Washington, 24 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says it is not ready to change its nuclear deterrent doctrine which it believes has helped keep the peace for more than a half century.
U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen on Monday rejected a suggestion by the new German government that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization change course and pledge it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
Cohen told a Washington news conference it would be unwise for NATO to change its long-standing policy.
Cohen said: "It is our position that this doctrine is viable. It's something that is integral to the NATO strategic doctrine. We think it makes sense, and there's good rationale for keeping it as it is."
The secretary said the United States believes that the "ambiguity" about the use of nuclear weapons deters any potential adversary that might use weapons of mass destruction unsure of what the U.S. response would be.
Cohen said: "So we think that it's a sound doctrine. It was adopted certainly during the Cold War, but modified even following and reaffirmed following the end of the Cold War."
The U.S.-led NATO instituted its policy on grounds that the threat of nuclear weapons would be the only credible deterrent to massive Soviet military power in Europe, where the Soviet Army's conventional forces greatly outnumbered U.S. and Allied troops.
But with the Cold War over, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said during the weekend he wanted to open a discussion about the so called no-first-strike issue.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping at the State Department on Monday and conveyed the U.S. view on the nuclear issue.
Her spokesman, James Rubin, said Washington does not see any need to change NATO's nuclear policy or to start a debate on this subject now.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's coalition government is expected to press its case at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels next month. Officials in Bonn say a no-first-strike policy would show the international community that the Western powers are serious about moving toward nuclear disarmament.
At his news conference, Cohen said the United States already has reduced its nuclear stocks "rather dramatically." He said more reductions were under way provided the Russian state Duma ratifies the second strategic arms reduction treaty known as START II.
START I will result in reductions over seven years, of about one-third of the U.S. and former Soviet Union strategic -- or long-range -- arsenals.
The START II pact would limit each side to between 3,000 and 3,500 strategic nuclear warheads. The U.S. Senate approved the pact in 1996. The Duma has yet to ratify this agreement.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin pledged to begin talks on a START III agreement as soon as the START II accord enters into force. The START III pact aims to limit each nation to between 2,000 and 2,500 strategic warheads by the end of the year 2007.
Cohen noted that the Congress has mandated that the U.S. maintain its nuclear stockpiles at the START I levels -- 6,000 nuclear warheads -- until the Russian lawmakers ratify START II.
He declined to discuss specifics of a report in The New York Times Monday that said U.S. Defense Department officials are quietly recommending that Washington consider unilateral reductions in America's nuclear arsenal.
The newspaper article said that if the recommendations -- driven by financial constraints -- are adopted, the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be reduced below the 6,000 nuclear warheads allowed by the first strategic arms reduction treaty, START I.
Cohen said it is costlier to both the United States and Russia to maintain higher levels.
He said: "And that is the reason why we have tried on each and every occasion, to persuade our Russian counterparts it's in their interests, as well as the United States's, to ratify START II as quickly as possible, so we can reduce the levels down to the START II levels and then move on to START III."
At the news conference, Cohen also reaffirmed continued U.S. military commitment to Asia.
Cohen said the U.S. intends to maintain about 100,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the East Pacific. He said U.S. military presence there helps America to shape events, to respond to crisis situations and to prepare for an uncertain future.
The secretary, releasing a report on U.S. military strategy in East Asia, said the U.S. also is reaffirming its network of alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Concerning Russia in that region, the report said interaction between the U.S. Pacific Command and Russian military forces has expanded rapidly in recent years. It said these activities will continue to expand.
The report said: "As an Asia-Pacific power with a substantial presence and relevance to the security of the region, Russia's open and constructive participation in regional security affairs will remain in the U.S. national interest."