WASHINGTON -- With the Cold War over for nearly a decade and much of the world lined up behind the goal of nonproliferation, the last thing you'd expect the United States and its European allies to be arguing about is nuclear weapons.
But they are.
On one end is Germany's new foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who sent shock waves across the Atlantic last month by advocating a ban on being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
On the other is Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who suggested that the United States could launch a nuclear attack against a nonnuclear opponent armed with chemical or biological weapons.
Neither idea is new. But what gives them a sudden flash is that they are being talked about as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization works to put together a new vision of its role for the 21st century.
This grand strategy, taking into account the collapse of the Soviet empire, the planned eastward expansion of NATO and new threats by rogue states and terrorists, will be unveiled here in April at what may be the biggest gathering of world leaders Washington has seen.
Pieces of the strategy were sketched out yesterday at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, the Belgian capital.
For a half-century, nuclear deterrence has been one of the foundation stones of the 16-nation alliance. But disputes over deployment of nuclear weapons have flared periodically.
They became particularly sharp during the early and mid-1980s, when the United States fought to preserve a powerful nuclear force in Europe despite a tide of disarmament fever fed by Soviet peace initiatives.
One of the loudest anti-nuclear voices at that time was that of the German Green Party, now junior partner in the Social Democrats' governing coalition.
The Greens present a far more moderate image now, and Fischer, the party's leader, made a point of stressing continuity in German foreign policy when he visited Washington in October.
But by then, the German coalition leaders from the Green and Social Democratic parties had already agreed to a common policy that "in certain situations, a unilateral disarmament step may be justifiable and trigger a meaningful disarmament process."
Their agreement goes on to say that Germany's new government "will advocate a lowering of the alert status for nuclear weapons and renunciation of first use of nuclear weapons."
After Fischer first spoke out last month, Germany's defense minister distanced his government from his colleague's remarks and denied any departure from NATO policy.
But Fischer rebounded yesterday, saying in Brussels that the alliance needs to remain open to new concepts. "NATO has never in the past imposed taboos on thinking. That was its strength and should remain so," he said.
Most NATO members would prefer to avoid the discussion.
"The prevailing view in the alliance is, 'What is the point in starting a debate on an issue with such an emotional past and which has so little relevance today in terms of actual strategy,' " said Robert Hunter, U.S. ambassador to NATO in the first Clinton term.
But the idea has stirred an undercurrent in the NATO discussions, an alliance official said yesterday. Canada and some smaller European members are believed to be sympathetic to Germany's view.
And the issue is being raised at a time when, with the Soviet threat gone and defense budgets being reduced, not only is nuclear weaponry in Europe being drastically cut back but some officials and academics are starting to question its utility.
"The traditional Western consensus on nuclear issues has held up well, even in the post-Cold War era," write the authors of a recent study by the British-American Security Information Council. "However, there are signs that this consensus could be evolving or breaking up."
Among the signs are an increasing number of European governments led by left-of-center coalitions, such as Germany's Social Democratic-Green coalition.
Cohen's comment about nuclear weapons being a deterrent against states with weapons of mass destruction was made Nov. 23, when he was questioned about the Fischer proposal.
"We think that the ambiguity involved in the issue of the use of nuclear weapons contributes to our own security, keeping any potential adversary who might use either chemical or biologicals unsure of what our response would be," Cohen said.
His statement was rooted in American military doctrine allowing the United States to use nuclear weapons against weapons of mass destruction possessed by a country or a "nonstate actor" such as a terrorist group.
He did not advocate that NATO as a whole adopt the American policy. But in preparation for the new alliance strategy, the United States is urging a much broader view of the kinds of threats NATO should prepare to act against.