France opposed to Berlin's efforts to link support for new missile defence system with removal of ageing US nuclear weapons.
Germany today demanded greater Nato commitment to nuclear disarmament, seeking to link support for a new system of missile defence in Europe to the removal of some 200 ageing tactical nuclear bombs around the continent.
However, the campaign ran into stiff resistance from France, which mocked the proposed missile shield as no better than the failed Maginot Line defences of the second world war. The French back retention of the "force de frappe", France's nuclear arsenal.
At a meeting of Nato foreign and defence ministers in Brussels, called to wrestle with a new 10-year Nato "strategic concept" to be agreed in Lisbon next month, Guido Westerwelle and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German ministers, pressed for an innovative role for Nato in driving nuclear arms reduction.
"The missile shield is basically a good idea, but we also think that points such as disarmament can and must be an important component throughout the new blueprint," Guttenberg said.
"The disarmament caravan is on the move," said Westerwelle. "Disarmament is coming up the agenda. We want the peace dividend."
There are some 20 old nuclear B61 gravity bombs at US air bases in Germany, and around 200 across Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.
The German government has been campaigning for their removal, arguing that the expected agreement next month to push ahead with a missile shield protecting Europe against ballistic rocket attack also means that the tactical nuclear bombs are not needed.
The French defence minister, Hervé Morin, however, described the cold war relics as proof of the transatlantic relationship. The French are worried that giving the Nato alliance a role in nuclear disarmament could undermine their independent nuclear deterrent.
Missile defence represents the same problem as the Maginot Line," he said. "The best way to prevent a Maginot apocalypse is to have credible deterrence."
Analysts and diplomats say the row over remaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe could be one of the biggest sticking points at next month's summit.
The confidential 11-page document drafted by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, affirms that as long as nuclear weapons exist, Nato will have to deter against them. But another passage, which the Germans are seeking to strengthen, also calls for support for nuclear disarmament in line with President Barack Obama's vision laid out in Prague last year of a nuclear-free world.
"France wants no language on nuclear disarmament," said Tomas Valasek, defence analyst at the Centre for European Reform. "France and Germany are very very far apart on this."
The newer east European members of Nato are also opposed to getting rid of the tactical weapons, except in an arms treaty with Russia.
"We want to live in a nuclear-free world, but unilaterally it will be impossible for Nato to make a step," said Urmas Paet, Estonia's foreign minister.
"The French want to keep their deterrent and the Germans are jealous," quipped a senior government official from central Europe.
Another senior diplomat said that nuclear disarmament was "a deeply held political belief in Germany. The French have equally strong differing views."
Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, also declared that the bombs would not be removed from Europe unless as part of a deal with the Russians.
But today's offensive by Berlin suggested the argument was not settled.