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Allies Question Nuclear-Free Pitch : They Would Like to Hang On to Deterrence for Awhile

January 22, 1986|ROBERT O'NEILL | Robert O ' Neill is the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London

LONDON — When can superpower accord cause concern in allied capitals? The answer emerging from events of last week is: When it relates to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It was one thing for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to lay down a 15-year time-table for the phasing out of nuclear weapons. But, from a European viewpoint, it was quite another for the major official American reaction to be one of welcome. Allies understand that the ambiance of the fireside summit may be part of the explanation, but they are concerned that their major partner may be coming to take a different view on the principal means of deterrence.

One of the many factors disquieting the allies regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative is President Reagan's emphasis on both the immorality of deterrence and the need for eventually doing away with nuclear weapons.

The allies do not, of course, love the bomb. But nuclear weapons as a principal element in deterrence strategy still have substantial public approval in key European nations. That approval is wavering, however, and the problems of preserving basic consensus appear all too formidable, as the turmoils of the West German Social Democratic Party demonstrate. European governments are working hard to strengthen public consensus on security policies, but when the U.S. President denounces nuclear weapons they see some of the ground disappearing from beneath their feet.

None of this is to argue that there are not some aspects of Gorbachev's proposal that have not been welcomed in Western Europe. His interim exclusion of British and French nuclear systems from negotiations on eliminating the superpowers' intermediate-range missiles has been greeted, at least initially, with warmth. Here, at last, from the Soviet side may be the basis of workable proposals for getting around a problem that has bedeviled the intermediate-nuclear-force negotiations from the outset. In the allied view there is no need for haste to remove U.S. cruise and Pershing 2 missiles from Western Europe. Despite the discomfort of knowing that one's city is targeted by Soviet SS-20 missiles, the presence of the U.S. Euromissiles continues to provide a welcome demonstration of nuclear coupling. But a hasty removal, given the record of arms-control negotiations over the past several years, does not seem likely.

Buried within the new Soviet intermediate-range proposals is an obligation for Great Britain and France to refrain from increasing the sizes of their nuclear forces. Given the substantial modernization programs that are under way in both countries, involving very significant increases in numbers of warheads, the Soviet formula is obviously not free of problems. At least the allies can take consolation in the thought that these may be problems that will not demand government action for a while, although their potential for creating domestic disputation, particularly in Britain, must be recognized. The Soviets have not been entirely clear as to whether an interim accord on intermediate-nuclear-force reductions might be reached in the absence of an American agreement to drop "Star Wars," but this seems to be the implication. At least some action to limit intermediate-nuclear-force systems looks possible.

But, as their name implies, such intermediate-nuclear-force systems are only a subordinate part of the nuclear relationship. The essential elements are the strategic systems of both sides. For the West, particularly the European allies, this issue is all the more serious because it is bound up with the conventional-force balance. Hence, the exploration of strategic-arms-control agreements has to proceed hand in hand with the development of a more equitable conventional balance by a combination of arms-control and confidence-building agreements with pursuit of serious force-modernization programs. Because these are all extremely difficult objectives, allied governments are all the more sensitive to what they regard as romantic American notions, emanating essentially from non-official sources, that time is ripe for talking about the elimination of nuclear weapons in the coming generation.

Of course it will not happen any more than any other major invention has been eliminated while it still had potency. But all the talk of eliminating nuclear weapons complicates the task of maintaining credibility in the only deterrent that we have here and now.

Hence, for the good of the alliance and the security that it offers both Europe and the United States, it would seem wise to remain detached and skeptical about Gorbachev's more grandiose proposals. Rather, attention should focus clearly on negotiating a new interim arms-control agreement, recognizing the political and military dangers in believing that the more ambitious Soviet designs for nuclear disarmament should also be Western goals in the time frame of the next 15 years.

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