. The signals sent by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were, however, more pointed. She insisted that while cuts in US battlefield nuclear weapons still in Europe were possible, they should not be removed until Russia agrees to cut its arsenals.

"We should recognize that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance," she said.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a similar line, also emphasizing alliance unity: "Decisions on nuclear policy will be made by the alliance together."

These are the hard-line voices. They equate North Atlantic extended deterrence and defence co-operation with the physical presence of nuclear weapons in Europe. They are out of sync with building sentiments in Western Europe, but also with the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

The NPR, to no one's surprise, reinforces US extended deterrence, but it goes on to explain that this "nuclear umbrella" comes in different guises, including strategic forces, non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed forward in key regions, and US-based nuclear weapons readily deployable to designated regions.

The key point is there is no intrinsic requirement that extended deterrence, whatever one ultimately thinks of it, requires the presence of nuclear weapons throughout the geography covered by the American nuclear umbrella.

The NPR also acknowledges that "the risk of nuclear attack against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members is at an historic low." It is thus non-prescriptive on the fate of US nuclear weapons in Europe, noting only that "any changes in NATO's nuclear posture should only be taken after a thorough review within—and decision by—the alliance."

Western European states behind the call for change have emphasized that they are looking for a collective decision in NATO and are not contemplating unilateral action, and, notably, that they do not equate the removal of weapons from Europe with either the "denuclearization of NATO" or with an end to US extended deterrence covering Europe.

Their stance essentially follows the model of the US nuclear umbrella over northeast Asia. The latter is a region that is rather less stable than Europe, and yet there are no US nuclear weapons deployed to any states under its nuclear umbrella there. In fact, Japan, while continuing to claim the American nuclear deterrent for itself, insists, through its three nuclear principles, that no nuclear weapons be on its territory.

Furthermore, progress in reducing Russian stocks of tactical nuclear weapons does not depend on the fate of US nuclear bombs in Europe. In fact, even the late Michael Quinlan, a British security analyst and former permanent secretary of defence who generally resisted changes to the nuclear elements of NATO's Strategic Concept, argued that the unilateral removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe would "have the effect of depriving Russia of a pretext she has sometimes sought to exploit both for opposing NATO's wider development and for evading the question of whether and why Russia herself need continue to maintain a non-strategic nuclear armoury that is now far larger than that of anyone else."

What will be essential to Russian nuclear disarmament will be a new kind of strategic relationship with the US and Europe. The huge imbalance in conventional forces between Russia and NATO is a particular challenge. Russia accounts for well under five per cent of world military spending while NATO states collectively account for roughly two-thirds. As long as Russia regards this overwhelming conventional force as, if not necessarily an overt enemy, a challenge to its regional interests, it is unlikely to be amenable to significant further reductions to its substantial arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

NATO foreign ministers missed this latest opportunity to move disarmament forward, but their bosses will get another chance this fall when they are scheduled to set a new strategic direction for NATO. It will be their opportunity to pursue a more imaginative, and practical, approach to NATO's contribution to "peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons," and in the process remove nuclear weapons from the territories of non-nuclear weapon state signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ernie Regehr is co-founder of Project Ploughshares, adjunct associate professor in peace studies at Conrad Grebel University College, and a fellow of The Centre for International Governance Innovation.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.