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Europeans, Buffeted by Missile Foes and Superpower Seesaw, Wait and Worry

October 26, 1986|Don Cook | Don Cook is The Times' European diplomatic correspondent.

GENEVA — Two weeks ago, while President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev were negotiating to a temporary dead-end in Reykjavik, more than 100,000 West German citizens converged in cars, buses and six special trains on the U.S. air base at Hasselbach, not far from Coblentz in the Rhineland.

There they formed a human chain around the entire 7 1/2-mile base perimeter in peaceful protest against preparations, now nearly finished, to install 96 cruise missiles with nuclear warheads sometime in the next few months. The next day the Germans and the rest of the world learned that Reagan and Gorbachev had come close to a deal to remove all such intermediate-range missiles--all cruises, Pershing 2s and the Soviet SS-20s--from Europe.

But before the week was out another German, Gen. Hans-Joachim Mack, deputy supreme allied commander at Mons, who is in charge of nuclear defense planning for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, made a formal complaint to NATO on behalf of a number of senior European staff officers. He said they had not been fully consulted or briefed on what Secretary of State George P. Shultz had rightly called the "breathtaking" Soviet offer in Iceland--for both sides to go suddenly to zero medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

Caught between the superpowers, European governments are also caught between the political pressures of the unilateral nuclear disarmament movement on the one hand and the worries of its more farsighted diplomatic advisers and military men on the other. The latter group fears the effects of "decoupling" the United States from European defense through an abrupt withdrawal of cruise and Pershing missiles after so many uphill battles to have them installed.

For this reason, the Europeans have quickly come to regard the failure at Reykjavik not as a diplomatic disaster or lost historic opportunity but as a useful pause for reflection. There is no great support in Europe for Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or for his refusal to countenance any compromise that would restrict testing for the space-based missile-defense program. But there is a certain relief that the superpowers did not, in the end, bounce too fast into some far-reaching agreement for which Western Europe is not fully prepared.

Meanwhile, the NATO secretary general, Lord Carrington, has more or less politely told the NATO generals to cool it, that America has been fully forthcoming and totally correct in maintaining close consultation with its allies every step of the way in the nuclear arms negotiations. The Financial Times of London also editorialized against what it said were "misplaced and unreasonable" complaints by the generals, but it went on to add:

"European anxieties that some of the potential elements in the Reykjavik package could have worrying implications for NATO strategy and the defense of Europe are neither misplaced nor inherently unreasonable, and deserve to be fully debated. Nevertheless, in a radical arms-control negotiation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, where both sides are deliberately attempting to bring about change across a broad spectrum of issues, Europe can scarcely hope to exert a veto on Washington's freedom to negotiate. It may have to face the fact that one of the consequences of a radical arms-control package between the superpowers might need to be a reappraisal of Europe's security strategy."

In 1979, during the Carter Administration, when the NATO decision was taken to install 572 cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in Europe by 1988, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was a prime mover behind the program. He reasoned that U.S. nuclear power had to be locked into the defense of Europe to meet the growing threat of the Soviet SS-20s.

The German fear now is that an abrupt withdrawal of the cruise and Pershing missiles, even if the SS-20s also disappear, will still leave West Germany in particular and Western Europe in general vulnerable to Soviet short-range tactical missiles--SS-12s, SS-22s and SS-23s, with a range of about 50 to 200 miles.

This was not overlooked at Reykjavik. Even in the hectic pressures of that all-night negotiating session, the U.S. side extracted from the Soviets an agreement in principle to freeze their short-range arsenal at present levels and negotiate lower ceilings for both sides that would permit a NATO buildup in this category if the planners deem it necessary.

Before Reykjavik, NATO generals and defense planners thought the United States would be negotiating for a phased withdrawal of intermediate-range missiles--removal of all the Pershings and a reduction of cruise missiles to 100 launchers, with 100 SS-20s remaining on the Soviet side. The zero option would then come into play at a later stage. They were taken by surprise when the superpowers suddenly agreed to go directly to zero.

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